In England, soccer loyalty is to club rather than country. For more than 50 years, I have watched and supported Aston Villa, one of the most famous, if not the most successful, clubs in the world. During that half century, there have been many ups and downs. And the same could be said of the British economy.
I first visited Villa Park on Oct. 8, 1960. Aston Villa beat Newcastle United, 2-0. The great stadium stretched out in front of us as the autumn mist fell over the Holte End. The club has a proud history, and played the main role in the creation of the Football League. One hundred years ago, on the eve of the First World War, Blackburn Rovers were the visitors at Villa Park. Among the spectators that day was England’s greatest economist, John Maynard Keynes, who was visiting Birmingham and decided to see the match of the day between the country's two top teams. On the following day, Keynes wrote to his artist friend Duncan Grant:
"I went yesterday with 40,000 other people to one of the peak football matches. The scene was very much as I imagine the Coliseum. The ground is built on the same model -- an immense oval rising all round tier above tier in about 50 rows so far as I could count. The crowd maintained a dull roar nearly all the time, rising into a frenzy of excitement and rage when the slightest thing happened."
The Villa scorer was the incomparable Clem Stephenson, winner of the FA Cup with Villa, who may have lacked pace but whose passes were, according to contemporary observers, “as sweet as stolen kisses.” What Villa and England would give to have a player like that today!
FINANCIAL FOOTBALL: View's Economic Guide to the World Cup
England will not be one of the favorites to win the World Cup. The home of soccer, as of so much else, has inevitably lost its dominance as the sport and economic prosperity have spread around the globe. The English team (no other nation in the U.K. qualified) is a mixture of youth and experience. Many of the aging stars of the last World Cup, who failed so dismally, have been discarded. Their replacements are likely to show less fear, but could prove naïve when exposed to the best players in the world.
British teams have been known traditionally for a solid and well-organized defense. When England won the World Cup in 1966, four of its five defenders would probably have been selected for any world 11. Today, not a single player in the defensive unit would earn that distinction. Vulnerability in defense is likely to prove the biggest weakness in Brazil, especially if conditions are hot and stamina-sapping.
The team’s strength is its perceptive and experienced manager, Roy Hodgson. Whether he can get the best out of the team remains to be seen. Unfortunately, intelligence -- a crucial component of Germany’s success – is not the English players’ strongest card. The most talented player is the Manchester United forward Wayne Rooney, who has the ability to do the unexpected in front of goal, an important quality to unlock strong defenses. But he has rarely lived up to his reputation on the international stage and often shows a lack of self-control on the field, which opposing teams will no doubt try to exploit. This World Cup is the last chance for Rooney to show that he is a great player.
Hodgson has successfully played down expectations, and rightly so. It's difficult to see England beating teams like Brazil, Spain, Germany and Belgium (the last being a much underrated team, even if an injury to Aston Villa’s Christian Benteke means they go to Brazil without one of the world’s best forwards).
Keynes does not appear to have attended another soccer match, preferring the arts (one can enjoy both). Mention of Keynes takes us to the British economy. Even if sporting success in Brazil proves elusive, off the field, the U.K. economy is likely to be growing faster than any other in the Group of Seven. Annualized growth rates of gross domestic product are running at somewhere between 3 percent and 4 percent, and past data will probably be revised higher. Rebalancing, essential to sustained recovery, is happening, and the recent data for manufacturing output and orders are encouraging. Unemployment is falling back toward its pre-crisis level. Wage inflation remains at about 1 percent a year.
During my time at the Bank of England, I often commented on the inverse relationship between the success of Aston Villa and the performance of the U.K. economy. During the past three years, as the economy started to recover, Aston Villa struggled. Its current turmoil bodes well for the strength of the recovery. In the longer term, the U.K. will continue to benefit from its ability to attract talent from around the world, whereas the England football team suffers from being forced to select only English players.
The best thing that can be said about England’s prospects is that its passionate supporters and news media don’t have the high expectations that have accompanied past tournaments. Even getting beyond the group stage may prove a struggle, given that the teams it has to face include Italy and Uruguay.
If England does prevail, no doubt the mood will suddenly become predictably hysterical with expectations of a full blown victory. As Mervyn says, we don’t really have too many stars, and the one truly world class player, Rooney, hasn’t delivered on the international stage since the earliest days of his career. I suppose optimists would argue he is due to make good on his potential.
The England manager has selected some exciting youngsters; if some of them get playing time, one hopes they'll be free of the fear that has plagued England in recent years. Mind you, as Mervyn says, given how most football fans have a stronger affinity with their local clubs than the national side -- certainly I do -- and given his comment about the inverse relationship between football success and the economy, perhaps it would suit a lot of us England followers if we stumble in Brazil. At least our fans will have a truly spectacular time if by some stroke of luck, England manages to get through the group stage and gets to play a game in Rio.
Read Jim's full World Cup preview here.
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Mervyn Allister King