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NOT LONG AGO English soccer fans would taunt inferior teams by chanting, "Are you Scotland in disguise?" So it was ironic that last week, after England failed to qualify for next summer's European Championship, many supporters lamented that they would have qualified if only their players could have been a bit more... Scottish. True, Scotland also failed to qualify, but its plucky 12-game campaign included two wins over France; England's featured a scoreless draw with Macedonia.
England could have qualified by scratching out a draw against Croatia last week in London. But coach Steve McClaren benched keeper Paul Robinson, who had played every minute of the previous 11 qualifiers. Robinson's replacement, Scott Carson, promptly let an easy shot off the foot of Croatia's Niko Kranjcar skip off his arm and into the roof of the net. Croatia won 3--2.
Judging by the headlines, England's failure to qualify for the 16-team tournament plunged the country into despair: CRO NO! WE'RE OUT; FIASCRO; CROAT HANGER; CARSON CALAMITY SETS TONE AS ABJECT ENGLAND REACH ALL-TIME LOW. (The British economy is also expected to take a $3 billion hit, with TV retailers, breweries and face-paint manufacturers likely to bear the brunt.) Hand-wringing quickly gave way to finger-pointing. McClaren was summarily fired, then fans began debating where the rest of the blame should fall.
The players certainly deserve to take heat. Against Croatia, they came back from a 2--0 deficit to tie the game at 2--2; all they had to do was kill off the final 25 minutes. But the 11 Englishmen—led by David Beckham (below) and Steven Gerrard (top) and dubbed the country's Golden Generation—couldn't keep their upper lip stiff. After the team conceded Mladen Petric's game-winner, the Right Honourable the Lord Mawhinney, a former Tory MP who oversees the Football League, said, "If this is the Golden Generation, the sooner we move away from the gold standard the better." To which we say: Snap, Lord Mawhinney.
Columnists and fans noted that the players had in fact become a Bling Generation, obsessed with celebrity. The most obvious example is the emergence of the WAG—wives and girlfriends—culture. The coverage of Posh Spice and the rest of the significant others reached a low at last summer's World Cup in Germany, when the relatively staid Sunday Times ran a story headlined OUR WAGS LIFT WIVES' WORLD CUP—FRAULEINS LOOK FRUMPY AS ENGLAND'S GIRLS SHOW HOW TO BE REAL FOOTBALLERS' WIVES.
Yet the supporters themselves are culpable as enablers: Someone is buying all those tabloids. It's hypocritical to criticize players for loving a spotlight you are shining.
The criticism of the Football Association—namely, how can a country that invented the game and has hundreds of pro teams not develop a single goalkeeper capable of playing 90 minutes without looking like he's auditioning for Benny Hill?—is also simple, and a by-product of English fans' zealousness.
Because supporters are so fanatical about their local clubs, England's Premiership is the flushest soccer league in the world. Its TV deal guarantees each team at least $60 million a year. Couple that with a system that demands results every year—the bottom three teams are booted from the league—and clubs are left with little incentive to develop young, local talent and every reason to buy a fully finished player overseas. When the final whistle blew in its 2--0 win over Wigan last Saturday, Arsenal, the first-place team in the Premier League, didn't have a single English player on the field.
The FA needs to act fast. England's loss to Croatia dropped it to 12th in FIFA's rankings, which meant that the lads weren't among the top seeds for Sunday's 2010 World Cup qualifying draw. So England found itself in a group with Croatia and Ukraine, which means that the most loyal, fervent fans in the world are staring at the prospect of watching yet another major tournament from afar and wondering what went wrong.