Football journalist Gabriele Marcotti, a self-pronounced European football expert and intellectual, proudly considers himself to be part of an enlightened group he refers to as ‘Warriors of the Light’. This is in reference to any coaches, players or analysts who represent what he feels is right with the beautiful game.
Anyone who has served their football apprenticeship in mainland Europe or further afield often seem to look upon the British game with pity. As fans of the British game, we shell out wads of cash for match tickets and TV packages that enable us to get our fix of the English Premier League. It boasts modern all-seater stadiums, a much-vaunted fan atmosphere and fast paced, committed action.
As followers of the British game, can we all call ourselves ‘Warriors of the Light’? I would suggest that any cultured football intellectual would refer to us as anything but. I’ve forced myself into some harsh self-reflection, and the disturbing truth is that I may have been a football Neanderthal, a primitive football beast whose outlook has been shaped by the British media, the British coaches, and perhaps more than anything else, the British male bravado.
Allow me to elaborate. The players I most respect and admire are all cut from the same cloth: Bryan Robson, Roy Keane, Patrick Vieira, Steven Gerrard and Wayne Rooney. They all exert maximum effort, they chase lost causes, they are always on the move, they motivate, they inspire, and they can all stick the boot in. I believe that my admiration for these qualities is certainly not exclusive to my own preferences, but are typical of the average British fan.
There are certain instances in a game that will be met with approval from any football crowd anywhere in the world: a goal, a penalty decision, a ball boy or manager falling over, or a magnificent piece of individual skill. What sets the British fan apart is the approval he merits to a crunching tackle or a brutal 50/50. There is a deeply ingrained belief that flying into a tackle full pelt and knocking an opponent six feet into the air can be a game-changing moment. It certainly endears any player to their fans. Even when I was in primary school, nothing got me praise from my coach like a hard challenge, whether the ball was won or not.
Spain’s midfield dictator, Xabi Alonso, spent five years playing for Liverpool. In a recent interview, he describes his despair at the mindset of the British players and fans alike: “I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play… It’s hard to change because it’s so rooted in the English football culture, but I don’t understand it.”
My views are, I’m glad to say, changing. My appreciation of the game is evolving. This is a gradual process that has been thrust upon me as I have slowly realized that the game has changed. I grew up watching football in the 1990’s. The launch of the Premier League was greeted enthusiastically by a global audience because of the different product it provided. The league was the fastest and most physical, every game was a ferocious contest, and this carried a far-reaching appeal. This naturally led to the acceptance of the game’s hard men, who would cover every blade of grass on the pitch, and leave a physical impression on his opposition. Unfortunately, and forgive my hyperbole, it led to the demise of the footballer. Don’t get me wrong, there were still some amazingly talented individuals, like Le Tissier, Cantona and Bergkamp. However, they stood out because they could rely on their immense skill over their work rate and honest endeavor.