Michael Schumacher and the England Football team

Fabio Capello - Silverstone 2009
© http://www.sutton-images.com

Fear not hearty England fans, Michael Schumacher has not replaced Don Fabio as manager of the national team. Things may be bad in South Africa… but they’re not that bad.

I was watching breakfast TV this morning, feeding my three month old daughter, when I saw Mary Portas, a British retail adviser, being asked for her opinion on where the England football team was going wrong. Seemed an interesting choice for an opinion on footy, so seeing as it is apparently open season for random people to be sticking their oar in, and given that I’m a sports reporter (albeit a motor sports reporter) I figure sod it – here’s my tuppence.

Right now, all I seem to be hearing is that England’s footballers are some of the highest paid sportsmen in the world, and as such they really should be sucking their guts in and getting on with the job at hand. They should be doing what they’re paid to do and should leave their egos at the door. They’re representing their country and have been given a huge honour. They’re not playing with the passion which wearing that shirt represents.

But haven’t we made a rod for our own backs here? If a footballer has a massive ego, isn’t that thanks, in no small part, to his massive salary? By turning footballers into demi-gods, have they not been set up on a pedestal from which they feel they can act in any manner they wish? That the normal rules don’t apply to them? That they are, in some way, above normal consideration?

Now I can’t answer yes or no to that question, as I don’t work in football. I work in Formula 1. But the impression that one has, as a fan of the sport and of the England football team, is that this might not be too far from the truth.

Certainly it was one of the reasons given for bringing in Don Fabio Capello, a hard task master who would pull the strings tight on the team, cut out the excess, deflate the egos, and get the players back to playing football.

Only, it all seems to have backfired, doesn’t it? The players aren’t playing with passion. They’re not playing as a team. They don’t look like they want to be on the pitch, they don’t look happy and they don’t look competitive.

And, if we’re completely honest, maybe (and I know this flies in the face of popular opinion right now) it is because they have had their egos dented. Perhaps, just perhaps, they need their egos fluffing. They need their perks, they need to be told they’re the greatest, and then maybe, just maybe, they’d play like they really were the greatest rather than holding the apparrent view of being no more than the Average Joes that Capelllo’s rod of iron seems to have instilled within them.

To my mind, the England football team is like Michael Schumacher. The talent is there, and it is clear to see – but it is a precocious talent, and one which needs be wrapped in cotton wool.

Michael Schumacher wins in France 2004
© http://www.sutton-images.com

Michael is the most successful driver in F1 history, but most within the paddock doubt that he is of a similar level in terms of out and out talent to the greats of old – the Clarks, Stewarts, Prosts, Sennas etc… Why? Because he had it put on a plate. He had a team built around him of designers who gave him the exact car he needed to suit his style. He worked with Bridgestone to create tyres that perfectly suited his style. He had a strategist who understood how he raced cars. And he had a team-mate who would be utterly deferential to his need to win at all costs. Ferrari was team Schumacher. And it worked. He wiped the floor with the opposition and dominated the sport in a manner never seen before and in a manner we may never see again.

This year, he’s back – a little older, a little rusty, but you don’t lose the talent that brings you seven world titles. He is, however, driving a car designed for Jenson Button which is being hastily modified to suit his driving style, but which has thus far not found the Schumacher sweet spot, and on tyres which have been designed for the sport rather than for him. And he is struggling.

And there’s the parallel with the England football team. They’re playing in a formation that doesn’t play to their individual strengths. Their best players are out of position. Their egos have been dented. They have lost their belief. And because of that, they are struggling. They may not have the talent of the greatest teams in history, but if, like Michael, everything is built around them to give their talent the best shot at showing itself, then surely the rewards will be reaped?

Which begs the question of why the team is so disillusioned with Capello’s style of management that they had to call crisis talks. If you’re in charge of a team, why would you not play to their strengths? Because being a hard ass can only get you so far.

Why play a formation that the players don’t like? Why play Steven Gerrard in a position in which he feels uncomfortable? Why leave Joe Cole out of the team when the players recognise him as one of the best playmakers the team has got?

It’s like Ferrari in the mid 2000s sending out Schumacher for a wet race in Monaco with Monza wing levels, slick tyres, and boots that are three sizes too small.

David Beckham (with JB and Victoria Beckham) - Silverstone 2007
© http://www.sutton-images.com

Personally, I don’t think Capello is quite as good as he’s made out to be. It seems as though his style just doesn’t gel with the players, be it because they’ve got massive egos that aren’t being fluffed or because of something far deeper. Personally though, I think the England team needs a manager who shares the passion of his players – and that means an Englishman. The team needs someone who understands football, but also understands the modern footballer. It needs a strong character, but one with empathy for the men he leads. In short, I think it needs David Beckham.

One of England’s strongest, most hard working and charismatic captains, the sight of him suited and booted and shouting at the players from the bench has, oddly, not looked out of place at the world cup. Instead, it seems almost natural. Like he’s always been there. Because with England seemingly lacking any real direction on the pitch and a seeming confusion over who the captain is and, after John Terry’s quotes yesterday, whether the team even feels as though it has or needs a captain, perhaps its captain should be its best captain of the last decade, Beckham himself, directing play not from the field itself, but from the dugout. The man’s taken stick for not being the sharpest tool in the box in the past, but a more intelligent football brain you will rarely find.

And as assistant coach, I’d appoint James Corden. Yes, James Corden. Why? Because the man’s a legend. He IS the voice of the fan. He IS the enthusiasm that has been so lacking from the team in the world cup. He IS the ego fluffer, the man who would believe in the impossible, who would reflect every fan in every pub in the land and rouse the spirits of the boys. Half time team talk? Give it to Corden. Yes he’s more noted for his comedy turns, but he’s a brilliant writer, his live TV shows he’s got a quick wit and a perfect feeling for situations as they arise, and a more fervent supporter of the team I doubt you will ever find.

So yes, I would pick Corden and I think he’d be amazing. He’s been to a few F1 races over the last few years and he always seems like the kind of guy you’d want to go out for a beer with. A genuinely good bloke. He seems to have a good relationship with the England players, too. He’d put them at ease, build up their spirits and then hand them over to Beckham to deliver the footballing genius that would see us achieve all that we dream. And if the team needed a boot up the posterior, who better than a man who is the embodiment of the ultimate England fan? And you know they’d go back out with a smile on their faces, even after a bollocking, and play with some joy.

So never fear. If England slump out of the world cup on Wednesday and Don Fabio walks away, it may not be the worst news in the world.

And if we stay in… any chance Beckham and Corden could stage a coup d’etat? I know, it even has a French name. And if they can kick off in the middle of a world cup and tell their football association where to go, then why on earth can’t Les Rosbifs?

Jenson Button and James Corden
© Sport Relief