Last July, I wrote a piece about England being too thick to win anything.
I wrote it after meeting someone who works with top-flight footballers on a regular basis. He told me how intellectually undernourished many English players are, and how they are not just dismissive of, but also alienated from the idea of education.
He was keen to say that they were decent blokes, but it was this lack of brains which contributed to their downfall on the international stage. They liked being told to do one thing and if that wasn’t working, adapting team tactics or their own play required intellect that they didn’t have access to.
Intelligence begets flexibility towards problem-solving, but a lack of it encourages lumpen one-dimensionalism and compounds with crippling self-awareness and personal inadequacy, to create a hard-to-break spiral of negativity. That’s how you lose to Iceland.
It all rang true, but I had no idea if the person who told me this was right or wrong. Then this weekend Frank Lampard all but confirmed it when talking about the failure of England’s ‘Golden Generation‘.
“Look at a great country in modern times, like Germany, and I look at their players. I know the facts back this up. Their education system, how they push them, the way they put a reliance on education at the same time as developing them as footballers, is huge. And, for me, that’s a huge factor.”
I thought it was very interesting that it should be Frank who said this. He was famously well-educated at Brentwood School, a selective, independent day and boarding school, where he got 11 GCSE’s including an A in Latin and whose mottos are “Virtue, learning and manners” and “Incipe.” The latter means, as Frank could certainly tell you, “Make a good start.” He would seem to be a good example of both.
Whilst acknowledging exams are not everything, you don’t get those sort of results unless you’re quite clever, but my contact had said how the more intelligent British footballer, even as a teenager, tries to hide his intellect from the start, because to be seen as intelligent isn’t cool on these shores. ‘Intelligent’ in this context has a much lower test level than we might think typical in life. Basically if you read novels, or know almost anything about anything outside of the PlayStation and Celebrity Juice, you’re the dressing room professor. He made the point that one player thought the Monet exhibition his European teammates were going to was an exhibition of money, having never heard of the painter, much to the surprised amusement of his colleagues.
He also suggested that you’d get mercilessly bullied for being smart by the more brutish in the collective, who were the loud mouths that tended to dictate cultural norms at clubs or in teams. British football seems to be like being 15 at school and it retards some of its workers at that emotional point. This is unhealthy.
Although I didn’t put it into the original piece, he did suggest Frank’s name as someone who was “almost like a different person outside the context of football”. He went on to say: “He could hold his own in any strata of society with ease, in a way few British footballers could, but inside football, he played all of that down and I think it did him no favours. He was a great player, but he could have been even more effective if he’d existed in an intellectually supportive environment.”
The idea that being a more fully-rounded person with a range of interests, intellectual stimuli and cultural pursuits might make you better at your job, isn’t that radical in the regular world. Broad, well-nourished minds tend to be better at coming up with solutions and inspirations through different perspectives and by accessing more in-depth knowledge. But British football seems to live in an entirely different world of values and understanding.
Up until now it has often seemed that if a player had any other interests in life, that just showed you were not dedicated to the game. If you’re not obsessed with football, you’d never be the best footballer you could be.
Jokes about stupid footballers are something of a cliche, and too often unfairly imply that the player isn’t a decent man, when I’m sure almost all are. But we can tell how low the expected standards are by how the media routinely refer to a player who “speaks very well” after an interview is broadcast. Next time you hear that said, rewind and listen to the interview again and they’ll just be talking in a normal, pleasant way about themselves or about the game. But that really shouldn’t be where the bar is set for “speaks very well,” should it?
The unsaid, perhaps subconscious assumption, is that he’s a footballer and footballers are a bit thick, so to find one who can string sentences together is special and thus he “speaks very well.”
But there’s a very quick recourse to insult when you raise this intelligence issue, as if it is wilful elitism and some sort of snooty, misjudged middle-class nonsense. Such criticism is a typical knee-jerk reaction, intrinsically interwoven with the all-pervasive mycelium of the class system, which is used by those with the power to divide and rule, by cleverly recruiting its proponents from within the very ranks it seeks to oppress.
But what do we expect? We live in a popular culture that isn’t dumbed down, it’s just dumb; there’s no further down to go. We have an extraordinary tabloid press, whose outpourings are designed not to enervate or stimulate, but merely to generate attention. Quality of content is unimportant; quantity of content is everything.
Populist journalism was once simple, powerful writing, but now it is merely lightweight puffery, mixed with what appears to be a deliberate and mendacious provocation of the stupid, the upset and the unwell, in order to garner more clicks from their reaction. And nowhere is this more evident than in tabloid football reporting.
It is into this venal cultural cesspool of wilful narrow idiocy that we have birthed a generation of children who have, in the last two or three decades, grown to be the new generation of footballers. Is it any surprise, given such a shallow drip feed, that they treasure money and materialism over education and ideas?
This isn’t about qualifications necessarily, though there’s no reason why a footballer couldn’t take an Open University degree. It’s not like they’re short of time; they’re done by midday most days. It’s about knowing that understanding, appreciation and knowledge is a beautiful thing in and of itself, which will make life more fulfilling than shopping for Versace shirts. It’s about knowing education will wash through your life and make everything sparkle more brightly and that it will expand your mind.
Perhaps if, from an early age, it was inculcated by the education system and by the clubs that an educated mind makes an educated footballer, which in turn will make a more successful footballer, we could bring up a generation of players with elastic brainpower, more able to cope with the vicissitudes of the game and of life.
But until that moment, perhaps we could all accept that the notion that it’s stupid to suggest British footballers should be more clever is perhaps the most stupid notion of all.