Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Soccer Revolution - A Football Forecast from the Fifties

The Football Attic welcomes a new guest writer in the form of Dominic Bliss, editor of the excellent blog, The Inside Left. Here, Dominic tells us how he discovered an old football book that deals with some very modern-day issues...

My girlfriend originally hails from a beautiful Cotswolds village called Willersey, which I look forward to visiting every time we get the opportunity to pay a call on her family. It has sandstone houses, a village pond, two local pubs (where people really know each other) and a red telephone box.

But clichés aside, the area has always struck me as a wonderful place to live, except for one thing – the near-total apathy towards football that pervades there. I can’t recall how many times I have rushed to a Gloucestershire pub to catch kick-off, only to find the TV tuned into a presumably crucial racing card or a one-day county cricket match.

16 Pages of Plates? Awesome!
Unfortunately, I’m one of those people who often get erroneously described as a ‘mad sports fan’ by distant relatives when I’m only really bothered about football. It makes for awkward conversations that begin with questions like ‘What about the rugby then?’ or ‘Who won the grand prix?’ and end with me shrugging like Alan Partridge being introduced to the new BBC current affairs editor.

So it was a surprise for me – a brilliant, proper smile-inducing surprise – when, on a stroll around the picturesque town of Stow-on-the-Wold, I stumbled across a small selection of old football publications in a dusty, perfectly disorganised bookshop in a cobbled side street (Evergreen Livres, since you ask).

“We don’t get much interest in our football section here,” the owner told me, barely audible above the cricket commentary emanating from the radio set on the cabinet behind his head. Nevertheless, he went on to talk about his side, Blackpool, with me for a few minutes as I paid for a couple of musty gems. The first, a 1958 copy of Brian Glanville’s classic, World Cup, co-written with Jerry Weinstein, and the other a 1955 edition of Willy Meisl’s Soccer Revolution, a truly insightful book about the rise and rise of the game overseas at the expense of the unimaginative English, that is as relevant now as it was when he penned it in the mid-part of last century. As a geek of all things historical and football-related, I was grabbed by this book in particular and I have since discovered why it is considered a bit of a cult classic.

Settling down in a nearby pub – one with an outdoor toilet and dimpled, handled pint glasses – I stepped over the dog lying by the fire and started to leaf through the book, written by the younger brother of the ‘Godfather’ of Austrian football, Hugo Meisl, who had been coach of that nation’s great ‘Wonder Team’ of the late 1920s and early 1930s.

That title is rather prescient...
Meisl the younger was resident in England and determined to see his adopted home restored to its former footballing greatness following some major setbacks, not least twin defeats to Hungary (3-6 and 1-7) in 1953 and 1954 - the first, at Wembley, representing our country’s first defeat on home shores.

But this article is not simply meant as the diary entry of a football anorak (although it could probably be read as one). Regularly, within this critical analysis of the state of the English game in the mid-Fifties, I discovered observations seemingly so ahead of their time it astounded me. Here was an Austrian discussing the scourge of diving, feigning injury and time-wasting in English football. Yet received football wisdom tells us that diving has somehow ‘crept into our game’ along with the ‘influx of foreign stars’ over the last decade or two.

Apparently not, for in one instance Meisl comments that he is “yet to see a referee give marching orders to a soccer criminal in a ‘faint’”, going on to say: “Only the best [referees] deny him a penalty when his acting deserves some tangible reward. Many an actor, and I am not thinking of hams, could learn how ‘to die’ impressively on the stage by watching some soccer stars who have perfected this art.”

Remember this is a commentary based largely on English club football in 1955, fully 35 years before Italia ’90 and all the subsequent incidents of ‘continental gamesmanship’ that apparently dragged our wholesome game down with theirs. It got me thinking, we must have a serious nostalgia - or xenophobia - issue in our attitude towards the dark arts within football.

Either that or Meisl was mistaken about what country he had seen these incidents occur in? Surely that was more likely. After all, how could play-acting have been commonplace in a nation where crowds of supporters are regularly heard calling for someone to drag the latest (presumably imported) writhing ‘prima donna’ off the pitch so the ‘real men’ can get on with the game? Well, once again, Meisl was there before me, recalling how the pesky foreigners had once again shown us the way forward on that score.

“We all have seen the player with a bleeding nose, or just rubbing his back or thigh, a few yards, often literally one step, from the goal-line,” quips the former Austrian international later. “He just has to signal to the ref, step over the line, and will receive treatment without disturbing the game. That never happens here. It is not allowed to happen. The referee beckons the trainer on to the field, who comes running on swinging what we call his ‘magic sponge’.

“Why we need such a complicated health service when we can see every Saturday how a simple wet sponge cures the most terrible ills in a jiffy (compared with the weeks that similar cures take in hospitals or clinics) is difficult to grasp,” he goes on, tongue now firmly inside his brilliantly Fifties cheek.

“The trainer takes his man in hand, but does not take him off the field, oh no! We are in for a hurried session of treatment taking anything from one to five minutes. Then the player usually continues none the worse for his accident, often considerably refreshed.”

Meisl also airs his frustrations at the inadequacies of injury time and those occasions when it has cost teams dear; he even dedicates a page or two to the pros and cons of the ‘new ball’. I’m sure he also saw complaints about balls crossing goal-lines without a goal being given but that’s pure conjecture on my part.
The point is this: football was never perfect and nor were footballers, formations, the laws or the way any of the above were implemented. The value of the win, and what lengths it is acceptable to go to in order to achieve it, has always been interpreted differently from man to man. But the country you play your football in does not make you dive or tackle harder, it is sheer folly to assume it would do, and back in 1955 at least one learned spectator was already making those points. What it can do, however, is imbue into players a certain culture – just look at the enduring system of play at Barcelona, benefiting the Spanish national side so much at the moment, or the long list of legendary Brazilian dribblers. But these are forms of play, not behaviour.

The latter is something more likely to be governed by personal circumstance and choice – and to compare the on-pitch antics of a continental European, South American or African footballer with those of an Englishman is pointless and can lead only to prejudice. Some players will look to gain an advantage through any number of tricks or cons, while other players will not. But to assume nationality or some misplaced notion of ‘foreignness’ is behind this differentiation is, frankly, absurd.

Indeed, if these observations show us anything, it’s that the talking points of football either remain steady or are somehow cyclical, re-emerging whenever the latest trends touch a particular element of the game – whether it be new balls, new laws or new systems of play.

Perhaps Meisl’s most eerily prophetic points were made in assessing the mentality of English football and the influence this has on an ingrained culture of play that puts the emphasis on non-technical aspects of the game. Alluding to the inability of England internationals to play the same tidy series of short, accurate passes as the majority of their opponents at international level, the author points to the twin English mantras of ‘safety first’ and ‘speed at all costs’.

“After the war crowds began to yell: ‘Get rid of it!’ when a player tried to get the ball under control and do something sensible with it,” wrote Meisl, who might, in all honesty, have been commenting on the people surrounding me during any of England’s recent displays.

“Exceeding the ‘speed-limit’ as they were, the task of controlling the ball and taking stock of the situation was beyond most of them. The player took the crowd’s advice, and quickly got rid of the ball, but in two out of every three attempts it would go straight to an opponent or over the touchline. ‘But look how the game has speeded up!’ manager and fans could tell each other joyously. Speed at all costs!”’

Don’t misunderstand me, I realise the games Meisl was drawing his conclusions from were almost unrecognisable from the brand of football we are treated to these days. I also recognise that several of England’s players over the years have been at the same technical level as the best overseas ball players. But what is still contemporary in this 55-year-old work is the notion of an underlying English footballing mentality that seems stubbornly resistant to change.

Our thanks go to Dominic for this excellent guest post. If you'd like to share your nostalgia memories with us, get in touch. Just drop us a line to admin [at] thefootballattic [dot] com and we'll take it from there!


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