Why Does England Lose?

I spent the last two weeks in England, a country I love very much, in part because its national character is so full of quirks. One such quirk is its majestically complicated relationship with its national football team.

In its first match in this year’s World Cup, a 1-1 draw with the U.S., the English goal-keeper made a horrible mistake and was subsequently treated as if he were French-born, or worse (and was promptly benched). After a desultory 0-0 draw with Algeria, the English team was pronounced total rubbish. Though the weather last week was divine, a cloud of self-disgust hung over the nation. But then, after thrashing Slovenia 1-0 and thereby advancing to the knockout round, the English team was declared fit for the Cup title, ready to roll over Germany and any other unlucky nation that might get in its way.

But Germany thrashed England yesterday, 4-1. Yes, there was a disallowed English goal that was clearly valid, but it’s hard to argue England wouldn’t have been sent home nonetheless. So once again the nation mourns. It seems unfair to the point of disbelief that a country that invented a sport could now so badly trail the rest of the world. (The same can of course be said about many things in England, including tennis. Summertime is a particularly sour time to be an English sports fan, as Wimbledon also reminds him that the world takes what England makes.)

Moreover, the nation looks for explanations for this routine football failure. Many explanations can be found in the book Soccernomics in a segment entitled “Why England Loses.” (This is well worth a read for any English football fan; essentially, you overvalue your football heritage and undervalue the benefits of innovation.) And many more explanations, some of them echoing the arguments in Soccernomics, have been trotted out in the English newspapers today.

  1. The English Premiere League doesn’t employ enough English players, thereby allowing too many foreigners to gain high-level experience at the expense of native lads.
  2. The English players in the EPL are too exhausted after the long season (although foreign EPL players are apparently exempt from such exhaustion).
  3. English technique is simply inferior to other squads’, whether the Germans’ hyper-organization or the South Americans’ run-and-gun; but, having invented the game, England still thinks its technique is supreme.
  4. English fans and media expect too much and thereby create too much pressure. (That might explain why Wayne Rooney and all the rest seemed scared to even take a shot in the Algeria draw.)
  5. Because “our best players are just not as good as everyone says, and the rest of the team are just average.”
  6. England is snakebit, and had typically poor pre-tourney luck, with injuries to Rio Ferdinand, Ledley King, and even David Beckham.

Here’s my favorite explanation, from London’s outspoken mayor Boris Johnson, writing in today’s Telegraph:

I had an insight, an omen, yesterday morning. I got up early to play tennis, at a municipal court. It is a lovely place, an oasis of green, in a densely populated area not far from London; and since I had failed to book I fully expected to be kicked off by 8am. Well, by 9am the courts were still deserted and we played blissfully on. It wasn’t until almost 10am – on one of the most glorious days of the year, a day when the whole of nature seems to shout that it’s time for tennis – that we were joined on the courts. A nice middle-aged couple turned up and began patting it to each other, and I thought, by heaven, what is wrong with us? Where is the get-up-and-go of our kids?

If this was Germany, they would have been out bagging the courts since dawn! Somewhere along the line the nation that invented or codified virtually every sport seems to have lost its lust for competitive games. I don’t want to exaggerate this. We did amazingly at the 2008 Olympics, and we have recently beaten Australia at rugby. But in our game, the world game, we should be doing so much better.

I am sure the problem is partly to do with all those foreign players in the Premiership, but it’s more fundamental than that. We are still paying the price of an educational establishment that developed an aversion to competitive games and an obsession with bureaucracy and elf and safety that made it hard for the voluntary sector to fill the gap.

I am sure you could find (or come up with) at least 100 more explanations for England’s regular World Cup failure.


Dear Soccer:

Please go away.
Thank you.



How about that all of the English selection plays in the English league? None has consistent international experience and the team is not ready for non English-styles of play.


Boris Johnson is a national joke. I would suggest his stupid columns are why England lost the World Cup

England is a fat, lazy country, and maybe losing the World Cup will help us accept that.


Summer is a particularly sour time to be any sports fan.

Bob T

Maybe the English lost because the team wasn't very good and didn't get organized well enough to play effectively in the World Cup.

Or, you can go for the very long convoluted sociological explanation of Boris Johnson.

Byron C

You speak the Truth!

We Brits don't want to hear the truth!

Our tabloids are still fighting the War against Germany!

Our governing football federation is still living in the Middle Ages!

Our investment in to youth training is on par with our investment in tennis..... need I say more?

Of course it doesn't help when our $multimillion coach loses the plot just before the start of the world cup and announces a shocking squad!


Explanation #1 is clearly untrue as the German league has fewer restrictions on foreigners than the premiership.

i think the media pressure might have something to do with it. I just can't understand how England could steamroll through qualifying and then fall on its face when it actually got to the world cup.

John Valenitne

More freakily (we basically have two TV stations able to broadcast the football, BBC1 and ITV) why do win 60% of the time on BBC and only 30% of the time on ITV.

Yesterday the match was shown on BBC1.


I would not call a 1-0 win to algeria a thrashing.... however, a 4-1 win from the germans over the british seems to fit that descricption quite well. :)


"England is a fat, lazy country, and maybe losing the World Cup will help us accept that."

Replace England with the United States


Dubner, I am surprised that you mention the various excuses and explanation being offered now for England's losses without cautioning that the book you mentioned provides Freakonomics-like answers that are not common. For instance, the book suggests that all factors considered, England does much better than it should. Second, it is unsurprising for a person who has read the book that the English press and its players go all out against foreign players when that is not really the cause of poor performance but a symptom for it.

Razgorov Prikazka

All the countries including Holland (where I live) think they will become the new world champions...
All the theories supporting that statement are considered to be true!
Bringing forward only 1 argument that your country will not be the next champion (no matter how statistically or scientifically rigorous) is considered high treason and you better not say such things in the pub or you will be executed without trail. (well almost...)

Somehow nobody wants to see this 1 simple fact: There will be losers, that is the whole idea of a competition, and your country is possibly one of that losers. 32 teams go in, 1 wins.

The rest is blabla in the media and in the pub afterwards. This is exactly why I like Rugby that much. Everybody seems to be much more realistic about the whole ordeal of rugby competitions.

R. Prikazka
Groningen, the Netherlands.


The funny thing is that Italian and French newspapers and sites are arguing pretty much for the same reasons, and with the same lame excuses.
It's a harsh world where you're out and Slovakia's still running...
I don't mean to be rude to or tease anyone, I have nothing against England (love it) and - unfortunately in this case- I'm Italian :-(


I want to love England however under it's quaint/quirky veneer lies the most Orwellian of all Western societies. More cameras, gun control, taxes, and surveillance than any civilized country in the world. England is not a role model for Liberty. Never was. That's why we left. Yet, in today's America the proponents for VAT taxes, traffic cameras and so forth are falling right in-line. I'm actually a bit surprised a Freakonomics author would give it such a ringing endorsement.

Gary Rue

Passion...or lack thereof. I did not see passion in the British. Also, teamwork seemed to be an issue. Too many self-absorbed prima donnas took the pitch with personal agendas that did not match team purpose. This gap was, of course, widen with the off-field antics of John Terry with the wife of a teammate (or two). Though I'm a fan of the EPL, it is a league that prides itself on "thuggish" play. I guess it is tough for a bunch of "thugs" to come together to play in a sophisticated system and event.


The World Cup is like a short distance race. You'll be punished if you start slow, and England did. The squad would stand a better chance to develop and get better in-match understanding had they played against Ghana, and later against Paraguay or Slovakia in quarterfinals. Only in the semifinals they would have to face top contenders.

Now, as follower-ups in their qualifying group, they just hadn't enough time for this, having to reach top speed against teams which were already flying, like Germany and Argentina in turn.


just a correction, comment #15: instead of Paraguay or Slovakia, read Uruguay or S.Korea.

Richard, Uk

GLK "England is not a role model for Liberty. Never was. That's why we left."

This is just the most hilarious thing I have ever heard. Please tell me you are being painfully ironic on purpose. The religious zealouts who emigrated to some far off land in order to displace the people currently living there did so because the Government at the time did not do enough to impose their idea of how society should be run on everyone else.

I suppose Cromwell's England would have been a great place to live.

Richard, Uk

Oh and we lost for a number of reasons, but largely because we're just not as good as we all think we are.


Insularity. That was one of the arguments made in Soccernomics and it rings true. The Brits think they know all there is to know about the game and don't accept outside influences very easily. Maybe now they will accept the fact that they are a second tier footie country and begin to accept some of the better ideas on display by the likes of Argentina, Spain, Brazil and yes, Germany.