It’s well known that England rarely get any praise from their European neighbours when it comes to football. When a favourable appraisal is uttered the content often belies its condescending, patronising tone. But Brits are Brits; stiff upper lip and all that yeah?
This morning it’s the turn of Dutch wizard Johan Cryuff to lament the decline of aestheticism in English football:
“The Italian coaches are influencing the philosophy [of England]. There are the examples of [Carlo] Ancelotti, [Roberto] Mancini and [Fabio] Capello.
England now have many similarities to Italy. The mentality has changed and now they are only interested in the result.”
Well let’s put his statement to the test. Has England’s jingoistic pride and the permeating influence of the cash-driven domestic game made the country forget about what makes the beautiful game oh so beautiful?
As Cryuff has already mentioned, other nations have previously succumbed to the paranoia inducing affects of the win-at-all-costs mentality. Italy, a nation universally known for their obsession for defensive perfection, were stricken with the debilitation in the late 1940’s and have suffered from it to a varying degree ever since.
Cantenaccio, as their definitive defensive system became known, required five defenders, including a sweeper – or libero, protected by a solely defensive midfielder. As the formation became predominant among the higher echelons of Italian football, teams tended to field a single play-maker, whose responsibility it was to initiate the counter-attack by spraying the balls to the wings or long to the centre-forward – Luis Suarez of La Grande Inter of the late 1960’s is the greatest example; in essence, he resembled an American football quarter-back.
This is obviously the extreme manifestation of defensive paranoia. And, although Italy still have a predominantly defensive culture – an cultural inheritance from their collective experiences in the Second World War, the country has also provided some of the more wondrous attacking displays in World Cup history.
England, by comparison, have many creative influences and have never been similarly inhibited by a defensive idiosyncrasy. They’re certainly not afraid to attack at the expense of their clean-sheet. Even with an Italian coach, England kept only four clean sheets in qualifying for this year’s World Cup and have conceded a goal in each of their last three international friendlies. If England have indeed lost the aesthetic perspective of the game, it certainly isn’t down to an Italian-inspired defensive obsession.
Following the exit of players like Alfredo Di Stefano (who went to play for Spain), and an atrocious 1958 World Cup – in which they lost their last group game 6-1 to a mediocre Czechoslovakian team – Argentina similarly encountered a cultural conflict between la nuestra, the thrilling and aesthetic culture of Argentinean football, and la garra, the claw, fighting spirit, which morphed into the win-at-all-costs mentality.
Fighting spirit became an almost literal aspect of Osvaldo Zubeldia’s Estudiantes side after his arrival in 1965. Under Zubeldia, Estudiantes became the embodiment of Ongania’s fascist Argentina; every game was a struggle for victory. Claims that one player took pins onto the pitch to jab at the opposition and that players researched their opponents to find psychological frailties became common.
When Manchester United came to town in the Intercontinental Cup final, George Best was punched; Bobby Charlton required stitches; and Nobby Stiles suffered a cut eye from a head-butt before being sent-off.
Again, England are well distanced from this example. Their disciplinary record is hardly anything of note. Even in the modern game, England could never be accused of being aggressive or underhanded. If anything, England could be accused of the opposite.
The fact is, England have not shown a recent disregard for aestheticism because of the increasing Italian influence or because of a recent cultural conflict.
English football has, rather, perpetually treated aesthetics, like technical skill, with a deep mistrust since football’s inception. English football, instead, has always been about pragmatism; were the means must not outshine the ends.
English journalists often disparaged the early Danubian passing game of the 1920’s as unnecessary and wasteful, and English coaches ultimately dismissed it in favour of the direct approach. It was a decision that would prove costly as England were beaten handsomely 6-3 at home to Hungary (the exporters of the Danubian method) in 1958.
Yet, despite the success and the greater virtues of the passing game, the direct mentality is still inherently self-evident in the English national team’s propensity to field a ‘big man’ upfront for the long ball.
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