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The Patient English – Enduring the “Beautiful” Game

December 27, 2011

At this time of year in England, millions will rise from their post-Christmas torpor, venture out to a nearby stadium or slump back into their armchairs to watch the nation’s favourite sport – football. Kids with the names of heroes emblazoned on the back of the new club strips they got for Christmas will sit with Mums and Dads to watch the investments of Russian oligarchs, American sports tycoons, oil sheiks, porn barons and chicken killers battle for supremacy on a mercifully mild English afternoon.

There will be goals, incidents and injuries. Puce-faced managers will be screaming from the touchline at their thoroughbred charges. Players will be ducking, diving and using every tactic short of assault and battery to gain an advantage. From the terraces, insults will fly. Racist, sexist, fascist – and just about every other ist they can think of.

From the director’s boxes, corporate centres and mansions of the owners, the oligarchs will be thinking about the next signing, and whether the time has come to dump the manager because another season does not look like enhancing the brand. And from the posh seats, agents will be looking forward to another rich haul of commission from the upcoming transfer window, as their campaigns to persuade their star clients that the grass is greener – and more lucrative – on another field come to fruition.

Former players earn a living through radio and TV commentaries, or by being “ambassadors” at corporate hospitality centres and boxes. Others squander their savings on businesses that they are hopelessly ill-equipped to run. Household names of yesteryear hobble to their old stamping grounds, awaiting artificial hips and knees on the National Health Service, and making ends meet by selling their medals.

And today’s stars roll up to training in their Porsches and Range Rovers, and while away the hours between training sessions playing video games, tweeting inanities and indulging their expensive wives and girlfriends – and other people’s wives on occasion – with shopping raids for designer clothes, house furnishings and diamond-encrusted trinkets.

This is English football in 2011 – or at least its top flight – as the media portrays it and as the actors portray themselves.

Is it better or worse than the game of my youth?

Neither, just different.

When I was growing up, the big stadia were not places where you would want to linger. So few toilets that fans on the standing terraces would relieve themselves where they stood. Foul food and crowded bars. Death-trap design that led to overcrowding disasters like Ibrox and Hillsborough. Fans waiting with bicycle chains to scourge opposing fans foolish enough to stray into the wrong enclosure.

Players were just starting to earn decent wages. Most managers ruled by fear rather than science. The really successful ones were, as today, superb motivators, but they were also men who had lived through war and deprivation. Owners were butchers, bakers, landed gentry and merchant bankers for whom ownership was a key to local social kudos, national fame and little else. Nobody noticed whether clubs were in profit or loss. Owners courted popularity by signing star players and picking up the tab themselves. Few clubs went out of business.

Players were almost exclusively white, and recruited from the four “home nations” – England Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as the Irish Republic. Supporters were loyal to their home clubs, and each club had a large number of home-grown players – Londoners, Liverpudlians and Mancunians. Their earnings were good by the standards of the time. A top player could afford a semi-detached house in the suburbs and a Ford Zephyr car. They could earn useful extra income by opening boutiques and supermarkets. Image rights belonged to the clubs, not the players. George Best stood out as a wild child because there were so few others like him – either as a player or as a pursuer of a rock star lifestyle.

There was no such thing as a squad. The manager would pick his best team, and stay with them throughout the season. If anyone lost form or was injured, he would be replaced by the next best guy from the reserves.

In the Sixties, England’s stock in world football was pretty high. We won the World Cup in 1966, and the head of FIFA was an upstanding former referee called Sir Stanley Rous. Manchester United won the European Cup for the first time two years later, and Liverpool were gearing up for a decade of dominance in which they won the premier European trophy five times.

Today, the connection between the club and the local population, while still existing in the cheaper seats, is noticeably weaker. There are Manchester United supporters in China, Thailand, Malaysia and Mauritius, in Ireland, Devon and even Liverpool. A young kid dreaming of playing for a Premier League team could just as easily be growing up in Seoul as in Salford. And his hero might be Aguero, Nani, Reina or Van der Vaart, as easily as Rooney, Lampard or the feckless John Terry.

So, better or worse?

Better in that the game is now open to the cream of world football. Foreign players in the English top flight no longer come to England in the lucrative last gasp of a fading career. Worse in that the game is clogged up with mediocre foreign players that are denying top flight experience to promising home-grown youngsters. Watch a match between Arsenal, Manchester City or Spurs these days, and you’re unlikely to see more than half a dozen English players on the field.

Better in that you can watch a game in relative comfort, and have a decent chance of getting out of an opposition stadium without broken bones or stab wounds. Worse in that the price of tickets makes live football for the traditional supporter an occasional luxury rather than a weekly rite of devotion.

Better in that for all the efforts of supporters and the occasional player to prove otherwise, racism on the pitch is virtually a non-issue. African players in English football are as much role models for white kids as for black, and furthermore give hope to youngsters in their own countries of a way out of poverty. No different in that football culture makes it impossible for a player to admit he is gay. Worse in that the parasites of the game treat young players from poor countries as commodities, to be owned, profited from if successful or ruthlessly discarded if not.

Better in that the TV coverage of matches is light years ahead of the grainy pictures of the old “outdoor broadcasters”. Worse in the cynical and contemptuous treatment of referees by players and managers.

Better in that the quality of football is undoubtedly on a higher plane. Worse in that only a handful of wealthy clubs have a chance of winning the game’s top honours. To challenge for the trophies, you need a Sheikh Mansour, or you need to take on so much debt that you risk going bankrupt in the process, like Leeds United. At least these days most clubs don’t have the opportunity to rack up the debt. But if you’re a supporter of Nottingham Forest, three-times winners of the European Cup, you’re reduced to aspiring to the FA Cup as the summit of your club’s achievement.

These days I support no particular club, but I will always watch teams with imagination, flair and a talent for the unexpected. Over the past decade the “English” team to watch has been Manchester United. But hell, I even watch Arsenal from time to time.

Stretching out on the sofa to watch the average Premier League match is the surest recipe for an afternoon nap. Ten minutes is usually all it takes. And I wake up ten minutes before full -time. As a sleep-inducing spectacle it’s only rivalled by Formula 1.

And then there’s the national team. I do stay awake during England matches, though usually writhing in angst. If I look back at the hundred -odd England internationals I’ve suffered through since the 1966 World Cup, three satisfying matches – against Holland in the ‘96 Euros, Argentina in the Japan World Cup and Germany in the 2001 Euro qualifiers seems a pretty poor return for the time.

So given that I’m such a miserable git with such a down on our national game, why do I bother? Why do I check the results every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, and devour the football coverage in the national newspapers?

Maybe because all human life is there – heroes and villains, the corrupt and the unselfish, leaders and idiots. And occasionally you get to witness moments never to be forgotten – of skill, courage, mental resilience and gut-wrenching pathos. Busby’s face after the ‘68 European Cup Final; Banks’s save against Pele in ’70; Maradona’s Hand of God in ’78; Gazza’s tears in ’90; Manchester United coming back from the dead in ’99 European Cup Final; Beckham’s penalty against Argentina in ’04; Barcelona’s destruction of Manchester United in the ’08 European Cup Final. And all those bloody England penalties. It’s not a beautiful game, but it does have beautiful moments.

And those are enough to keep me  interested. Somehow.

From → Social, Sport, UK

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