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.
Look at the English national team. The amount of caps accumulated by players like David Batty, Carlton Palmer, and more recently Scott Parker is outrageous. For as long as I have been a fan, English teams have always craved a midfield enforcer. Their actual ability is a secondary consideration as long as they can run and put themselves about. This has been to the detriment of incredible footballers like Glenn Hoddle, Steve McManaman, Matt Le Tissier, Paul Scholes and Michael Carrick. Traditionally, English teams have not known how to use these gifted individuals, and the fans are too pre-occupied roaring approval for a thumping yet mistimed challenge.
What upsets me the most is that I have been one of these fans. I’ve been missing the point. I’ve been appreciating the wrong things. In a period of football history that has treated me to Zola, Zidane, Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, I’ve been bleating on about Wayne Rooney making a tackle in his own penalty box, or Steven Gerrard pinging a trademark long pass to his team mate once in every ten attempts.
The rest of the world laughs at us because we value these qualities over technical ability. The game moved on and left us behind. We are the football equivalent of pre-historic man, staring for hours in amazement at fire, marvelling at the invention of the wheel, with a Richard Keys level of hairiness, and the communication ability of Stan Collymore.
The teams to be admired in the modern era retain possession. They are comfortable with the ball at their feet. They do not have the irresistible urge to regress to a ‘kick and rush’ approach.
I do believe that British clubs are slowly adapting to this philosophy, as are the fans. We aren’t there yet though. It is difficult to change the culture of British football unless the fans will join in with the journey. There was widespread condemnation of the Spanish national team for their ‘boring’ approach during Euro 2012 where they comprehensively dominated all teams they came up against. Contrastingly, there was a general acceptance of the English effort at the tournament, where they were resoundingly outplayed in each of their four games. When they were painfully eliminated in the quarter final against Italy, the sole hope of progression to the next phase was centred on Joe Hart’s ability to hit the ball 70 yards on to the head of Andy Carroll, the antithesis of the progressive style I’ve been alluding to.
Top sides do not need a ball winner, at least not in the guise of someone who offers nothing but tackling ability and a smattering of red cards throughout a season. The fact Vinnie Jones had a long football career in England is an indictment of the Premier League.
It is not necessary to win the ball back when you don’t give it away. An interception is just as important as a tackle. A five yard pass that retains possession is more useful than a 50 yard pass that goes out for a throw in. These are all obvious statements, but play football at any level in Britain, and you will quickly find that players who appreciate these simple facts are the exception rather than the rule.
The misguided belief that teams need to get the ball forward, hoof it clear, get a shot away when it is not on, filters through from the stands who will not tolerate a patient and structured approach.
Probably the best example of fans not appreciating a true ‘Warrior of the Light’ is the Manchester United fans, and England fans, with Michael Carrick. If Carrick was Italian or Spanish, he would have 100 caps by now. He has a great deal of technical ability, a range of passing, excellent positional sense and composure on the ball. Yet English fans under value him because he is perceived as negative, passing short or sideways if it represents the best option. Paul Scholes is similar but his ability to score goals and fly recklessly into a tackle scored him extra favour with the fans. Again, the fact that he was shunted out to the left side to accommodate the more powerful and direct approach of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard illustrates the point perfectly.
Adam Johnson was overlooked for England’s Euro 2012 squad to accommodate Stewart Downing. In the words of Ron Atkinson “He dribbles a lot and the opposition don’t like it – you can see it all over their faces.” However, Downing can “do a job”. Johnson offers a rare quality in that he can actually go past a player and create something, but true to form England select the player with less ability and more tactical discipline.
We do appreciate skill in this country – as long as what the player is trying comes off and works first time. This is understandable when you think of a player like Mario Balotelli trying the same needless flicks that only accomplish giving the ball away; there is a collective groan from the fans, especially when he makes no effort to atone for an error. The problem with the British game is that right from grass roots, we can’t help but encourage kids to take the direct route, get the ball to the biggest team mate, and get stuck in, as opposed to praising skill, technique and dribbling. The easiest option for a youngster is to get the ball and lump it forward, at least that way they won’t get lambasted for conceding a goal. This remains the case until these kids are grown men.
I do love so much about the British game, and I would never want it to lose what is great about it, the things that set it apart. I love the physicality, I just wish we could rid the top level of footballers who are in the team purely to put in a tackle – I give you Lee Cattermole and raise you Steven N’Zonzi. I wish we could develop more players that play like they are Spanish or Italian, because to the new me, watching Xavi, Iniesta and Pirlo is entertainment. The appreciation of players like Jack Wilshere and even Leon Osman show the positive progress being made. More than anything our football loving public need to learn to value sustained retention of possession more than, or being realistic as much as, a 60 yard pass that goes narrowly off its mark or a smashing tackle.
So take up the mantle, educate your kids, and become a proud ‘Warrior of the Light’. Let’s embrace what is so good about the best of European football, whilst retaining our identity as a hardworking, honest and passionate footballing nation.