By J Hutcherson (Jan 12, 2021) US Soccer Players – England’s Football Association unveiled Time for Change, its new strategic plan, and there’s no need to tag it with spoilers. They’d very much like to do all the things the bigger associations and federations around the world stress as priorities. That includes winning.
Under the heading, WIN A MAJOR TOURNAMENT, the FA points to how success on the field grows the game in its entirety. That may seem like a simplistic point to make for a country with more professional soccer clubs than anywhere else, but England isn’t immune to the same shifts in interest we’re seeing in other countries with other major sports.
From a top-down perspective, success at the highest level should increase participation at lower levels. That’s how it’s supposed to work, especially when talking about winning either of the World Cups. The US Women have shown that for what is now more than one generation of players inspired by success.
In England, the public has already made it clear that close certainly counts. The Football Association pointing to viewing numbers for games that ultimately ended with exits shows what might happen if a tournament concluded with the Three Lions or the Lionesses lifting the trophy. That’s been the unanswered question since it last happened at the 1966 World Cup. The game’s biggest market by most of the metrics can’t turn that into enough of an advantage at international level.
What’s certainly worth asking is how any association or federation can design for this in normal times. The FA’s plan runs through 2024, pointing out early on that they’ve lost just over $400m dollars due to the pandemic. The safe assumption is that constraint now looms over everything else.
“As a not-for-profit governing body, we’ve had to make difficult financial decisions to future-proof ourselves from the impact of the pandemic, yet with this strategy we are reaffirming our intent to shoot for these ambitious goals which, if achieved, will improve the health and wellbeing of millions of individuals,” Football Association CEO Mark Bullingham wrote.
Fair enough, but it’s hard to put the situation businesses find themselves in right now. The Football Association owns Wembley Stadium, putting them in that recognizable role as an event manager in a city with other large stadium options. That’s somewhat unique in world soccer, certainly at the level of Wembley. There’s more to what the Football Association does to generate revenue than in other countries, again creating an advantage when things are normal.
It’s always easy to take the title of a plan and point out issues. English soccer has changed so often since the rise of the Premier League in the early 90s. Player development has shifted. The Football Association closed down its residential academy before the turn of the century. The number of youth World Cups increased. What happens with Brexit and work permits for international players in English club soccer is still in progress. There’s a call to revisit the size of the Premier League and the total number of fully professional clubs. All of this is happening with UEFA adding the Nations League in place of friendly dates and tournaments expand, creating more pressure across the international calendar.
Amid all of this, most governing bodies would probably include greater success on the field as a bullet point. The higher up the world rankings you are, the more that points to winning a trophy. Unfortunately for those crafting these plans, there are still only a limited number of opportunities. The World Cups remain paramount, though winning the European Championship or even the Nations League could show proof of progress.
Soccer’s biggest strength may be that nothing lasts for very long. The current fondness for the high press pushed aside seeing how many passes a team could string together. Eventually, someone somewhere comes up with an idea that catches the game at the right moment. In his book Against The Elements, Matt McGinn points to something as simple as building indoor training centers as one of the drivers for Iceland’s success.
It’s not going to be that easy in England. Their situation remains unique in Europe. The last four World Cup winners are the other members of Europe’s big five leagues. The Netherlands and Croatia both played in a recent World Cup final. Portugal is the reigning European and Nations League champion. England could’ve looked in the mirror at any point over the last couple of decades and wondered what it takes to turn a successful domestic league into international trophies.
Whether or not the Football Association has ever been in a position to answer that on its own in the Premier League era is certainly worth considering. That may not flatter the ambitions of the governing body, but it does underline the position of the Premier League and its owners. It’s not a new idea that successful leagues don’t necessarily translate to national teams, but should that really apply to England?
If the Football Association’s plan really does point to a way forward, it could be a transitional moment not just for English soccer. It could show that there’s still plenty to learn about developing talent across the board, drawing a line between some of the easier and unflattering comparisons between England and the more successful European national teams. It would also show the importance of the role of the governing body well into an era where, in the countries that have them, elite clubs are the primary drivers.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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