Last updated at 10:23, Tuesday 3rd July 2012

Culture's consequences: Part 9

Mike Holden

In the final part of his series on Hofstede's cultural dimensions, Mike Holden looks at how low uncertainty avoidance has proved so costly for England down the years...

Related articles:
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Individualism
Part 3: Collectivism
Part 4: High power distance
Part 5: Low power distance
Part 6: Masculinity
Part 7: Femininity
Part 8: High uncertainty avoidance
Part 9: Low uncertainty avoidance

Low uncertainty avoidance: why do England choose not to practice penalties?

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa might go down as one of the more forgettable chapters in England's tournament history but it was an event that gave birth to something truly momentous. It's only a shame that the fruits of this labour never played out on the big stage.

Twenty years after losing a World Cup semi-final on a penalty shoot-out against West Germany in Turin, the decision was finally taken for England players to practice taking penalties on the off-chance that, at some point, their survival in the competition might just rest on a shoot-out.

In the previous six tournaments in which England had participated beyond the group stage, it was an off-chance that occurred no fewer than six times. Only once did England prevail. On the other five occasions, under four different managers, the Three Lions were left heartbroken and cursing their luck.

When confronted on the matter, Bobby Robson, Terry Venables, Glenn Hoddle and Sven-Goran Eriksson (not to mention Kevin Keegan, who never got chance to sample the agony) all peddled the same theory about an inability to recreate the atmosphere of a packed stadium and level of tension that would be experienced in a real-life scenario. In their view, practising penalties was a fairly pointless exercise.

This attitude is highly typical of how people from countries with low scores for uncertainty avoidance tend to think. You can't control the future, so what's the point in trying. Just play with the hand you're dealt, when you're dealt it, and go with the flow.

In the world of business - or any other environment where possibilities are endless - this can be a highly-profitable mentality to have. But, in the sporting arena, particularly when kicking a dead-ball from 12 yards out, with only two outcomes possible, preparation can be vital. Practice makes perfect. Repetition becomes second nature. And when something becomes second nature, it's much easier to switch on to auto-pilot and switch off those nagging voices in your head.

All of which in mind, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that England scores extremely low when it comes to uncertainty avoidance. In Europe, only Sweden and Denmark score lower.

In fact, unlike other dimensions, there's nothing like an equal split when it comes to uncertainty avoidance in Europe, virtually every nation on this particular continent displays a high level. The question for the majority is how high. In most countries, practicising penalties is just what you do. Nobody really questions why.

In the end, it needed an Italian to step in and advise the England players that it would be wise for them to practice their penalty-taking technique. And so for 40 days in the build-up to that last tournament, England did - albeit to no avail. Presumably, on reflection, the attitude of some players afterwards ran something along the lines of: "Well, what a complete waste of time that was!"

That nobody in the media appears to have asked Roy Hodgson the all-important question yet probably says more about how much England are expected to progress from their group, but this casual attitude towards uncertainty manifests in many ways.

For example, England's technical level and general inability to retain possession for sustained periods in a match situation has been a long-standing problem but ball retention is a primary value synonymous with those countries who display high uncertainty avoidance. If the other team don't have the ball, how can they possibly score? Fundamentally, keeping the ball is a defensive tactic.

On which note, delays in the development of a national football centre in Burton are worrying for the future prospects of the England national team. Proposals were first put forward in 2001 but the project has been 11 years in the making and we probably shouldn't expect England's international fortunes to change anytime soon.

That said, in recent years, the nation has at least gained a greater sense of self-awareness of its own shortcomings and the new St George's Park complex is no doubt a significant step in the right direction for producing players who keep the ball better in the future.

However, it's important to understand that this isn't England stealing a march on other nations with a new concept, this is England merely playing catch-up. It's not a luxury, it's a necessity. The first national football centre of this kind was set-up in France 24 years ago and it took them a decade to generate a World Cup winning team before others cottoned on to the benefits and closed the gap.

Now every major country on the continent has its own variation of Clairefontaine - even Bulgaria - and the French have expanded their operation to incorporate eight regional varaiations. So England (if you don't mind bearing with them for another few months) has one national football centre, France has nine. Germany has 121.

This is uncertainty avoidance being played out on a grand scale. It's England's biggest weakness and when you break everything down, it's the one dimension in the Hofstede model that pretty much accounts for all of England's problems. In other respects, the English national character (individualist, masculine, low power distance) is one that's geared up for success in the heat of international competition.

Back England to be eliminated on penalties at 7/1

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