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Jack Olsen
October 12, 1964
The story of British Football
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October 12, 1964

Six Dreary Days-then Saturday

The story of British Football

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With all this inner seething and violent partisanship, there remains in the Liverpool fan, and indeed in all the fans on all the grounds of England, something oddly inconsistent with extremism and totally unlike the feelings of fans in the United States. The American spectator, in one secret part of his heart, lives for the high stick in hockey, the blind-side tackle in football, the high-and-tight fastball stuck in a batter's ear.

The British are the other way around. This is no phony morality that is trumpeted in the history books and belied in the grandstands. The Englishman wants hard play, but more than that he wants clean play. He applauds wildly for a good move, whether made by home team or enemy. He boos all shows of poor sportsmanship, however mild, and a dirty player, regardless of his skills, is likely to be sold off at the earliest opportunity. Formal soccer began in the private schools of England, and there is still a schoolmasterish quality to the game. The referee is Mr. Chips, and a nod of his finger under the nose of a naughty player is usually more than sufficient to humiliate the offender into proper behavior. If a footballer is guilty of a more heinous act, such as casting aspersions on the hallowed ancestors of the referee, he is likely to "have his name taken." The ref halts play, whips out his black notebook and writes down the player's name, while 50,000 spectators boo and the offender writhes in the discomfort of a boy about to go off to detention hall. In terms of absolute punishment, name-taking is nothing; one's name must be taken four times before one is subject to Football Association censure (i.e., before one is called before the headmaster), and even then the punitive action is likely to amount to a dressing down. But the name-taking ceremony is reckoned to be a severe punishment unto itself. "When the referee takes your name," says Blanchflower, "it's a shameful thing in the public eye. Socially, it's bad for you."

When a game does result in rough play, the English press is likely to use up half its story space the next day commenting on the shame of it all and wondering whatever is to become of football. And what are typical offenses leading to such outcries of alarm? I examined the files of the Football Association in London and reeled with horror at some of the crimes: "Ungentlemanly conduct...showing dissent from the referee's decision...making ungentlemanly remarks...." Clearly, this is no game for Eddie Shack or Eddie Stanky.

It is the contention of soccer students that the actual play of a game is something no one can analyze with accuracy, simply because it is played almost entirely by instinct and feel. Blanchflower, like most other British sports experts, holds that it is impossible for any organism except a fly to see all that is going on around it at any given time. However, this contention does not keep thousands of Britons, including Blanchflower, from analyzing the game to a fare-thee-well and even a bit beyond.

To the fledgling observer the most important difference between soccer and a sport like American football is that the soccer player is the captain of his own soul; he cannot be replaced after the game starts, and he cannot be coached from the sidelines. Blanchflower has watched both American football and British football, and he puts the difference bluntly: "You have a New Frontier culture and you go out and start cutting down trees and building a new empire, and you become big fellows, don't you? Big dumb fellows. So you play a big dumb game like American football where the coaches do all the thinking and the quarterback does all the calling and they've got the monkeys running around for them. You see, you're a more aggressive country, you like the physical, you like the pounding and killing them and tromping them into the earth. Your games tend to be coach vs. coach, whereas ours are team against team and player against player."

Whatever overstatement there may be in this argument, it is certainly true that soccer football makes strong demands on the gray matter of the participant. It is a game of lines and arcs and trapezoids and dodecahedrons, and every player, no matter how far he may be from the focus of action, must always be trying to beat his man for the Lebensraum that leads to goals. "We try to stimulate movement off the ball," says Bill Nicholson, manager of the Tottenham Hotspurs of north London. "This game is played in the main without the ball, 'off the ball.' There are approximately two players on the ball at any given time, and 20 who are not. These 20 should be moving about with intelligence. It's all a matter of trying to find spaces by proper movement." The soccer player finds himself applying parlor-game doublethink to opposing players hundreds of times in a single match, while thousands of eyes study the battle of wits, and their owners prepare to unloose a massive guffaw on the loser. Blanchflower recalls one such experience: "There was a guy played at Barnsley, a right half he was, and he was a big ox and I didn't know his ways. He'd only just arrived. And here he came running along with the ball and I was thinking which way was he going to run, to the left or to the right? Well, he ran straight over me and scored. That was the one possibility I hadn't considered. He just hadn't the intelligence to avoid me and I had too much intelligence to realize he wasn't going to try."

Something similar happened to the inside forward in Henri de Montherlant's Poradis � l'Ombre des �p�es, but with a happier result. The inside forward in the play tells one of his young students: "You know we're always told, 'When you take a throw-in, pretend to throw the ball to one of your teammates, so that the other side concentrates on him, then quickly throw it to another man who is uncovered.' It's a trick as old as the hills. Well, then, I picked up the ball, I stared into Beyssac's eyes and then...then threw it to Beyssac! What chaos among the Red Lions! By instinct, seeing me pick out Beyssac, they'd covered every one except him, and there was my Beyssac racing away...."

It is such mano a mano confrontations, going on simultaneously all over the pitch, that make soccer the inscrutable game that it is and create a reportorial atmosphere in which 15 English sportswriters can see one game and write 15 different versions of it, some of them harking back to Richard Coeur de Lion and some of them analyzing the game in terms of the current situation in Kuwait. Like the spectators, they get from the game whatever they are seeking. But to the uninitiated, soccer resolves itself more into personal skirmishes for the ball. Two players confront the ball, their legs slashing away, nipping it to one side and the other, frisking around and on top of it like balancing artists, faking and jinking, twisting and curving in ballet dances of muscle and sinew. A ball is kicked toward a player at top speed; he lets it plop into his stomach and fall dead, or gently heads it down to his feet, or stomps on it, bringing it to a full stop. ("Well taken!" shouts the crowd. "Well taken!") A forward comes infiltrating down the field, beats everybody but the fullback, who suddenly slides through the forward's legs, taking the ball out the other side with him, while the fans, whatever their partisanship, applaud their approval. A team is awarded a free kick; one player places the ball, backs off and runs full tilt at it, then hops nimbly over the ball and a trailing player comes up and boots it: soccer's version of hockey's drop pass. ("A useless bit of deceit," a fan mutters.)

Until one learns what to look for, and some never do, one is likely to come away from the game with a kaleidoscopic collection of impressions, totally unassimilable, a gallery of friezes: the goalie hanging in midair at a 45� angle, the ball in his outstretched fingers; a tangle of players carved in marble in front of the net; sprawled soldiers in shorts lying on the ground in states of disarray; the referee's cheeks puffed out while he signals a stop in play and the teams merrily ignore him; a man contorted in pain, immobile, a trickle of blood at his hairline.

Later one begins to detect differences in style: subtleties, nuance. One discovers that there are teams that prefer to drive the ball deep down the field with a single kick and hope to win the ultimate scramble for it; teams that have super-duper wingers like Stanley Matthews, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, who can carry the ball single-footedly down the sideline before looping a pass to the forwards bunched in front of the goal; teams that specialize in position play, with a fullback bringing the ball up 20 yards, then passing off to a halfback and retaining his position, and so on down the field; teams that pass and pass and pass, cuties in spikes, until one begins to wonder if anyone knows how to shoot.

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