The basic British style always has been power and speed and attack; defensive play was considered a necessary evil, and no one paid much attention to it. The idea was to drive the ball down the field and bang it into the net. "Let the ball do the work," managers like Billy Wright of London's Arsenal team tell their players. "A good fast ball will beat four men, but if the individual tries to beat four men, he'll fail nine times out of 10." The British tradition is to roll up the score, lads, and give the fans what they want: action and goals. Says the Tottenham Hotspur manager, Bill Nicholson: "If we get a one-nil lead we try to make it a two-nil lead as soon as we get the ball again. We figure that's what we're there for."
Enter the big, bad foreigners, with wholly new ideas. The record is depressingly clear: in seven World Cup competitions the finalists have been Uruguay, Italy, West Germany, Brazil, Argentina, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Sweden. England has never been able to reach the finals in a game as English as sherry trifle. There are many reasons, most of them involving the British attitude that the game is theirs and they'll jolly well play it in their own way. For the first time in the history of the World Cup, the finals will be played in England in 1966, and most likely a foreign team will win again. "We're simply not interested in playing defensive football as it's played in the other countries," says Alan Hardaker. "Because defensive football is dull football. The average attendance at a game in France is only about 7,000; in Italy it's about 9,000. So you can see they're killing their own bloody football with defensive playing, and if our managers copy them they'll kill our football, too. I have always said that if we win the World Cup we'll destroy English football. That's because we'd have to play defensive football to win, and nobody in England would put up with that."
The archetype of what the crusty Hardaker was talking about is football Italian style, where a single goal is held to be so perfect and rare a phenomenon that as many as nine of a team's 11 players are likely to jam into the defensive area to protect the lead. The result is dwindling attendance and a sport which must continually be propped up by infusions of money from the rich Italian industrialists who own many of the teams. An Italian match in which three or four goals are scored is considered a wild, disorganized, anarchistic event and is likely to send the Italian sportswriters into Olivetti depressions over the dismal future of the game in Italy, just as dirty play troubles the British writers.
The fact remains, however, that defensive soccer, as it is played in almost every country except Britain, is winning soccer. "My God," says Hardaker, "it stands to reason that if you pack nine men in front of your own goal and they're all in the right place, it's bloody impossible to score, isn't it? But people come to me after a game like that and they say, 'Gorblimey, what a boring game for the spectator!' "
The top 10 teams in the world, by consensus of even the British press, are from other countries. One expert, Eric Batty, lists them in order, based on last season's games, as Internazionale of Italy, Santos of Brazil, Independiente of Argentina, Bologna of Italy, Real Madrid of Spain, Benfica of Portugal, Milan of Italy, Palmeiras of Brazil, Nacional of Uruguay and Anderlecht of Belgium. All of these teams tend to play a more defensive game than England's, though not all are as classically defensive as the Italians. The Brazilian internationalists, two-time World Cup winners, bring their samba culture into the game, with relaxed, uninhibited play marked by dashing runs by their brilliant forwards Garrincha and Pel�.
The Hungarians play a systematized game based on the short pass: a flowing, artistic gypsy game. The Czechs and Yugoslavs tend to play a similar Iron Curtain style of football. The Germans are practitioners of the give-and-go, with one player pushing off a short pass to a teammate and racing down the pitch for a return. The trouble with the Teutonic type of game, says Arsenal Manager Billy Wright, former captain of the English international team, is that "it can be anticipated, because the Germans are a disciplined nation, and they do what they're told." Other countries bring their own national characteristics into the game, but always against a backdrop of stern defense.
Whatever the opposing international styles, Britain cannot seem to cope with them. The British international teams persist in the slashing assault and the porous defense, thus guaranteeing failure. To make matters worse, Britain is not a nation but a collection of nations, and when international sides are chosen Britain fields four teams: England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. The great English professional clubs like Tottenham Hotspur, Manchester United and Arsenal are decimated when international competition begins. The highest-priced player in Britain is Denis Law of Manchester United, a towheaded firebrand of 24 who has been bought and sold for three-quarters of a million dollars in his short career. When international competition begins, Law leaves England and plays for Scotland, just as Blanchflower used to leave England and play for Northern Ireland. This is the opposite of other countries, where players from all over tend to implode into a single international team, and where hundreds of thousands of lire and pesetas and escudos are spent to buy star players from abroad. The object is to form a winning side for the greater glory of the motherland. In Britain the glory lies in beating another Briton. The international team is almost an afterthought.
But in this young season of 1964-65 the pressure of the foreign brand of football is finally beginning to blow across England, and here and there a team is shifting over to the close-to-the-vest techniques of the continent. Hardaker echoes the sentiments of the Football League's traditionalists on the subject of this insidious development: "Lately I have counted as many as six passes on the football field and not a single opposing player has been beaten. When the last man's got the ball they've still got the same players to get past. The way I was brought up, you never parted with the ball until you drew somebody towards you, which left somebody else open, or until you saw that you could beat somebody with a pass. But nowadays some of our halfbacks are beginning to act like trade unionists. They'll run 15 yards with the ball and then they'll say, 'That's my lot, I'll give it to the next bloke.' Why, they're trying to take a very simple game for very simple people and make it into a bloody science. Football is a game that must be played off the cuff. We'll never beat the Continentals until we start playing our own game better; we'll not beat them by copying their style. You'll never get an Englishman to play like a Frenchman."
As Hardaker speaks—a miniature Arthur Godfrey with a Yorkshire accent—his arms flailing about to make his points and his stubby fingers thumping the table, one hears martial music playing in the back of one's mind, and one tries to figure out the tune. "The English game is the most exciting," Hardaker says, and the martial tune grows louder. And suddenly one has it. The music is Rule Britannia, There'll Always Be An England! and God Save the Queen, all going off in the brain simultaneously in a crash of strident forces, an all-out assault on the senses, like English football at its best.
As the battle over the Continental soccer technique vs. the British technique comes more and more into the open, certain professional managers in England have started muttering that it is far more blessed to win than to lose, even if a team has to play defensively to do it. Every such avowal is greeted by loud boos from the British press, which holds, along with the entrenched authorities of the sport, that the object of soccer is the entertainment of the millions of fans who make it go. "There is no other justification for professional football," Donald Saunders wrote in the
Daily Telegraph and Morning Post a few weeks ago. "Most soccer crowds patiently seek parking places, queue for overcrowded buses and trains, sit in cramped stands and stand out in all weathers because they hope to be entertained."