England, Ukraine, football and French insight

It really is quite depressing watching England play football. I think Napoleon said, ‘God is always on the side of the big battalions,’ but Oxford Reference says it was Comte de Bussy-Rabutin (1618–93) who in fact said, ‘God is usually on the side of the big squadrons against the small.’ If this is true, and I know the saying must be taken with a pinch of salt because (a) it comes from a Frenchman, and (b) it is a saying, and therefore noteworthy more for its phrasing than veracity, but if it’s true, then why doesn’t it apply to England and football?

Tonight the boys in white – though they were actually wearing red tops, white shorts and red socks – played Ukraine, and were pretty average. I know they lost a few of their stella players (adjective used recklessly, I know) to injury, such as Rooney and um… and um… Joe Cole, is he still playing? But even so, what with being told the Premiership is the best in the world, you might think we could at least do a bit better than a nil-nil draw.

A quick scientific-cum-demographic analysis tells us that Ukraine has 45 million people and England has 53 million, which is a ratio of 1:1.18, or, if decimal fractions are not your thing, think of it as England having a pool of players 17.18% larger than Ukraine from which to pick their world beaters. If de Bussy-Rabutin was talking the truth and not just trying to look smart with his aphorisms, England would have at the very least had most of the possession tonight.

But they did not. Ukraine had most of the ball – at least that’s what it looked like to me – and although their striking-efforts were as non-cutting as England’s (not your fault, Lambert), England looked as unlikely to net it as a second-division team against the Premiership big guns in the FA Cup. And I suppose that’s what the game looked like: a rather boring match between two lower-league teams at a stage of the season when it doesn’t really matter what the result is.

Hang on. Now I think about it, 45 million is actually rather a lot of people, and perhaps my use of statistics is not quite Oxbridge School of Mathematics. Perhaps it would have been better to test the applicability of the de Bussy-Rabutin theory to football when England played Moldova last Friday. Their population is 3.6 million and they lost 4-nil, which would suggest England’s big squadrons got what they were due.

Though I suppose my point is not that England should win against ‘smaller’ football countries, even with a number of players out with injuries (do all teams not suffer from this?). Rather, it’s that I just wish they would play better football. Not better as in ‘doing a job,’ or ‘closing the game out,’ or ‘getting the away point,’ or whatever other cliche we can think of to explain away average play, but better as in better: keeping the ball, passing the ball, making the ball do the work and not the legs, and not getting all excited when we do have the ball and running just as fast we can up the wing because it’s all so exciting and, hey, dribbling the ball around a defender is much more effective than passing it around him, right.

Maybe I’m being picky? Maybe it’s harder than it looks and well-organised teams are difficult to break down no matter their population? Maybe it’s the same old conceit of assuming England should naturally be better than they are because it’s England and we invented the game? Or maybe not. Oxford Reference has a second entry on the topic of bigger being better. It says that Voltaire (1694–1778), another Frenchman, modified the saying somewhat to: ‘God is on the side not of the heavy battalions but of the best shots.’

Quite. Now, if we can just work on getting the ball up the pitch to get a shot on goal, we might just have a chance.


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