In case you hadn’t noticed, there’s an England football game on tonight. A pretty important one at that, seeing as it’s a qualifier for next year’s European Championships. The trouble is, many of us haven’t noticed – and that says a whole lot about fans, England and the modern sport of football.
This match is no meaningless and intrusive friendly. There’s actual important stuff at stake. England need to win to maintain control of their group. Fabio Capello badly needs a victory as well to fend off his critics, and plenty of underperforming players need to produce good individual performances if they are to retain their places. But the level of disinterest in the fixture on the part of supporters is reaching the depths of apathy usually only seen in an election for Euro MPs. People just don’t seem to be that bothered any more.
I can’t say that for certain. There are probably upwards of 15 million bona fide football fans in Britain and plenty more with a passing interest in the fate of the national side. I haven’t spoken to every one of them to find out what they think, but judging by the comments of those I have, and what’s being said via social media, there’s barely anyone, even the most ardent England supporter, who is particularly animated by tonight’s match.
Some are hardcore club-before-country fans who have never given a fig for the national side. Others are actively giving it a miss due to some form of residual displeasure over what happened in South Africa last year. But most just seem to be bored with the whole thing.
It wasn’t always this way. Once upon a time the fate of the England side really mattered. The nation wouldn’t exactly grind to a halt for every match but there was a concerted and collective focus on what the team was getting up to. Up to 20 million, sometimes even more, would tune in to cheer and jeer them on.
Tonight’s viewing figures will be a small fraction of that. Partly because it’s on Sky, partly because – well, people have got better things to do. The relationship between England and English football fans has always been a complex and often fractured one but it now appears that the degree to which the England side has been marginalised is acute.
I’d suggest there are a number of reasons for this indifference. The lingering distaste for the antics of superstar footballers has tainted what good will there was (coloured by a resentment at how much these players earn and which club they play for), coupled with the vagaries of form that will always have an impact on how a team is viewed.
But the biggest factor in all this is the unstoppable rise of club football. The twin beasts of the Premier League and the Champions League have rendered the England football team an irrelevance – an awkward intrusion that mucks up the schedule and gets in the way of what is perceived as the really important stuff.
You only have to see the fevered reaction to the transfer window to see how the game has changed. Wild and reckless speculation about which club a player might move to has apparently become more interesting than if he gets picked to play for England or not. There’s now apparently live coverage of the conductor of Sky’s three-ring transfer circus, Jim White, arriving for work on ‘Deadline Day’. Football is truly eating itself.
A consequence is that international football as a whole has been consumed. Major tournaments have increasingly become shop windows for the big leagues around the world – a kind of beauty parade in which we can drool over some wonderkid from Argentina, not in the expectancy of what he’ll do for his country but which club he’ll get a transfer to. And as viewers we all know who this kid will be. There’s no mystery any more, thanks to saturation media coverage.
As for the media, it’s interesting to note that the national side still gets wall-to-wall coverage. That’s partly a practical thing: in the absence of domestic football there are pages and airtime to fill. But there’s a dogged, almost touching quality about the reams of words and comment on a subject that just isn’t as stimulating as it once was. I suspect that not many of us are reading or listening to it any more.
The irony about all this for England is that the Premier League was created for the specific benefit of the England national team. Back in the early 1990s, the idea was that the side would be at the apex of a new pyramid structure. Everything about football, from amateur grassroots to the professional top flight was to play its part in improving the prospects of the national team.
As we have seen with the almost comical displays of that side in the present, such hope has been a forlorn one, to the extent that many don’t even care any more. What’s that old adage about the time to really worry is when you’re ignored? It seems the Three Lions may have reached that point.