We have a seat on the UN Security Council and troops in conflicts around the world; and yet this year we didn’t even qualify for the European Championships
There is a famous story of how, in 1945, Gen de Gaulle was taken by the Soviet foreign minister Molotov to see the ruins of Stalingrad, where thousands of Russians had given their lives to halt the Nazi advance. It remained a hellish scene. The French general stood in silence, seemingly overcome. “Quel peuple,” he finally pronounced.
Molotov looked at him inquiringly. “A great people – the Germans,” said de Gaulle, in what must rank as one of the most tactless remarks in history. For some reason, that verdict floated into my head the other night as I sat up to watch the final of the European Championships.
As at Stalingrad, the Germans were very much the runners-up. In fact, they received a bit of a pasting, this time at the hands of the Spanish. What struck me as remarkable, though – as it struck de Gaulle – was the mere fact that they were there. There were the Germans, yet again, plugging away valiantly in yet another cup final. At the risk of provoking English football fans to paroxysms of Molotov-like irritation, it is time for a cold-eyed look at the footballing records of our two great nations.
As we never tire of pointing out, we invented football. It is our national game. Our Premier League is incomparably rich and powerful, its key players showered with Bugatti Veyrons and vast ranches in Cheshire. When we are trying to think of someone fitting to wish Nelson Mandela a happy birthday, we produce the lovely Victoria Beckham, who is now principally known for being the wife of an English footballer. We are one of the most populous countries in Europe – and yet the strange thing is that we have never once won the European Championship.
The best we have ever done is to reach the semis in 1968 and 1996. The Germans, on the other hand, have been in the final of the European Championship six times, and they have won it three times.
When it comes to our respective World Cup records, the contrast is even more unsettling. Again, the Germans have been in the final seven times, and three times they have hoisted the trophy; but the really telling indicator of our relative competitiveness is surely this: we have made it to the World Cup semi-finals twice, once in 1966, when we went on to win.
The Germans have been in the semi-finals an amazing nine times, and such is their general level of determination, organisation and all-round grit that they haven’t lost a penalty shoot-out in a major championship since 1976.
I say all this not so much in praise of Teutonic football, but in bafflement at our comparative under-performance. Here we are, a swaggering nation of some 61 million souls. We have a seat on the UN Security Council and troops in conflicts around the world; and yet this year we didn’t even qualify for the European Championships, not because we were beaten by the Germans, but because we were beaten by Croatia – and let me remind you that when I first joined this newspaper, Croatia didn’t even exist.
What is wrong with us? And can anything be done? Not long ago I heard the sports minister, a nice guy called Gerry Sutcliffe, advance what I at first took to be a plausible explanation. England’s national performance, he argued, was being undermined by the very success of our Premier League. On any given weekend, half the players in a top-level English club fixture are imported from abroad; and since our most famous clubs rely so heavily on these foreign aces, home-grown talent is not being properly developed.
That, at any rate, was the gist of what he said, and I numbly accepted Sutcliffe’s case until I tried it out on my 13-year-old football correspondent. “That argument,” said the 13-year-old, “is completely invalid.” He pointed out that the Spanish league is full of foreign players, and yet Spain won the European championship; and a moment’s reflection will show that Sutcliffe is talking total bilge.
If anything, the presence of these international wizards should be an inspiration to our players. It should spur them on. It should fill them with new tricks and a patriotic desire to show these metic superstars the native skills of England.
England may suffer from the Wimbledon syndrome – a fantastic tournament featuring mainly foreign players – but it is obviously ludicrous to imagine that we can ginger up our local talent by shielding it from international competition.
No, my friends, the fault is in ourselves, and if we want to do better at sport, we should stop blaming foreigners, and we should now launch a merciless Kulturkampf against every feature of modern Britain that is inimical to our competitive success. We should summon up our courage and tell our ballooning children to put down their beastly PlayStations and go and play outside. We should encourage them to walk or cycle to school. We should stop the sale of school playing fields. We should finally abandon the ethic of “all must have prizes”.
It wasn’t so long ago that I went to a sports day at an inner-London primary school and was genuinely asked to watch races in which no one was allowed to win. Well, no wonder, frankly, that most of our medal hopes in Beijing are pinned on sports that involve sitting down – riding, rowing, cycling, sailing – but not running around or jumping.
And before you tell me that we need more “investment” in coaching and elite academies, let me tell you that the first priority is to end the crazed obsession with paedophiles that means anyone who wants to help with grassroots sports coaching must go through an enormous Criminal Records Bureau procedure, and submit to 6in-thick files dictating exactly how the children can be exhorted to do better without hurting their feelings.
We either unleash a full-hearted attack on the nannying, mollycoddling, Harriet Harperson hopelessness of our times, or else too many of our children will grow up fat, unhappy, or violent; we will never win Wimbledon, and football will remain a game in which, in Gary Lineker’s immortal words, 22 men run around for 90 minutes and then the Germans win.
[Ed: This article by Boris Johnson first appeared in the Daily Telegraph 01 July 2008]