Magazine article The Spectator

Not Very Clever

Magazine article The Spectator

Not Very Clever

Article excerpt

Why can't we pass? Why on earth are English footballers incapable of playing in the manner of our Continental rivals? You don't have to be interested in football. You need not know anything about the game. But a six-year-old child observing the two games - against Portugal and Romania that have resulted in our ejection from the Euro 2000 tournament would have seen that there is a fundamental difference between our approach and theirs. We did as we always have done: one chap draws back his foot and wallops the ball most of the way down the pitch, and the other chap hares after it.

When the Portuguese players wove their magic, it was as though England was a collection of white bollards. When the Romanians took possession, the ball seemed to ping for minutes on end from yellow shirt to yellow shirt, and the English had no answer. Since this country last won a major tournament, in 1966, academics have bent their brains to the problem of English footballing incompetence. Roger Taylor, a lecturer in the science of football at the University of Liverpool, has hazarded that the kick-and-run British game may be connected with Anglo-Saxon individualism. It was the Continentals, with their more collectivist mentality, who developed the art of passing, notably, he says, the Hungarians during the Communist period. Somehow, however, as anyone who watched our performances will agree, this does not quite explain the sheer primitiveness, the brutal failure of imagination, that characterises the English approach.

A fuller discussion is offered by Simon Kuper in Football Against the Enemy (Orion, L6.99), where he makes some interesting remarks about the relative academic attainments of footballers in Britain and on the Continent. English football still prides itself on being solidly and exuberantly working-class. To become a professional footballer in this country, you are not expected to have any qualifications except talent. You leave school at 16, and you get on with football. You may have a Ferrari and a `mansion', but you certainly do not read books. On the Continent, where, in any case, the state education system tends to be better, the picture of the professional footballer is more varied. It goes without saying that the entire German team can speak English, though not a single member of the English team can speak German.

Then there are Continental footballers who are, at least by British standards, positively swotty. There is Dennis Bergkamp, the Dutchman, who holds that country's equivalent of A-levels. There is Slaven Bilic, the Croat who played for Everton and West Ham, who holds a degree in law. …

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