BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil – In many ways, it's a head-scratcher: the country that invented football and which has the richest, most watched and, many would agree, best league in global football is also one of the worst performers at this World Cup. How can that be?
We are, of course, talking here about England — that self-important nation which is no longer very good at football but is quite brilliant at marketing it.
And that, right there, is part of its problem.
The argument goes like this and by now is familiar: Because the Premier League is so good at selling itself, its wealthy clubs can pay huge salaries to attract the best footballers. These foreign imports then elbow aside young Englishmen who don't develop as they should because they don't play enough. The resulting weakening of the English game, according to this logic, helps explain why England is now flying home winless from Brazil. Twenty years ago, two-thirds of players who started Premier League matches were eligible to play for England. Now, just one-third are, the Football Association said in a report released before this World Cup debacle, sounding the alarm and getting its excuses in early.
In short, the pool of top English talent is becoming too shallow. But there's also another reason that the English don't talk about: their players are too English, too insular, and they're failing to use the globalization of football to better themselves, as other nations are doing with such spectacular results at this World Cup.
Many protagonists at this tournament are players who had to move overseas to further their careers. Faced with a choice of learning to become better footballers with clubs abroad or staying close to friends, family and familiarity at home, they chose football. Too few English players make that same choice.
Take Luis Suarez, scorer of both Uruguay goals that sent England packing. At 19, he moved to the Netherlands to play football and improve. Edinson Cavani, whose delightful cross set up Suarez's first goal against England, also hadn't celebrated his 20th birthday when he moved to Italy.
Mario Balotelli, the scorer of Italy's winner against England, moved to Manchester. Costa Rica, which stunned everyone except itself by qualifying top of the England-Italy-Uruguay group, got its first goal in Brazil from well-travelled striker Joel Campbell, who before his 22nd birthday later this week has already played for clubs in France, Spain and Greece.
England players, by comparison, are stick-in-the-muds. All but one of Roy Hodgson's squad of 23 play in England. The exception, reserve goalkeeper Fraser Forster, didn't stray far: he's with Celtic in Scotland. This is surely part of the reason why England players often seem to travel so poorly compared to more worldly-wise rivals with broader horizons from other nations.
The English island mentality was also on display in the FA's proposals for arresting the decline of the national squad. Pulling up the drawbridge, it proposed stricter limits on the numbers of foreign players coming to England.
But here's an alternative idea: If English players are struggling to get enough games with teams in England, then why don't more of them pack their bags and try their luck overseas, just as so many non-English players do?
The FA report noted that the Champions League group stage this season featured 47 Brazilian players, even though that is a European competition. That is just one indication of how readily players from other countries move overseas. Historically, the English as a people have been intrepid travelers. In the Amazon city of Manaus, where England played its first match of this World Cup, English engineers left behind a sewage system, among other things. But the list of English footballers who have made names for themselves abroad is a short one.
"It would be positive, I think, if they are not getting the chance to play in the Premier League with their club team, if they are able to find a good team abroad that would give them that experience, a chance to play regularly. Of course it would be very positive," Hodgson said after England played a drab 0-0 draw with Costa Rica on Tuesday to end its forgettable World Cup, yet another one.
Hodgson is a prime example of how foreign experience can enhance a career in football: he previously managed an array of foreign clubs and the Swiss national team. He gave a compelling reason why more English players don't follow his lead: money. In England, players might not develop as well as they might if they got more regular games with foreign clubs, but at least they're well paid.
"Quite a few of our young players will already be on salaries which maybe some of these foreign clubs might find hard to match, because there is literally no comparison," Hodgson said. "Our salaries are so much higher."
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester