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English Football: Recapturing True Football

garylineker_vwg_1990_l.jpgGary Lineker played Football the way it was meant to be played

All of the reaction to the article about Wigan Athletic here the other day got me thinking. I personally have a soft spot for Wigan because they are a small town club that has achieved great things under a local owner. This is the type of storybook side that used to be more frequently found in English football. Wigan embodies everything that was true and honest about football in the different age: an age where the nation to whom we owe our love of this game to was able to control the game the way they wanted it played and presented.

Football is an English game but sadly the world game has gotten away from the English. Some Anglophobes like Sepp Blatter may believe this is a good thing, but others like myself believe the corruption of the game owes itself to the lessening influence of England on the international stage and the emergence of several other powerful nations and cliques of administration. Football’s newfound desire to conquer lands like the United States, Japan, China and Australia that previously resisted the game (although the United States did embrace the game over a 100 years ago only to abandon it as immigrants were forced to “Americanize” in what the xenophobic 1920s) has taken the English game, the true football and turned into something hardly recognizable.

The modern rules of the beautiful game were codified by the English: Not by the Spanish, the Italians or Argentines. Yet these other nations I mention and others have claimed football as their game and have made changes to the game which make it less true to its original and natural form than perhaps it should be.. Football has not grown organically as it did for many, many years, but has been manipulated for commercial purposes by people other than its originators. I include my nation the United States in the corruption of the game by inventing such unworthy items as the NASL shootout (which later was further refined into an even less desirable penalty kick shootout), and the now infamous “35 yard line.” Football is not like American sports where they change the rules every season to give certain players or teams more of an advantage. For example, the National (American) Football League is a complete sham of a sporting association. The league I watched in my childhood now has rules that I do not even recognize, so I choose not to feed the monster any longer. I finally gave up the game a few years back when in order to try and curtail the dominance of a single team, the New England Patriots, over another team the Indianapolis Colts, the league mandated a new rule for pass interference making it more difficult for defensive backs to do what they had been taught to do in the game since they were kids. Americans like complex rules that do not test their intellect not simple rules that force you to actually understand and observe what is happening on the pitch. This is part of the reason American sports, so unwatchable to the vast majority of inhabitants of planet earth have continued their niche in a peculiar sporting culture stateside.

Back to my initial point: When Lionel Messi committed his cheeky act a year ago of using his hand of god to direct the football into the goal the Argentine press applauded his ingenuity. England was the victim of this in 1986 at the hands of Diego Maradona. In 1998, FIFA’s officials made numerous errors in propelling Argentina to a victory over England in the second round of the World Cup. Glen Hoddle’s team was short on talent but long on desire and the workmanlike footballing culture that has made England more palatable and enjoyable for the outside observer than nations like Argentina, Germany and Italy. Somehow England lost this under the Swede Sven Goran Eriksson whose attempts to turn the English side into a cosmopolitan Italian looking team not only failed but turned many like myself against England. The same changes are happening in the Premier League as foreign owners and foreign players make the league less watchable if you enjoy English football and less reminiscent of what football was and should be. The Premier League has forced England to turn its game into the corrupted version of international football that was developed by non Englishman to sell the game to non Englishman.

Many English football players and owners now in order to compete with opponents who have surpassed them under the rules and playing circumstances now established by FIFA, have seemingly abandoned the roots of English football . The sort of unsporting play that previously was not found by players from the British Isles who were reared in workmanlike skillful setup are now contradicted by the diving of Steven Gerrard, the whining of John Terry and the general Americanization of David Beckham. This is in my mind a worrying trend. English football should be able to resist the temptation to imitate. It is after all the purest, most honest form of football. The football of the legendary Bobby Moore, and Geoff Hurst should always live, not the new England of Steve Gerrard, foreign ownership and big money teams.

Many on this website assume I don’t like English football with much of my commentary. Nothing could be further from the truth: I do not like what English football has become: A miniature version of the corrupted world game without much of the flair and appreciation for other styles of play and other cultures that other nations do demonstrate. Much of this blame must be laid on the doorsteps of the London based British media who put incredible pressure on English clubs to succeed by playing a game unnatural to them bemoaning the continued failures of England while they never acknowledge their own blame for these failures. English football is at a crossroads: either the beautiful English brand of Wigan Athletic will win out or the globalised, americanized brand of Manchester United will win. My money is on the later, sadly though my sentiment is with the former.

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  1. jm

    August 5, 2008 at 5:31 pm


    You are laughing off empirical claims with glib remarks, such as that it is “laughable” that American sports are globally popular. And then to support the claim, you make a series of non sequiturs. I’ll get to that in a minute, in order to substantiate this charge.

    More to the point – it still is not clear what you mean by the English game being “the purest, most honest” game around and what the peculiarly English element is that is being lost. Is the commercialization of the game directly responsible for increased diving? Might it also be responsible for an increase in other, positive traits? These are the claims that need to be substantiated.

    I think one of your motivations (if I read the first paragraph correctly) is right. I have a great deal of respect for small clubs like Wigan, even as an Arsenal supporter. The way money moves through the game leads to massive inequities. This is a much different point, however, than any notion about the “way the game is meant to be played,” as it rests on a much more transparent notion – competitive balance.

    That’s the large point, but now I want to get specific with the indicative problems with your comments about the popularity of American sport. You open up by simply mocking an empirical claim. In your initial piece, you asserted that American sports are not popular globally, I challenged it. Your response was merely to say it was “laughable” (since the rest fails to support the thesis, I’ll get there). One source I found put the figure at around 400-500 million players and spectators of the “big three” American sports, which solidly puts them in the top 10 most popular sports in the world. [Also note that table tennis is immensely popular.]

    Of course they are not the most popular sports in the world, but that seems a rather silly standard. What matters is that hundreds of millions of people, in and outside of the United States, watch and play these sports. The initial claim in your piece that this was meant to support was that the frequent changes in rules for American sports are (at least part, I’ll grant you a weaker claim to avoid a correlation-causation objection) the reason they are unpopular (and that football has this risk). Being among the most popular sports in the world does not support this.

    I’m going to go point by point now, to point out the flaws in the reasoning used to support the conclusion. As one who teaches critical thinking classes, I guess you could say it got my dander up.

    1) The first claim is that American sports support a small niche abroad. As I already pointed out, this is apparently demonstrably false.

    2) The second point is that they are less popular that football. Sure, the only challenger for football’s title is Cricket. Again, though, is that merely being less popular than another sport is far too weak of a claim for the role it plays in your initial argument.

    3) Accusations of “over-hype” and “constant rules and standard changes” are your next sentence. Well, first, this was the initial claim you are trying to substantiate. It does not support your claim that my challenge was “laughable.” This is a clear, obvious and vicious circle. Further, even if we table the circular reasoning, this is a value judgment and has nothing whatsoever to do with the matter at hand. You are trying to substantiate an empirical claim! Just because you dislike these features of American sports (whatever, who cares what you like? Matters of taste are relative) does not mean that they are unpopular for those reasons. This same error occurs in your “stop/start…” characterization of American sports.

    4) One final point about your spheres of influence point – what is the relevance of this? Many of these countries were introduced to the sports through American presence, or even domination, but also then took them up with a fervor. Football spread in large part due to the institutions in place from the British colonial Empire. I’ll also refer you to Goldblatt’s book for empirical substantiation for this claim.

    Again, I really don’t care if you dislike American sports. I find it odd, that in a country where football is so often slanted and attacked on silly grounds (being boring, etc.), fans of the game are willing to turn around and just hammer on the mainstream sports. But that’s beside the point. What I find much more worthy of posting about is calling my empirical challenge “laughable” without even the facade of a reasoned substantiation for that bold claim.

  2. Kartik

    August 5, 2008 at 4:35 pm

    Okay guys let me explain the point of this piece.

    Indigenous forms of football are beginning to fade away as greed and desperation sets in across the globe. Lewis you are correct in saying I protect the American game from foreign intrusion: I do: Our national makeup, culturally and geographically is different than Britain’s just as Britain’s is different than Argentina’s and Japan’s. I want to protect the game here as I feel the game in England has been corrupted by money and foreign owners and players who do not understand the history of English football and the fact that English football was until recently the purest, most honest form of the game around.

    English football conquered the world at large. The above comment stating the popularity of American, stop/start/commercial break/instant replay/take 5 hours to complete sports is laughable. Those games serve at most a small niche audience abroad, and have been almost universally rejected in favor of a more worthy and artistic game, football the world over. American sports with their blatant over hype and constant rules and standard changes are simply scourges on the international sporting landscape and are by and large despite the commercial power and success of the USA, irrelevant. Basketball is an exception but Baseball and Pigskin are less popular outside nations with direct American influence (50,000 troops in Korea, occupation of Japan, invasions of the Dominican Republic, etc) as Snooker or Table Tennis.

  3. Lewis

    August 4, 2008 at 5:11 pm

    Actually your wrong.

    Alot of purists would rather see the American invented “NASL Shootout” as you call it than the PK version invented by FIFA. If we must break ties the American version which MLS also had for years tests skill and actually gives the keeper an advantage rather than deciding the games based on pure luck.

    This piece is insulting to those of us who like American sports. Those of us who have listened to you trash non collegiate American sports on your various podcast appearances, understand where you are on this point. The premise of this piece can be argued but tossing in the bit attacking American sports was simply petty and stupid and undermines your other well argued though flawed points.

    For someone who has been so eager to point out the numerous failures of English players in MLS and the failure of American players in England claiming the two football cultures are incompatible why write a piece like this. Are you claiming that America should adopt a more English model, because that contradicts even your statements today on the radio after this piece was apparently written?

  4. tampasoccer

    August 4, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    Yet another one lamenting the “good’ole days”, when the grass was green, the light was bright, and we were all friends. I personally dislike Manchester United(a euphimism), but did you by any chance see last season United’s goal(goal of the season for me)with the interplay between Rooney and Tevez, the backheel pass and killer shot? How is this “Americanized”, and ugly?
    I for one cannot wait for the season to start. And I do sympathize with Wigan, but I can’t wait for the season to start not because of them, but because of Torres, Deco, Tevez, Ronaldo, Berbatov, and all the other magicians on the field. I am not getting excited about Titus Bramble and Michael Brown(although the latter is not a bad player).
    Face it: it is the best football money can buy, and in less than 2 weeks millions will tune in. The spectacle and global phenomenon called the Premier League dwarfs any “Major” leagues in the US.

  5. jm

    August 4, 2008 at 12:20 pm

    I agree with much of what ProsperoDGC said, and indeed, Goldblatt’s book was going to lead off my post as well!

    I guess I just don’t understand what exactly you mean by this English charm, and the “way the game was meant to be played.” This is a phrase we see all over the place, and I generally distrust it. Original intent alone is insufficient (the game was “originally meant” to be played with many different runs, which ran the gamut from contemporary football to rugby!), and so clearly there is some additional factor there that makes one particular way of playing better. And that’s the load bearing assumption, and it is not defended here.

    Even worse, I worry that this argument falls into the old stereotypes of what makes the English game “English.” Why in the world should there be a way of playing the game that is decidedly English, and that should remain English? There might be a set of traditional values which English players and fans have clung to, but that does not settle the normative claim that these values ought to be respected. Too often pundits fall into the trap of assuming that these sets of traditional values are internal to Englishmen themselves. These kind of jingoistic national myths are common in all societies, and are bankrupt pretty much everywhere. There is no reason to believe that you are taking this line, but this is the bad claim that pundits use to sustain the inference from the descriptive claim to the normative claim – and in this essay I do not see any way to get from one to the other. This goes back to the initial point – what is the English way of playing and why is it so good?

    Which brings me to a smaller point, but which I think is relevant. Your discussion of rule changes strikes me as a bit odd. There are surely some cases of rules being created because of one or two teams, but most rule changes are designed to restore competitive balance, or to improve the entertainment value of the product. These are all going to be debatable on their own merits, but what licenses a general condemnation of these kind of changes? Again we seem back to an unargued for assumption that there is an initial state to the sport which ought to be respected.

    The ire given to American sports seems rather odd in this piece, particularly since it rests on a bunch of claims about what “Americans think” and what “Americans want.” American sports are very popular globally. I’d like to just rubbish these claims, as without a source any claim that begins with “large undifferentiated group X thinks” are likely to be nonsense, and it is factually false that American sports are globally unpopular (they are not hegemonic, nor dominant, but that would be a silly standard) – the MLB and NBA have wide audiences in Europe and China, and the NFL has a substantive global audience as well. Yet they seem to be load-bearing in this argument, because they prop up the claim that common rule changes are inherently bad. This is an auxiliary argument for the dogma that the classic English game is superior to modern incarnations, and it too does not seem to hold any water.

  6. ProsperoDGC

    August 4, 2008 at 11:40 am

    If you haven’t already, I’d STRONGLY urge you to go and buy David Goldblatt’s “The Ball Is Round: A Global History of Football” ( and read it very carefully. As he demonstrates, England gave the world football but it’s no more an “English game” than the Internet is “American”.

    The idea that English leagues should somehow cling feverishly to an ill-defined brand of football which is somehow more “English” (by which you appear to mean more “honest and workmanlike”) is the same brand of thinking that created the collapse of the British industrial empire: insisting that “our way” is the best way, and all those damn foreigners are cheats and scoundrels.

    There have been plenty of cheats and scoundrels throughout the history of the English game (which, incidentally, wouldn’t have become the world’s game had it not been for the Scottish, in particular). To claim that undesirable influences have invaded solely from abroad is xenophobia of the worse sort. More alarmingly, it demonstrates a complete lack of knowledge about the history of the game and English culture.

    England has won the world cup once, and for good reason. Not because we cheat less, or because we’re more honest and “workmanlike”, but because we have not played the game according to the rules that everyone ascribes to. Instead, English players spent years drinking and smoking and eating ludicrously while the Italians, Germans, Brazilians, and others took more care about their preparations for games and themselves. That “workmanlike” culture you seem to adore lauded men who could scrap and fight but sneered at the artistry of the game. While English players ran like chickens with their heads cut off, the Brazilians and Germans and Italians and French used strategy, tactics, and guile to overcome such simple-minded opposition.

    I’m English. I love England, and I love the English game. I also see that it has flaws. But, for God’s sake, man, get your head out of the sand and stop tilting at windmills. The Premier League isn’t going to stop using foreign players or investment any more than you or I will stop using this AMERICAN invention called the Internet. The only solution is to embrace it, extend it, develop it into something that is imbued with the best of the culture you adore, and don’t demand that it stand still so you can feel all comfortable and cozy about it.

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