Mark Godfrey

What have the British ever done for us?

Mark Godfrey
What have the British ever done for us?

This article originally appeared in Issue 21 of the now defunct Football Pink fanzine.

The British are used to feeling hated by their European neighbours. The reality, of course, is very different. Here DAN BILLINGHAM looks at some of the ways our football history and culture are loved and admired on the continent.

July 2028: “Enough!” says Bayern Munich’s CEO, banging the table. There’s no point even entering the Champions League any more. Only one nation’s teams have any chance of winning the competition since the Premier League TV rights were last sold for £20bn, PSG’s Qatari investors demanded their money back, and the Spanish top two declined after Ronaldo left and Messi retired. The eighth English win in a row came as Manchester City lifted their fifth European title in May 2028. Even Cardiff City got in on the act, seeing off underdogs Roma 3-0 in the Europa League final with 90% possession – leading manager Neil Warnock to controversially say: “Italians should stick to gelato as they’re crap at football”. The 16 leading continental clubs meeting secretly in one of FIFA’s abandoned bunkers in Switzerland are agreed. A new tournament should be set up that is restricted to clubs from the European Union, without the Brits. Fair financial competition will be reintroduced overnight. “What have the British ever done for us, after all?” asks the Bayern CEO. “Well” reflects another club boss, “nothing whatsoever, apart from…”

Making the rules of the game – yes OK. The British invented football in the nineteenth century and after 150 years of tactical advancement and progress in sports science, produced Sam Allardyce. So what? Well, football wasn’t made in a vacuum, and the passion for sport plus interest in rules that brought functionaries together in Rugby, Cambridge and Sheffield in the Victorian era to document how this game should be played is part of the legacy we are left with today.

Providing the lexicon – surely one of the greatest things about football is you really don’t need a common language to play or watch it together. If you find yourself as an English speaker having a broken conversation about football with a speaker of another tongue, then the influence of Britain on the global game might just help you get your point across whatever the language – with terms such as El Gol (Spanish) Ofsayt (Turkish) and Der Derby (German) to name a few.

Full houses – football stadiums are built to be filled. When they aren’t, and we spot the distressing sight of blots of bright plastic chairs, such as when a few Arsenal season-ticket holders hide away from the Emirates, we’re outraged. Empty seats are a regular backdrop to matches pretty much anywhere outside of England and Germany though. According to figures from the Transfermarkt website, 28% of seats at the Nou Camp were empty on average in Barcelona’s record-breaking near undefeated last season. Excluding Spurs’ relocation to Wembley, West Bromwich Albion had the largest share of empty seats last season in the Premier League – just 9% on average. Lazio had a decent season last year, pushing for a Champions League spot till right at the end, hitting more goals than any other Serie A team yet averaged only a 32,000 attendance in a 73,000 stadium.

Away fans – we might indeed not get atmospheres like we used to. An indispensable part of the distinctive passion at British grounds has been, and still is, provided by those hardy souls who spend every second weekend schlepping up and down motorways, lounging around service stations, walking past pubs they’re explicitly not welcome at, soaking up the varied frustrations of thousands more home fans, getting insulted with crude local stereotypes, getting mooned at on the way back and – usually – seeing their team lose. You do get away fans on the continent too, of course, but nowhere else do they travel in such numbers as in Britain.

England fans – hands up if you love England fans. Anyone? Glaziers in foreign cities looking for a post-tournament windfall maybe. Anyone else? There are thankfully plenty who can recognise the incredible support huge numbers of normal fans have provided to our dog’s dinner of a national team over the years, while realising the idiots among them aren’t representative of the whole. People I’ve spoken to in Germany and Austria tend to have a surprisingly positive view of enthusiastic England fans. Back in 2006, German tabloid Bild rated all the fans of the World Cup competitors and named England supporters the best of the lot.

Christmas football – Louis van Gaal may have called it evil, but Arsene Wenger said he would cry if our mad practice of packing fixtures in over the festive period was ended. It’s a massive marketing and broadcasting success these days. By following the simple logic of playing tonnes of matches while other leagues rest, football followers from other countries are tuning into the Premier League in their droves over Christmas.

Modern stadia – the new grounds of the Premier League era have provided safe, accessible and pleasant environments for fans to focus completely on football. Small wonder that when Juventus built their new stadium, they went all out for a British style – bringing the fans close to the pitch in the way that is so familiar here yet envied on much of the continent.

Old stadia – we’ve still got plenty of gems teeming with history too. There’ll always be something special about fans thronging the narrow streets around Anfield, packing Newcastle city centre on the way to St. James’ Park or strolling along the Thames to Craven Cottage. That’s to name just a few old grounds that like many others are deeply rooted in their communities. 

Wembley – the name that conjures up memories of expectant strolls towards the Twin Towers or arch for many Brits is an iconic, magical word the world over. Pele called the place the cathedral of football. It’s seen it all – World Cup, Euros, Champions League and Olympic finals. In other spheres too, taking a fond place in music history with events like Live Aid. I once ended up on a suburban street in Amsterdam called Wembleylaan.  

Shirts – if you watch a high-profile match anywhere in Europe, there’s a good chance you’ll see kit that owes a debt to the fashions of Victorian England. You’ve probably heard of Notts County’s kit being sent to Juventus in 1903 as their pink shirts kept on fading in the wash. Sparta Prague adopting Arsenal colours is less well known. Barcelona decided to be a bit more hipster altogether and take their blue and maroon from the rugby team of Merchant Taylors’ school in Merseyside.

Songs – at the last count, You’ll Never Walk Alone had spread from its home at a swaying Kop and established itself as a regular crowd-rousing tune at Celtic, Feyenoord, Borussia Dortmund, Mainz, 1860 Munich, Lugo, FC Tokyo and Bali United. What more fitting tune could have spread among the masses in Berlin greeting the German national team on their return from winning the 2014 World Cup than Football’s Coming Home?

Long balls – Charles Hughes was the coach who single-handedly shaped decades of English football with his analysis that most goals are scored with three passes or less. Those who didn’t get around to reading his official FA coaching manual soon got to grips with its simple ‘just smash the thing’ philosophy. Despite much sneering, if used selectively, direct balls – as they tend to be called if a good team plays them – can still be mightily effective against a press or to launch a break. Graceful even – such as Banega’s floated long pass and Messi’s masterful conversion against Nigeria in this summer’s World Cup. Liverpool’s temporary penchant for long balls certainly did them no harm in their 5-2 win over Roma in last season’s Champions League, either.

Workhorses – Gianluca Vialli compared differing attitudes to football by writing: “In Italy, we demand results; In England, it’s effort”. From Bremner to Pearce, Terry and Gerrard. Slogging your guts out is always going to make you beloved by your fans in British football. The demand for effort is what has made our football high-octane if a tad helter skelter – all of which has surely done no harm to the appeal of the Premier League overseas. 

Characters – former Barnsley goalkeeper Lars Leese wrote in 2004: “In Germany, English football is so, so popular because of the bits and bobs around it. It's not just high-intensity football, in Germany we don't have characters like Keane or Gazza or Cantona.” That’s not to forget Georgie Best and Robin Friday. Maybe it’s the following for football on these shores that brings these characters out, maybe the media machine builds them up. Either way – as Balotelli and Diego Costa have shown in recent years – the Premier League offers you the chance to become a legend for what you do both on and off the pitch.

Outstanding players – Matthews, Law, Charlton, Best, Keegan, Owen. Counting it as a whole, the UK has produced more Ballon d’Or winners than any other nation. It’s difficult to imagine a Brit in contention for the award in the next year or two, but Gareth Bale’s Champions League final goal is a reminder we have our share of skilful players capable of individual brilliance.

International football – in a top display of Victorian banter, FA secretary Charles Alcock placed adverts in Scottish newspapers in 1872 challenging their country to an international match – thus planting the seed of the sometimes dramatic but always gripping human-rights issues evading juggernaut we know today as the international game.

FA Cup – not content with one great idea, Alcock proposed a national cup competition in 1871 and went on to captain the winning team in 1872 while also providing the venue for the final – The Oval – having also taken a job at Surrey Cricket Club. If the thing has lost some of its lustre, it did so from the unique position of being arguably as big as the league. Scratch under the surface of the tedious debate about lost magic and the FA Cup is a competition that still delivers – note Rochdale rocking, silliness in Sutton and Wigan’s wonder win in the last few years.  

The thrill for smaller nations who have beaten England – We might have seen our own national team as a bad joke over the past half century or so, but beating England, given our football culture and role in making the game, is a historic achievement for many. Norway’s ‘your boys took a hell of a beating’ win in 1981 was echoed in the delirium that marked Iceland’s victory in Euro 2016. Poland’s 2-0 win at Wembley in a decisive 1973 World Cup qualifier remains the proudest moment in its footballing history. Legendary Polish rock band Czerwone Gitary wrote a football-themed song for the 2006 World Cup, Polska To My, that begins with the line ‘Do you remember that evening at Wembley?’ – yet Poland beating Brazil to finish third at the subsequent 1974 World Cup somehow doesn’t warrant a mention.  

TV money – surely continental clubs are envious of our TV riches, aren’t they? In some cases (Barca and Real) they are. In other cases, they see an opportunity. Since the current £5.1bn TV deal started in 2016/17, the Premier League has spent over €4bn on transfers, at a net loss of over €2bn. In a crude side-of-a-bus style calculation, this effectively means that two years into the three-year deal, close to 40% of the TV cash has already left the country (figures from Transfermarkt). La Liga, the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 have all spent around €1.5bn in that time and have more or less broke even. Portugal’s Liga NOS has spent a combined €250m on transfers and raked in close to €750m – likely making Jorge Mendes one of several very happy men in the process.

Fair play – hello, shaky moral ground. Let’s not bother pretending our boys were all Bambi-eyed paragons of virtue before Jurgen Klinsmann signed for Spurs in 1994 and first imported diving. The argument that English players don’t cheat is as flimsy as Michael Owen’s legs tended to be within a couple of feet of a defender’s boot in the area. Suffice to say, there is a strong history of moral standards and moralising in our game. Along with hypocrisy by the bucket load, this background has played its part in producing some decent guys though. Let’s leave the last word with an Italian friend of mine, on England captain Harry Kane: “He’s an old school gentleman who does not squeal when tackled, quite a rarity these days.”

The Old Firm – there are plenty of tasty derbies around Britain, but none can match Celtic vs. Rangers for sheer cold-blooded antagonism. It’s an event that combines rich football history with venomous social differences, supercharged by a real passion for football. Given how starved Scottish football has been for success on a European stage lately, the enduring madness for the game in Glasgow is testament to the power of this rivalry. Henrik Larsson said El Clasico and Feyenoord vs. Ajax are pretty much child’s play in comparison.

Ironic humour – a lot of nonsense gets chanted on the terraces, but if you happen to be a supporter of the 99% of teams that never win anything, a touch of irony can go a long way in keeping your spirits from hitting the floor during endlessly recurrent bouts of despair and/or frustration. What could be more quietly uplifting than hearing a stadium bounce to the sound of (picking a club completely at random): “And it’s Sunderland! Sunderland FC! We’re by far the greatest team, the world has ever seen!”

DAN BILLINGHAM - @D_Billingham