So modern football, eh? As much as the Premier League captivates our imaginations and dominates our pub and water cooler conversations, not every fitba fan, young or old, buys into the product that many millions across the world invest so much time, energy and (most importantly) money into.
While most modern football fans have a list a mile long of things they’d like to change about football – incessant diving, cheating, laughably large pay packets, loyalty, etc. – some supporters of the beautiful game have given up on today’s game entirely and prefer the more innocent, Premier League-less days of old, or what’s simply known as retro football.
Filled more with gentlemen than charlatans, trim European Cups than bloated Champions Leagues and with more moustaches than tattoos, retro football, where modern football hasn’t, has provided the romantic a release and an angelic sense of purpose while today’s Premier League, La Liga and Serie A has often been devoid of honesty while more full of chicanery.
With the Internet allowing an influx of old timers, and equally newbies, the perfect platform to explore football as it was then as opposed to how it currently is, the ever-growing interest in retro football continues to charm while gaining speed and making noise. It’s because of this buzz that I decided to sit down with author, writer, retro football activist and freelancer (who writes for The Guardian) Rob Smyth recently to discuss the variances between today’s game and, say, the Denmark team from the 1980’s and hey, maybe even a little Gary Cooper.
Chula: So just what is it about the modern game that is such a turn off for you? And, as a self proclaimed Manchester United supporter what, if anything, about their immense success over the course of the last ten years and more can be viewed by anyone as a turn off? Also, what is good about today’s game?
Smyth: The big turn off is the characters involved in the game, at every level. Players, managers, directors, the showers-that-be. There are so many snide, avaricious types who behave in a way that shames whatever is left of masculinity. There is a desperate lack of honesty and nobility. What, as Tony Soprano says, ever happened to Gary Cooper?
I know United have been incredibly successful, but that alone is not enough. There is, or at least there should be, a United way of doing things – with style, class, dignity and most of all glory. It’s extremely hard to argue that the values established by Sir Matt Busby have been adhered to in recent times. There’s the Glazers, United’s cautious football in the majority of big games (never more so than the 9-0-1 formation employed in Barcelona in 2008), and the nature of many of the star players.
Things that are good about the game? The way Barcelona pass the ball (though there is so much to dislike in other areas of their game). Paul Scholes. The fact some of the prehistoric elements, such as racism, have been removed. Andres Iniesta. As a United fan, the humble enthusiasm of the Da Silva twins and Javier Hernandez. Thomas Mueller. It’s not the case that all football was good before and all football is evil now; it would be absurd to say that. But there has been a serious decline at pretty much every level. Apart from the tight shorts. Nobody misses the tight shorts.
Chula: You spoke of certain “characters” in the game as being a big turn off in a sentence where you listed players and managers among the few who blight today’s game. Yet players and managers are (obviously) integral to football as it pertains to certain roles. What specifically is it about players and mangers – or better yet – which players and managers make you feel this way and why?
Smyth: It’s easier to list the players and managers who *don’t* make me feel that way. Money and victory are prioritised to an inappropriate degree, and to hell with fair play, dignity, honour and the rest. Football was our childhood sweetheart, but now we wake up every day next to a money-grabbing whore.
Chula: Switching gears just slightly, do sites like YouTube quench the retro thirst many football fans have in terms of content? How co-operative do you think an organization like UEFA would be regarding the availability of tapes, not only for highlights, but also for full 90 minute matches? Where’s the mecca of classic football video located to satisfy the purists, or does it even exist?
Smyth: I think YouTube does quench the thirst: the range of stuff on there is incredible. The best thing about YouTube is that it doesn’t just reinforce your memories of old football, it also introduces you to wonderful stories you didn’t know (have a look, for example, at the two legs of the 1986 European Cup semi-final between Gothenburg and Barcelona). I have a file, up to about 400 links now, of stuff that I want to watch (compilations of, say, Dragan Stojkovic’s passing) and just haven’t had time. I could spend a whole day on there. I don’t know enough about Uefa, but I suspect they wouldn’t be forthcoming, no. There are some terrific resources on the internet, though, especially http://soccervideotapes.homestead.com/
Chula: It seems as if you view football in general as having an unnatural downward progression (i.e., modern football being influenced by outside factors such as money, greed, glory and subsequently tanking itself because of it, etc), if my assumptions are correct, then what, if anything, is next in the decline of football? Where do we go from here, say, in the next 5-10 yrs?
Smyth: It’s hard to see anything but a steady deterioration: in playing standards (see that hideous first leg between Real Madrid and Barcelona, one of the most depressing matches imaginable), in terms of driving out the real fans as the game becomes ever more commercialised. I just don’t see how football can recover; the new values are too deep-rooted. I see the same teams challenging for competitions, with the only ones able to break the glass ceiling being clubs like Manchester City with obscene amounts of money.
Chula: I’m curious to hear if there’s a specific team and or era that particularly excites you and why? A Rob Smyth all time retro XI?
Smyth: The Denmark team (and, crucially, fans) of the 80s evoke everything that football should be: fun on and off the field, fearless attacking football, humility, decency, fairness, adventure, and so on. They didn’t win a trophy, but they got something much more important: glory, and in industrial quantities. I co-wrote a piece on them for the Guardian site which, unusually for something I’ve written, I’d recommend. Their story is so interesting. Probably the person who encapsulates what football should be is Dave Mackay. The Gary Cooper of football.
Chula: Lastly, what’s next for you? What does the future hold for Rob Smyth in terms of retro football? Is yours a selfish existence with the past or a future spent spreading the gospel?
Smyth: I’m writing a book about how football sold its soul, which includes many rambles about retro football, only 94 per cent of which are about that Denmark team. I’m also very excited about the upcoming Retro MBM site: all those involved editorially are class acts, and good people too. If I find £1m in a hedge I will immediately quit the day job and edit a site devoted to retro football features. Until that day comes, I’ll be lying in a dark room watching old football videos, getting off on all the Proustian rushes.
My thanks to Rob Smyth for his time over the course of the last few months. Got an opinion about the state of modern football or want to share a memory from the past? If so, sound off in the comments section below.