So, much as I’m loathe to turn this blog over to football yet again, I feel that needs must in the light of last week’s European Championship Qualifiers, and their connotations for British football…among other things.

With a 1-0 defeat against Spain, away, due to a deflected Xavi strike, Northern Ireland finished third in their qualifying group, behind the Iberian perennial under-achievers, and the Scandinavian over-achievers Sweden. They managed to consign ’92 winners Denmark to third place. It’s difficult to lavish praise on the Irish without sounding patronising, especially when they came within two victories of qualifying for their first major finals since 1986. Regardless, it’s a massive achievement for a side who had to jump stream in mid campaign when their manager defected to club football, and it’s worth noting that with a population around the same size as Birmingham’s, Northern Ireland are by far the smallest country to finish in the top 3 of any of the qualifying groups.

Like Scotland, not qualifying when it seemed for a while that it might actually be possible, is undoubtedly a crushing blow. But like Scotland, Northern Ireland’s performances and subsequent results have seen them rocket up the FIFA World Rankings, overtaking their neighbours in the South, and assuring them a place in the third pot of seeds for today’s World Cup qualifying draw in Durban. Qualification might have been a near miss, but a slightly more favourable draw for the next tournament’s qualifying will be a result in real terms for both countries.

 Scotland came a little closer than Northern Ireland. They needed just one victory from their final two qualifiers to seal their place. Unfortunately, after some superhuman effort in previous games, the wheels came off in Georgia, and despite a battling performance against Italy at a rain-soaked Hampden Park, Scotland were eventually even denied a nail-biting Wednesday evening hoping Georgia could turn over the French by one of the most ludicrous refereeing decisions I’ve ever seen.

True, it could be argued that Scotland’s equaliser, Barry Ferguson, was offside when he scored, and that Italy had a goal wrongly disallowed for offside (wrongly disallowed for offside, but Di Natale handled the ball in the build up, so…). The referee and linesman conspired to get several decisions wrong for both teams, but these were calls that you could accept human error in, where the action was happening just to quickly for human eyes to assess the situation accurately. These kind of decisions will go against every team, and will generally balance themselves out over time, but the free kick award which lead to Italy’s winner was quite clearly wrong. No subjectivity here, it was just wrong.

I’ve seen this incident a few times now, and how the assistant and the referee cna possibly conspire to award the free kick to Italy is beyond me. Frankly, I will never understand it. Yes, we should have defended the set piece better (against one of the world’s greatest exponents of free kicks), but then it simply shouldn’t have been a free kick in the first place.

 Wales finished fifth of seven in their group, which is needless to say disappointing. The loss of key players due to retirement and ructions with manager John Toshack haven’t helped, although like Scotland, some promising young players have come through. Wayne Hennessey and Gareth ‘Christian’ Bale look like international veterans at the ages of just 20 and 18 respectively. The Republic finished two places above them in the same group, and both sides struggled to make their mark in games they needed to win. Although a 0-0 draw against Germany in their final game will hopefully add a bit of resolve to the young Weslh team.

And then we’re left with England. On Saturday, unbelievably, two results elsewhere in the group put not only qualification back in England’s hands, but allowed them the chance to finish top of the group after Croatia were beaten by their near-neighbours Macedonia. Second-Choice Steve as he will surely always be known by English football fans from here on in, had overseen a very average qualifying campaign (with a draw at home against Macedonia, although the Balkan side were clearly punching above their weight through the group, and a defeat away to Croatia), but now had to simply avoid defeat to ensure his side reached the finals. Their opponents were Croatia, who despite their reversal four days previously, had already qualified.

You probably know what happened. Croatia raced into a two goal lead, England as ever fought back, but ultimately had no answer to an opponent with more guile and technique and them. And so the hand-wringing began.

Population size is often mentioned as a factor in international football. Because you can’t just go out and buy a player to fill the position you might be lacking in, you have to rely on indigenous talent coming through. A nation with a population of 50 million might be expected to have more chance of producing a great squad (squad, not team) than a nation a tenth their size. Of the winners of the last eleven World Cups, only Argentina have a population of less than 50 m. Brazil, Germany, Argentina, Italy and France all have weight of numbers, a history and passion for the game, and ingredient X. Indeed, the smallest nation to contest a World Cup final in recent years has been Holland, whose insane team of Total Footballers contested the World Cups of ’74 and ’78. It’s clear then, that if a nation with a population of less than ten million is going to struggle to compete with the big guns. A small nation could produce maybe four or five players worthy of competing on the world stage, but to win the world cup, you need between 20-40 world class players. That said, the European Championship is continually won by smaller countries, although rather more determined small countries who don’t have to face Brazil and Argentina.

Croatia as a country has a population of 5 million, less than the city where they played England on Wednesday night. Yet they dispatched England for the second time in the group with such aplomb that many fans left Wembley scratching their heads. While Croatia lacked the physical strength, and arguably the strength in depth of the England squad, they were consummately more able with the ball at their feet, able to exectue tight passing triangles and play their way out of trouble, causing consternation for England with their pace on the break. England meanwhile were lashing long balls up to lone target man Peter Crouch, who while being a very good player with the ball in the air, is pathetic in the air given his height (compare with Jan Koller here). Thus, the ball wasn’t sticking for England, and Croatia were able to launch their counter-attacks time and time again.

This of course caused English football culture to go into meltdown. Not qualifying for the European championship was unthinkable, and someone had to be held accountable. The FA acted immediately by sacking manager Steve McClaren, and the papers seemed to pepper the entire footballing landscape with flak, but no single cause has been identified as the root of the problem.

 O RLY? From where I watched the game, it was apparent that Croatia’s players were more comfortable on the ball, even allowing for the treacherous surface. They were able to switch play more rapidly and their passing and movement was light years ahead of England’s. The smaller countries in Europe know they have to play like this; they won’t be able to over power their larger rivals, so they have to overwhelm them. The problem is this will only get a team like Croatia so far before they end up facing one of Northern Europe’s artists. Again, ignore Greece winning Euro ’04 here.

The game also surely saw the end of the so-called ‘Golden Generation’, a crop of players who had steadfastly managed to not proceed further than the quarter-finals in any tournament. They had been knocked out on penalties twice by Portugal, and once by Brazil. The blame for these failures was laid clearly at the door of the manager; particularly in the last three tournaments, Sven Goran Eriksson was castigated in some quarters for not doing more with the ‘world’s best players’. That kind of hyperbole was especially evident in the build up to last summer’s world cup; I heard one England fan opine that his side were guaranteed to win the tournament as they had the best player in each position of any country there. While this wasn’t a consensus view, similar opinions were expressed, and the contrary position was assumed by few. At least, not before the quarter final knock out.

 But here we reach the crux of the matter; do England really possess the ten or so greatest players in the world? It’s hard to agree with this view even in retrospect, simply because there are so many players out there who are frankly better and more successful. For example, several insular England fans expressed disbelief that their national team should struggle to finish in the top two of their qualifying group while continuing to play well domestically. It’s worth noting however that a good deal of the current England squad come from the top four Premiership sides, where every week they play with a mixture of other nationalities. It could be argued that Frank Lampard misses the back up of Michael Essien and Claude Makelele, and Steven Gerrard misses Xabi Alonso and Momo Sissoko, or it could be argued that their foreign team-mates are making them look a lot better than they actually are. It’s probably a mixture of the two, as can be evidenced by two goals scored on Saturday on the return to domestic football. At Newcastle Steven Gerrard scored a superb 30 yard free-kick for Liverpool, something he is capable of doing for Liverpool but very rarely displays any sign of doing for England. However, 150 miles south, Portsmouth’s Niko Kranjčar was scoring an equally impressive free-kick. And as it was he who scored Croatia’s opening goal on the Wednesday, it was perhaps a sign that England are currently unable to do anything that Croatians can’t match.

And here we’re faced with more questions than answers. Top end technique is frowned upon slightly throughout Britain, unlike on the continent. However, continental teams are much more likely to win things than the British. So, you do the math.

 Oh, we Brits can do maths either, can we?

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