So Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini has now met with representatives of Falco to discuss a possible future deal for the £45 million pound striker. One might think that a manager who is in charge of four world-class strikers and struggling to get enough goals out of them might consider such a move a damning indictment of his managerial qualities, but apparently Mancini has no such qualms. His attempts to dress up the naked poaching of any player who seems to provide a stop-gap solution to his problems as long-term team-building may find approval with his patient owners for longer than it does with others. However there’s only so long a man can pull wool over people’s eyes, and failure to get out of the Champions League group stages for two years in a row has nothing to do with inexperience and everything with incompetence – as does the failure to make the most of the lavishly gifted squad already at his disposal.
One more player to keep a close watch on is Andrei Arshavin. Any player that gifted who also finds and starts burning reserves of determination and commitment is bound to shine, and Arshavin sent out a positive signal by electing to stay at Arsenal – despite being out of contract in 2013 – in the face of positive overtures from wealthy Russian suitors in preseason. He has since provided a string of important and eye-catching moments that helped Arsenal’s cause, and proved he still has a valuable part to play for the club – whether from the bench or starting matches. One was the cross that led to the winning goal in the last ten minutes against QPR, another his positive performance in the 7-5 comeback against Reading in the Capital Cup, and he also weighed in with the assist for Santi Cazorla’s damage-limitation goal against Manchester United that was important from a psychological standpoint. He then created the penalty that gave Arsenal a chance to win the match against Fulham yesterday afternoon that was subsequently passed up by Mikel Arteta. If Martin Jol’s allegation that Arshavin deliberately struck the ball against Fulham right-back Riether to get the penalty is true, it will only add to the estimation of some that he is a true original, a player whose quick thinking and off-pitch humour and interests manifest charmingly in his play. While it is a shame that his Arsenal career has not gone as well as some may have hoped after he announced himself with four goals in a single match against Liverpool, there may be yet be a final chapter to the Arshavin story waiting to be played out. If he joins Wilshere, Cazorla et al in hauling Arsenal up from the abyss they are currently staring at, he will be remembered for more than just fleeting moments of magic and brilliance.
If there is one reason for beleaguered Arsenal fans to refrain from completely losing hope over Arsenal’s chances this season, it is the return of Jack Wilshere. His comeback brings more with it than the addition of a very good player, and one who will help Arsenal regain a modicum of the composure in possession that was once their hallmark and was alarmingly bereft in the crazed draw with Fulham yesterday. He also brings qualities of passion and fearlessness to his play that have too often been missing from Arsenal’s players in recent times. In the 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, there was nothing more exasperating than the sense that Arsenal’s players – apart from a brief ten-minute spell at the start of the second half – were too afraid of their opponents to rise to the occasion and play their best football. While they were cautiously passing the ball from side to side near their own goal in the first half, perhaps more worried of making a mistake than of daring to take a positive step forward, there was only one player who remembered what it meant for Arsenal to play Manchester United and what it demanded: when Jack Wilshere wholeheartedly crunched into a tackle on Robin van Persie, he displayed a stirring sense of pride in his club – all the more heart-warming because of how absent it was from his team-mates’ play – alongside a determination to correct their slide into impotence. It was a lionhearted tackle from a player who may yet become a lion-heart for his club and provide the missing spark of inspiration to jolt a group of players paralysed by fear into action. Their performances in recent weeks may have understandably led them to privately lower their sights but Wilshere was having none of it, talking this week of how Arsenal may need “a miracle to win the Premier League”, but they now needed to treat each fixture “as a cup game” as his club are too big to abandon the hunt for the big trophies. That tackle and that determined statement from a player who bristles with pride and commitment were rare, and significant, moments of optimism in the troubled last few weeks for Arsenal and throw into stark relief just what a gem of a footballer and personality he could be for the club.
At this stage, where his devotion has also not been tempered by the more career-focussed considerations of older players, one also detects that he will not let the failure of many at Arsenal to match his quality and commitment lead to a change of heart on his long-term future. For the time being, he will do everything in his power to haul Arsenal up to where they need to be and, if that crunching tackle and those stirring statements were just the beginning of a long and fruitful re-acquaintance with Arsenal, its fans may have reason to look to the future with a little more excitement and hope than they had previously thought.
From first minute to last, and probably well before and after kick-off, Celtic’s fans and stadium were a sight to behold and chorus to listen to in the 2-1 defeat of Barcelona on Wednesday. Recalling the resplendent way in which they decorated themselves with the green-and-white colours of their crest, and the soaring volume with which they sang throughout a cold Glasgow night flashing with rain, brings goosebumps to the skin now just as it brought a smile to the face then. Here was a crowd that appreciated the convergence of Celtic’s 125th-year anniversary with the arrival of Barcelona’s majestic team of artists, and willed their team on to rise to the occasion with the same magnificence as they were doing. Here was a crowd, in short, who love the game with a passion and positivity that radiates even through the television screen and left a notable impression on Barcelona. Xavi and Pique’s fulsome, awestruck tributes to the Celtic crowd were perhaps made in the rueful acknowledgement that the Nou Camp never quite gets up to salute its players and the game in the same ravishing way. Would that a deserving team like Barcelona could experience the joy of playing a team like Celtic before supporters like those at Celtic Park every week. The wonder of British football’s culture was communicated to them loud and clear, and Celtic’s contribution on Wednesday night served to enhance the Champions League in an unforgettable way. Well done Celtic, well done Scotland, and here’s to another 125 years of raw passion and moments like Wednesday night that will live long in the memory.
As the latest racism saga to engulf football continues to swirl uncomfortably around the upcoming matchday, from which Mark Clattenburg will again stand down, the sport’s participants could do with taking a long, hard look at themselves in the mirror. The litany of soul-searching extends from entitled players to their overprotective clubs, from a sensationalist media to fans with a taste for abuse that makes them get their three-year old sons involved (as was seen by the heinous video of a three-year Arsenal fan singing obscene songs about Robin van Persie at the apparent behest of his father). All who have been guilty of the above crimes have inflamed delicate situations, and turned football’s reliance on its pantomime element and heady narrative-building into a weapon that is causing serious damage to people, their careers and their personalities.
It is difficult to pick a first culprit for the mess football finds itself in when there are so many, but Chelsea’s behaviour in the aftermath of the acrimonious 3-2 defeat to Manchester United seems a good place to start. How could they rush to damn Mark Clattenburg as a racist just two hours after the match had finished, in full knowledge that a rapacious media would seize on their embryonic statement and leave a stain on his character that will not be fully wiped off for the rest of his life? There was no way Chelsea could have collected enough evidence to substantiate their claim in 120 minutes, and jumping to a conclusion before thoroughly examining all the necessary evidence was reckless and unprofessional. What little evidence eventually trickled through in the following days was centred around a witness who barely does the term justice: John Obi Mikel never heard the abusive word said to have been directed against him by Clattenburg (“monkey”), but nonetheless made a witness statement using Ramires’s – a player with fledgling command of the English language – account of what he had heard. A Chelsea player also claimed that Clattenburg had further called Juan Mata a “Spanish twat”, although that too was never heard by the apparent target and was eventually dropped. How Mikel’s complaint stuck on the back of evidence that was no greater than the Mata one is something that might be explained by the inquiry in the coming weeks, but complaints over black players have always carried greater weight in of themselves courtesy of the attention drawn to this particular form of racism by the media and that might have emboldened Mikel and Chelsea to persist regardless of the scant evidence.
Are the media’s current intentions in training their sights on racism in the game noble, or have they inflamed an otherwise domiciled issue for commercial purposes to the point where everyone – including black players – has lost touch with the ground reality? Before Patrice Evra started the first of a trio of racist cases that has soured the Premier League, it was difficult to remember football’s most exciting league having a serious problem with racism. Compared to the frequent monkey chanting in Spain, or organised humiliation of black players in Italy, the Premier League had become a theatre where black players were regarded first for their ability, with their nationality being a secondary, general point of interest. Didier Drogba is remembered at Chelsea for the goals he scored and the leadership he provided; Andy Cole and Dwight Yorke were one of the best-loved striking duo’s in Premier League history; Emmanuel Adebayor took his chance to shine at Arsenal and put Togo on the footballing map; Demba Ba recalled Alan Shearer at his best for one season at Newcastle. From London to Manchester to Newcastle, all the country’s Premier League clubs have been a proud racial melting pot that has now been upturned and spilt by the claims of the past two seasons.
It is against this history of progress and integration that the claims of Evra, Ferdinand and especially Mikel should be considered, rather than by relying on evidence of witnesses from Chelsea who have been shown to be open to peer pressure, persuasion and constructing clear falsehoods in the face of their legal obligations. If Chelsea’s Ashley Cole created John Terry’s evidence at the prompting of club secretary David Barnard, and never actually heard what he claimed to have heard, then how can the FA possibly take the word of Ramires – a representative of the same club and with an uncertain grasp of English to boot – at face value in determining the fate of Clattenburg? Rather, the FA should consider that the undeniable racial content of the first two cases came in the context of a fierce slanging match that went back and forth between opponents and encompassed insults no less heinous because of their non-racial nature. Patrice Evra brought up Luis Suarez’s sister’s pussy before the latter rebutted by calling him black in an aggressive manner. Anton Ferdinand cruelly reminded John Terry that he “shagged his mate’s missus”, provoking the much-maligned Chelsea captain to unleash that notorious line of racist abuse. In Ferdinand’s estimation, that brought it “to another level” but what is the difference between one expensively remunerated star sexually slurring another’s family, the other remarking on his skin colour, or the first hitting back on the way he looks? The hurt felt is mutual, the sense of players losing their heads in the heat of battle shared. Suarez’s wife has wryly observed how she “doesn’t like or recognise the Luis that plays football on the pitch”, the man transformed into a competitive snarling beast who was once driven to bite an opponent on a football pitch in Holland. Arsene Wenger and Robin van Persie received the brunt of the worst abuse from the last matchday weekend when Arsenal played Manchester United. Wenger was jeered as a paedophile, while allusions were made to Robin van Persie as a rapist and a “Dutch Jimmy Savile” (referencing the deceased British celebrity who has recently been exposed as a serial child abuser). As recently as last week, a Facebook friend saw fit to mockingly describe Wenger as a “paedophile” in his Facebook status, displaying the kind of detached cruelty that is all too often euphemistically passed by as “banter” in masochistic English society. Some of the chants I have heard directed against Wenger by Stoke’s male, female and very young fans through the television set turned the ears blue at a family hour while a group of friends returned from a Chelsea-Barcelona match in 2006 numbed by the ninety minutes of sexist, vitriolic abuse they had heard directed at the away side. As usual, Wenger caught the gist of it when he described the abuse he faces, such as calling him a paedophile, as just as “racist” as that received by Evra or Ferdinand. Rather than segregating the abuse received by them as somehow worthy of greater attention and action, black Premier League stars must accept that they are part of a slightly different problem and one which the evidence of the Evra and Terry cases suggests they have in part contributed to. It is a problem that antagonistic managers like Jose Mourinho must also acknowledge contributing to in the past, by stirring up hatred and bile between opponents to an extent that loosens the restraint and better civil tendencies of those in the stands.
For black Premier League stars to instead claim that racial abuse of them in a competitive theatre is removed from the vicious abuse of all types that is regularly traded on the pitch by players (including them) and between fans is a false distinction that recklessly sabotages the good work that has been done in the Premier League over the last fifteen years and remains to be done at the grassroots level and in lower leagues. It is in these areas, far away from the spotlight of the national press, where black players are not so protected by their fame or their worth to their clubs, that racism remains a tangible issue. The young black teenager who is racially abused by a white opponent on the field of play is subjected to a form of psychological bullying that can leave long-term scarring and should be warded away from every growing child. It is in the lower leagues, where comments are not picked up by the newspapers or television cameras, and ethnic diversity perhaps not so prevalent, that a culture of systematic racial abuse and targeting of black players without the means to resort to expensive legal vindication available to an Evra or a Ferdinand may persist from the stands and from white players. Yet by presenting an exaggerated picture of the state of racism in the Premier League, and developing a dangerous precedent of crying wolf every time an insult is pointed in their direction, black players in the Premier League have stirred up old hostilities and diverted attentions from the battlegrounds of racism truly in need of help. Just last week, a Chelsea fan taunted Dany Welbeck by brandishing a monkey gesture at him and it was difficult not to imagine that Evra, Ferdinand and Mikel had brought this about by feeding the beast.
Even more culpable than the players, however, are a lascivious media who have recognised the potential inherent in the racist saga to sell papers and abused their prerogative to the hilt in doing so. Racism is now first and foremost in everyone’s minds as a result of their incendiary coverage, and this has led to an increase of hatred, deepening divisions and hardening of positions. One feels for those black players in the lower leagues now, as a result of how the media has knowingly precipitated a backlash against all black players by egging their Premier League counterparts on to report players and officials for the smallest of crimes and thus making them appear as troublemakers. This reputation will attach itself to black players in the lower leagues who have to put up with far worse, as the papers that cover the Premier League in such misleading fashion are also read by fans of lower-league teams. As with the Chelsea fan who taunted Welbeck, it will be hard to escape the feeling that any increase in racial hostility in the lower leagues resulted from the media’s mischief-making and was evidence of irresponsible behaviour by black Premier League stars to their quietly suffering lower-league counterparts. Better the media train their sights on racism in the darker corners of the footballing hierarchy that are more in need of their strong public voice, and stop devoting pages and pages of coverage to the travails of stars such as Terry and Ferdinand in an insidious way that engenders greater hatred.
The football media has always been aware of their need for narrative to burnish the weekly match reports, while calmer heads have always been able to keep sight of the real issues behind their need to script stories and talking points. The hyperbolic flashpoints this season have already swung between diving – again, an issue inflated to unbelievable heights – and now racism. Yet this one has the power to generate real racism where there previously was none, across all England’s leagues and footballing pitches, and for consciously creating these conditions they perhaps deserve the strongest rebuke of all. Meanwhile Mark Clattenburg is said to be lurching from bewilderment to the point of serious breakdown, and psychological counselling has been cited as something that may be needed before he is fit to resume his job. He also faces a police investigation by the Met prompted by the Society of Black Lawyers that is based on evidence provided by footballers who have been shown to be willing to lie in court, making it ludicrous to imagine that a man could be criminally convicted on the back of their word – or that of a headstrong player still learning English who might have heard wrong. This is what the worst tendencies in football’s culture – ranging from a self-serving, misleading media who have encouraged black players to believe they are being wronged, to clubs willing to lie in courts to protect their own interests, to leading players who have forgotten that the real struggle for racism could be affected by their eagerness to see others fall, to fans willing to use this crisis as a free pass to take their abuse even further than before – have led to: the picking apart of a potentially innocent man, publically doomed to be judged before any verdict is found, and the breaking out of real hostility and enmity across the sport and the vast cross-sections of society it affects.
It was a refreshing surprise to watch three Premier League clubs receive their comeuppance in this week’s Champions League matches against nominally lesser opposition who have arguably been more deserving of praise in recent times. While Chelsea, Arsenal, Man City (and Real Madrid, who lost to Borussia Dortmund) have grown accustomed to strolling through to the latter stages of tournaments off the running of players attracted to their multimillion dollar salaries and brand names, lesser lights in Europe have quietly been compensating by diligently working on their player development programmes, respecting their managers’ remit and poaching talents from right under the noses of the giant clubs. On Tuesday and Wednesday night, they seemed eager to announce themselves to the watching world and more appreciative of the occasion of the Champions League than their more illustrious opponents.
There was the irritating sense that Chelsea, Arsenal and Man City had arrived for the kind of strolls in the park they seem to expect against lesser opposition in the Premier League, without bothering to give magnificent footballing theatres such as the Amsterdam Stadium and roaring Donbass Arena the respect of preparing with the utmost commitment. Manchester City and Roberto Mancini, in particular, were guilty of approaching their game with the same leisurely attitude that has suffused many of their recent near-scares in the Premier League, and the significant defeat inflicted on them by a vibrant, hungrier Ajax side has been a long time in coming. Arsenal’s emphatic defeat against Schalke should have conveyed the worrying message to Arsene Wenger that he can no longer claim to be miles ahead as a pioneer of sculpting exciting football teams from modest resources. Chelsea’s famously granite stubbornness was comprehensively shattered by the uniform wave of noise, ambition and quality that Mircea Lucescu’s enterprising club have been displaying for some years now.
In the face of these deserved reversals, it was a telling sign of the arrogance of the Premier League clubs and inertness of football’s competitive status quo that British papers should have already been focussing on which of the talents of Ajax and Shakhtar would be next to be plucked by their vanquished opponents. Willian of Shakhtar as good as put out the come-get-me call to Chelsea by describing them as “one of the clubs he was interested in” after putting in a starring shift against them for his employers. The Daily Mail noted that he left the Donbass Arena clutching a Chelsea shirt with his name and a question mark on its back given to him by one of the club’s supporters.
However, if Chelsea represent the best of the Premier League and Shakhtar showed that they can be more than a match for them on their day, then why should the billionaire owner of the Ukranian champions contemplate selling a player that they have helped turn into a star? For too long, smaller clubs in both domestic and European competitions have been happy to maintain the competitive status quo by selling their brightest players to bigger clubs in return for hefty sums of cash. This balancing of the books has neither advanced their sporting or business ambitions, and owners of these clubs have failed to realise that the surest way to grow their brand name is by success on the pitch. By retaining a core of players that displayed dynamism and fire in overwhelming Chelsea in the Champions League on Tuesday, Shakhtar have generated interest in their club that could be utilised to much greater financial benefit than any one-time sale of Willian. Rather than perennially serving as a stepping board for the ambitions of others, there should no longer be heresy attached to the idea of Shakhtar or Dortmund taking their ambitions as clubs to new heights.
The Champions League will be richer and more fascinating for it. The suggestion that players such as Van Rhijn at Ajax were driven to exceed themselves in the knowledge that the Champions League represented an audition of sorts to Europe’s traditional powerhouses is an insult to the clubs who nurtured them, and a shrug of the shoulders to the idea that the tournament will ever be anything more than an annual shootout between familiar names. If these players can drive success on the pitch, money will pour into the coffers that can be used to fund more lucrative salaries for them and provide an incentive to stay put. The theory implicit in Willian’s plangent call for a big club to take him off Shakhtar’s books was that the level of quality remains higher in certain leagues. To that the owner of Shakhtar can offer the sound riposte that their club beat the best in England in a competition that already represents the apex of European football. Shakhtar’s success will in turn inspire more interest in Ukrainian club football, and so it is vital for the landscape of Champions League football to be any different than the stale, monotonous state of the last few years that Willian stays put. Much the same could be said of Robert Lewandowski of Borussia Dortmund, who has recently been the subject of much interest. The list of pretenders for the final rounds of the Champions League has grown considerably this year, and it is making for a more interesting and vibrant tournament.
Deprived of the opportunity to exert financial muscle to cherry pick players crafted at other clubs, Premier League giants may just start rediscovering their sense of obligation towards bringing through youngsters, and creating teams of hunger and with a collective idealogy. There remains something ineffably exciting about witnessing sides such as Dortmund or Ajax in action, who have clearly been the product of creative ideas, hard work and a collective sense of purpose and are now reaping the rewards of their approach. The likes of Chelsea and Man City can offer nothing so tantalising beyond lumping together star names and pitting them in a yearly Champions League glamour match with another big European name. The continuation of this state of affairs, through breaking up the bright work of many rising clubs in Europe with money and power, would be depressing to say the least.
Of all the accusations and finger-pointing doing the rounds in the John Terry firestorm, Chelsea are almost as deserving of blame as the player. Their actions in attempting to deceive and insult the intelligence of everyone from the FA to the criminal justice system, the anti-racism campaign and the fans, have merely reinforced the impression that they are a club run along mafia lines favouring cronyism and protection of their own above truth and what they owe to the wider public. First, it was revealed that club secretary David Barnard had deliberately changed Ashley Cole’s witness statement to include that he had heard Anton Ferdinand use the word “black” when accusing John Terry of racially insulting him, when Cole had in fact initially stated hearing no such thing. This was a key (and false) alteration, as Terry’s line of defence rested on repeating abusive words that Ferdinand had accused him of saying in order to deny using them (i.e. “I didn’t call you a so-and-so”). Secondly, Chelsea then relented under overwhelming pressure to coax a statement of apology from Terry that nonetheless allowed him to omit acknowledging that he had ever directed racial language to Anton Ferdinand. Finally, they told the fans that they punished him but refused to reveal what those sanctions entailed, citing comparisons with the HR department of any company that would ordinarily refrain from revealing to the public any penalties it had imposed on its employees.
The difference between ordinary companies and Chelsea Football Club – of which they are well aware – is that football clubs have always been unique companies that are more beholden to the public than most corporates. They rely on the public to purchase their shirts, ordinary people to buy their season tickets, but also to maintain an intangible connection that has always gone beyond business into the realm of absolute loyalty. Yet in trying to use the specious analogy of an ordinary company obeying best practice in HR policy, Chelsea have insulted the intelligence of those loyal fans who might feel it their right to know what kind of punishment they have meted out to John Terry to preserve the image of their club.
The extent to which Chelsea were prepared to go to protect a handful of senior players was revealed in the brutal manner of their sacking of Andre Villas Boas last season, and has once again been on display in this tawdry episode. Yet there are some things that are greater than a single player, and even if Chelsea were now to side with the public in the name of a commitment to anti-racism and professionalism, it would seem like a political move undertaken after a careful, self-serving weighing of the pros and cons. Defend your player if you must, try not to mislead courts and commissions if you can help it, but please oh please don’t insult the intelligence of fans by claiming that you cannot reveal the sanctions the club imposed because of your commitment to high standards of company HR policy. Football has never existed within the realm of ordinary society, and public figures have always prompted public judgements. It is time Chelsea stopped acting so shiftily and talked straight with their fans, if not the general footballing public.
The Confederation of African Football has acted with great merit in throwing Senegal out of next year’s African Cup of Nations following the riotous behaviour of their fans in the match against Ivory Coast over the weekend. The worst, most petulant, megalomaniacal face of Africa was on display in that match, where the Senegalese home crowd reacted to going 2-0 down in the match by starting fires, hurling missiles and generally threatening serious violence completely disproportionate to the event on show. “Football is a religion in Africa” and other such quotes do not come close to sufficiently apologising for what must rank as one of the worst cases of bad loser syndrome in the sporting annals. Culturally, the hostile reaction of fans in the face of defeat brought to mind the equally arrogant, masochistic machinations of those in African countries who attacked foreign embassies following the release of a perceived anti-Islam video in the US. It is time to grow up. An unintelligent video made in bad faith is nothing more than that, and a loss in a football match should be treated with sporting disappointment rather than as a trigger for going crazy and assaulting everyone associated with the opposition. It is the sense that the home fans would have committed a crime as serious as murder out of as trivial a source as a childlike inability to swallow a loss in a game that is so infuriating. Once Senegal gets its house in order it can step back into the football fold, but in the meantime, it would do well to send everyone in that stadium back to their mothers and fathers for some basic life lessons.
With the opening of the FA’s fabulous new national football centre, St George’s Park, there might be a temptation for England to believe that they have taken a massive leap forward in their chances of becoming a top footballing nation. This would be short-sighted and dangerous.
While St George’s Park is undeniably an impressive, technologically state-of-the art facility, it will not address the pressing questions of unearthing technically able footballers in every region of England. The good work has only just started, and there will need to be carefully-implemented mechanisms to ensure that the kind of enlightened coaching that will take place on St George’s Park’s 11 outdoor pitches can filter down to the youth training programmes of every professional club in the country. For it is here that the gems of future generations of footballers will be discovered, and only after this process that St George’s Park will come into the picture as a place signifying that they have made it to the big-time. Alan Hansen claims that footballers do not improve on the technical skills in their possession once they are past fifteen years of age; up until that point, all their significant tutoring will take place under the watch of their hometown clubs.
The model for national footballing excellence is quite rightly Spain, and it is striking how many clubs in Spanish football have contributed to both producing stars of the future and ensuring that they all are comfortable at playing a fluid passing game. Spain is not just made up of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but also Isco of Valencia, Javi Martinez and Iker Muniain of Bilbao, Adrian of Atletico Madrid, Sergio Canales of Racing Santander. These are but some of the names that have ensured Spain’s U21s and U19s look well-set to continue the record-breaking path forged by the seniors, and the range of clubs that have made up the composition of the squads is testament to a common winning formula that has been implemented at youth level across Spanish clubs. Partly to do with using resources the right way –Jimmy Burns has described how money was poured into building top-class facilities in every village and city football club in the land after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – ,partly the product of a footballing culture that emphasises enjoyment and love of the ball over winning at all costs, what is noticeable is how this concerted effort to nurture cultured footballers reached every corner and most clubs in Spain. As a result, the country now boasts a system that throws up more talents than their national teams can accommodate, and they all come to the national team already acclimatised in a style of play that has been practised by club teams across the country. While England has built an impressive totem to their ambition in the form of St George’s Park, none of the funds have yet gone towards clubs’ youth facilities at every level – nor has there been evidence of a plan to implement a homogenous vision of how budding footballers in the country will play the game. Meanwhile, in the absence of such a plan, the recruiting ambition of Premier League clubs mean that a great number of young English footballers are frozen out in favour of their more technically able overseas counterparts.
These are the hard questions that the FA have yet to provide answers for as they seek to correct England’s stagnation and decline at international level. Spain have set the bar wondrously high, but in doing so, have also given clear signs of how to approach building the right footballing culture. England will have to bury far deeper than the shining foundations of St George’s Park if it is serious about restoring pride to the national game.
It is frustrating how often the past seems to repeat itself when it comes to Arsenal, both in terms of familiar failings on the pitch and in tying players down to long-term contracts. While the intent on display to re-sign Theo Walcott has been notably more muted and measured – both on the part of fans and club – than it was for Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie, they have nonetheless failed to find a resolution or to keep the club’s supporters updated with the kind of urgency that an important situation might require.
If the current impasse does result in Walcott upping stakes, it would be a greater shame for Arsenal than its fans currently realise. For all his frustrating inconsistencies and seemingly perennial inability to accelerate his development, Walcott still encapsulates a thrilling precocity that is quite unlike any other in the game and carries a magic all of its own. On the few occasions on which he has untangled the mysteries that sometimes hold him back, the results have resounded across the footballing stratosphere – from his hat-trick in the demolition of Croatia on the international stage to the way he scythed Barca with his pace enroute to hauling Arsenal back from the brink in a thrilling 2-2 Champions League draw at the Emirates. These were stunning individual displays against opposition of the highest quality at club and international level, and the single-handed effect he had in turning around those games was enriched by a blinding turn of pace that thrilled the senses. There has always been something pure and rousing to the soul about the sight of Walcott put through on goal, haring towards the keeper and slotting away with the coolest of finishes. It was on display when he scored in Arsenal’s last league match against West Ham, as a poignant reminder of the kind of talent they would be forsaking in giving up the battle to keep him.
It may be that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain carries more natural technical talent in one boot than Walcott has in two, and that the fans do not see his potential loss to be as great as those who have left the club in recent times. However, that is to miss the point of how perfectly Walcott captures and reflects the essence of Arsenal. For all those fans who still regard the values that Arsenal have upheld during Wenger’s tenure at the club as worth fighting for, letting go of Walcott would be a significant forfeiture of almost every one of them. Here is a young player who has yet to fulfil his box-office-sized talent or to find the confidence that could define his career, and that Arsenal have made a habit of coaxing out of the charges in their stable. More importantly here is a player who, at the top of his game, conveys the thrilling abandon of football perhaps better than anyone in his sport, and whose lack of an abundance of natural technical talent whilst doing so merely enhances the message that football is a sport of pure joy, to be celebrated by anyone. Above all the pass wizardry and Spanish imitations, it is this pure enjoyment and love of football as a sport that Arsenal under Wenger have sought to communicate and Walcott – through the unaffected way in which he plays and the eternal hint of the promise of youth in his persona – is the living embodiment of this notion. If Arsenal give up on him without a fight, the light will go out on Walcott’s power to captivate at clubs where the pressure to contribute something material is much more suffocating and Arsenal in turn will have signalled that hardening up as a result of some tough experiences with players in recent years has not come without a cost to the things they are celebrated for.