July 23rd 1966, the final whistle has just blown in the Quarter Final match of the World Cup between England and Argentina. England manager Alf Ramsey is on the pitch preventing his players swapping shirts with their opponents, who he goes on to describe as ‘animals’. Argentine captain Antonio Rattin had been dismissed in the first half for either swearing at a referee with which he shared no common language or looking at him funny, depending on who you believe. This led to an already niggly match becoming an all-out battle at times. England won through and of course went on to win their first and so far only international tournament. Ramsey’s actions at the end of that quarter final are those of the archetypal Englishman’s reaction to gamesmanship or perceived foul play.
Fast forward, to 27th April 2011. Barcelona, the greatest team on the planet have just beaten their greatest rivals, the biggest club on earth, Real Madrid 2-0 in Madrid. Lionel Messi scored a goal of pure beauty but that is not what the game is remembered for in England. Football writers of England united in their apoplexy over the tactics employed by the two clubs. They reserved special indignance for Barcelona, describing their methods as ‘grotesque’, ‘nauseating’ and ‘sickening’. Football fans across England joined in this attack and people were proclaiming the ‘death of football’. On the continent meanwhile, fans and journalists alike gave a collective shrug and wondered what all the fuss was about.
Attitudes in such contrast are not rare, by England’s very nature as an island, the people can be insular and extremely contrary to their continental neighbours. Go even further afield, to South America and the ‘dark arts’ are lauded as a special skill. Defenders still employ tactics that even mainland Europe wouldn’t stand for any more. In a recent Copa Libertadores match, Penarol’s veteran defender Dario Rodriguez fell to floor with the opposing winger, as he untangled himself he grabbed his opponents’ crown jewels and almost removed them. This went unnoticed by the officials and unsurprisingly Dario had the winger in his pocket (his balls were in the other pocket) for the rest of the match.
Officials play a huge part in this story of course. Is it cheating if the referee doesn’t see it? Basic human nature is to take what advantages you can. Diego Maradona’s handball and subsequent encouraging of his team mates to celebrate with him is seen as clever in Argentina and much of the rest of the world. England of course was outraged. Of course they would be, they were the wounded party. However, it’s surely as much the officials fault in this instance? There’s rarely been a clearer handball that they all contrived to miss so was Diego so wrong in taking advantage? Many referees bring these problems upon themselves, punishing the petty offences, the waving of imaginary cards and ignoring the players death rolls would be a start.
Of course, it’s important to remember that English football isn’t always innocent. Way back in 1954, Wolves took on the mighty Honved in a friendly at Molineux. Manager Stan Cullis had seen Hungary struggle on a muddy surface previously and decided that one way to give his team an advantage against the slick passing Magyars was to heavily water the pitch. After Honved had taken a 2 goal lead within 15 minutes the pitch began to take its toll and Wolves pulled off a memorable 3-2 comeback win. Cullis famously declared his side the world champions and this was one of the decisive events in the creation of the European Cup. Jose Mourinho, todays finest proponent of mind games, making and taking of advantages and a man who isn’t afraid to water a pitch or leave the grass long, can’t even claim to have a trophy created because of him. He’ll be gutted.
It should also be pointed out that many of the English fans so outraged by Barcelona’s ‘insult’ to football are the same ones who over the years have watched John Terry, Rio Ferdinand, Steven Gerrard surround and harangue referees to get decisions. They have lauded and cheered the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Robert Pires, Didier Drogba, Nani and more as they have dived or otherwise ‘gained an unfair advantage’ to win matches and titles. That’s the difference. When decisions go in your favour it becomes very easy to take the stance of ‘the ref didn’t see it’. Still, the outrage at such events is common in England. A country that hasn’t won anything for years at international level. England, a country that is increasingly isolated in its criticism of FIFA. All the while, England’s global opponents are winning World Cups on the pitch and in the staging of them. England’s insistence of doing things the right way only gets you so far. Plucky loser status usually. Is it all about the game and how you play it? Or is it about being winners? Is it time for England to ditch one old saying, ‘it’s not the winning but the taking part’ in favour of another – ‘If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’?