Having watched yet another highly depressing England world cup defeat at the hands of silky skilled Continentals, I am tempted to throw my hands to the heavens and scream ‘Why, oh Lord, why can we never play with style and grace? But I don’t because I’ve just finished David Winner’s excellent book ‘Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football’ which amusingly and brilliantly explains the deep-rooted English attitude to the beautiful game and goes some way to showing why it’s so joyless and lacking inspiration.
According to Winner the first people who played the game were 19th century upper class boys at public schools. They were encouraged to play sport to increase their strong manly figures but also to dissipate certain ‘urges’ to ‘ruin’ themselves.
Not that excessive sporting activity was enough for some headmasters. Some even sewed up boy’s pockets to make sure hands did not come into contact with private parts.
This sexual repression, when linked with a strong dislike of effeminacy, ensured that the English game was energetic but devoid of any passion and sensuality. Which are exactly the kind of things you see in teams like Brazil or Italy who actually win major tournaments.
Watching the Brazil team of the sixties and early seventies is to see a team with rhythm and feeling akin to watching a really good dancer move across a dance floor. In short, it’s sexy. In England during the same period though such skill was admired by some of the more discerning players if anyone was to try that sort of thing they would be kicked off the field (as indeed Brazil were when they appeared in the 1966 World Cup in England)
Over decades we had developed a philosophy of spirited on field combat, which occasionally strayed over into almost criminal assault.
Indeed one player hit the legendary Everton 1930’s forward Dixie Dean so hard in the groin Dean actually lost a testicle (Don’t worry 17 years later he spotted his on field assailant in a pub and gave him a sound beating)
The story shows the desire for an English player to be hard, uncomplaining and repress his own skills for the good of the team.
Any players who didn’t do this were in trouble. England boss Alf Ramsey warned Stan Bowles, a highly-skilled 1970’s number ten, “if you don’t work hard I’m going to pull you off at half time.” To which Stan replied, “Christ, at Man City all we get is a cup of tea and an orange.”
Suffice to say he wasn’t picked again.