Is Football Still About the Beautiful Game?

21/11/2011 12:09 GMT | Updated 19/01/2012 10:12 GMT

Over the past ten days, England have beaten the reigning world champions for the first time in over thirty years. Three days later, they beat Sweden for the first time in colour. Two momentous results - the national team on the up again. Hip hip and tally ho. Yet the two big football stories of the week were about poppies and racism.

We live in an age where football is no longer particularly about football. Of course each weekend, football matches are still played, but the preceding and succeeding discussion invariably revolves around frippery and froth, the latter quite literally in the case of Antolin Alcaraz a fortnight back.

It isn't purely a Premier League thing either. Take last summer's World Cup for example, the quadrennial fiesta for the beautiful game, the caviar isolated from its sturgeon. Yet I would imagine I'm not alone in recalling vuvuzelas and that psychic octopus far easier than I would recall the beaten semi-finalists. So when did football stop cease having anything to do with the actual game itself?

It has become a cliché to acknowledge that Italia '90 was responsible for football opening itself up to the wider UK public. It doesn't make it any less true however. Yet why exactly did this happen - did more people suddenly appreciate the intricacies of Bobby Robson's deployment of Mark Wright as a sweeper, than they had Ray Wilkins sideways passing four years earlier? Football is surely something one meets as a child, in the playground, jumpers for goalposts. It is there our lifetime's passion begins. It seems unlikely that any tournament would suddenly turn a man (or a woman) onto a game that they had previously recoiled at, or at the best, shown little inclination towards. There are no more people playing the game now than there were 20 years ago. So what exactly are the new breed attracted to?

The clue to the new attraction lies in what Italia '90 actually refers to, when discussed in these sociological terms. The new wave of football fan wasn't drawn in by Gazza's turn against Holland, by Dragan Stojković's greatest dummy of all time, or even by Barry Davies allowing the word 'Cannigia' to hang for a lifetime during his goal of the tournament against Brazil. Rather, Paul Gascoigne's tears, his comedy breasts on the plane home and Nessun Dorma, were the reference points. Football was becoming dumbed down, stripped of its tactical and on-field complexity (arguably mirroring the debasing of all British arts and science over the past 20 years).

A more inclusive national game, meant the game itself took a back seat. And one major development within professional football over the past ten years in particular, has helped drain the football from football to an even greater extent; the decline of genuine competition.

When Manchester United won the 1968 European Cup, one fan told the following night's Manchester Evening News, that the experience was, "like travelling to the moon." Their Champions League final victory over Chelsea in 2008 cannot possibly have felt the same - after all, Fergie's men would be back in two of the next three finals. For the big clubs, cup finals are no longer accessed via space-shuttles, but rather via tube trains. Miss it, and there will be another one along in a minute. Protecting the value of what occurs on the pitch, can only be done, if it is worth anything in the first place.

A post-Italia '90 dumbing down of what football is truly all about, amplified in recent years by the monopoly of a handful of big clubs in the major competitions has left football exposed; now merely a peg on which to hang political attitudes or the latest celebrity.

Public debates about racism only happen through the prism of FIFA. A glamour girl can reach new heights of fame by steamrolling her way through the Manchester City midfield. As the last two weeks have shown, even the war dead must now be remembered through football.

One of Bill Shankly's less famous quotes was, "For football, all you need is some green grass and a ball." As this week has shown, those simpler days are alas, further away than ever.


The Arsenal revival continues apace, just one defeat in 12, with many of their fans now optimistic that a top four finish is possible, and indeed probable.

Yet the acceptance of Arsenal's relative decline is curious. The failure to win a trophy since 2005 was always mitigated by Arsene Wenger's belief in the future - that the nascency of his side meant it was only a matter of time before they would win the league once more. Years of famine were tolerated by the supporters, because of the assurance that plentiful seasons would follow. Basic stats however, show that this promise of greater things to come is no longer feasible.

Of the side that beat Norwich on Saturday, only two outfield players were 23 or under. By contrast, the last Arsenal XI to win at Carrow Road in 04/05 contained six players fitting that age criteria. Back then, Wenger could justifiably silence his critics by claiming the future was red, white and cockney. Now however, Arsenal are miles away from winning the title this season, and it appears the promise of tomorrow no longer exists. So what exactly is the plan Arsene?

Just before I go:

A brilliant article in last month's When Saturday Comes described the five stages of football fandom. Get hold of a copy and read it - the best piece of football writing I have read in a long time.