Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Britain, Europe, and 4-4-2

Further syndication from the Touchline Bawler - go and read, there's much more than what I'm posting here!:

In The New Republic's World Cup blog today, Zachary Roth observes a big difference between English football culture in 1990 and 2006:

And in reading All Played Out, Pete Davies's fascinating insider account of England's Italia '90 campaign, I've been struck by the way that the tactical debates of the day were dominated by arguments over formations. Specifically, 4-4-2 was just assumed in England, and I think elsewhere, to be brittle, defensive, and unsophisticated. After our slow start, Bobby Robson was pressured by fans, the media, and even his own players and coaches to switch to a sweeper system, which was seen as being more flexible, and more attacking-minded: in short, more continental. Today, things could hardly be more different. Brazil uses 4-4-2, as do many of the most creative sides in club football. When England plays poorly or unambitiously (not that that's happened lately of course) there's no belief that a sweeper system would change anything. How and why did this change, I wonder.

1990, of course, was a very different time for English football. There can be little doubt England were the poor relations of Europe at that stage. We had not emerged from the stain of hooliganism; the game was seen as vulgar in many quarters of English society, and its supporters worse still. In material terms, too, England was shut out, with its teams being banned from European competition following the Heysel disaster. Especially amongst those segments of the press who disliked the vulgar, violent nationalism of England supporters, 3-5-2 and its European sophistication seemed to offer a viable, presentable alternative.

(As a side note, those who did embrace 4-4-2 did so largely from the perspective of a little Englander - we're different, and we don't care. It's an attitude that still pervades. Mike Bassett: England Manager contains a wonderful scene where the normally hapless Bassett reverses his team's bad fortunes by taking on the media at a press conference: "England will be playing four-four-fucking-two!")

Fever Pitch, the increasing gentrification of the game and its increasing respectability as a middle-class interest changed much. The English league maintained its usual pace, but much of the violence of the play, and the archetypal midfield enforcer, began to slip from view. An influx of money meant that England didn't lose its best players to foreign clubs, but was competing in the marketplace to bring them to Britain instead. And the ending of the Heysel ban meant that English clubs were competing - and, towards the end of the decade, regularly beating - some of the cream of Europe. A sweeper system no longer had the mystical allure of the unknown.
I wonder if some of this sporting attitude towards Europe are indicative of the national mood of Britain, and its attitude towards Europe more generally. Football is the one major sport where Britain really does compete directly with Europe; can the unconscious attitudes of people in football reflect more conscious political activity?

The early 1990s saw a great ambivalence with Europe - the Major government flirted with the ERM, agreed to the Maastricht treaty, but was ultimately uneasy about the concept of the EU. Not opposed to it in principle, but there was a feeling that Britain was different. Can analogies be drawn between that and feelings towards 3-5-2? It was those who write in the broadsheet newspapers, or who write books about World Cup who supported a sweeper system; the more popular feeling invoked the "bulldog spirit". We play 4-4-2 - that's our way, and if the others don't like it, well, we don't care!

The increasing feeling that the English way could succeed - indeed, could attract leading footballers to its own league - reflects a broader change towards the outright hostility to "Europe" expressed by the majority of the population. The ideology espoused by UKIP is one of isolationism and a retreat from just about any political dealings. Breathtaking in its political naivete, perhaps, but indicative of a wider belief that England is great, and that it doesn't need Europe to be great, either. That there have been renaissances in rugby and cricket, too - two quintessentially British Empire games - perhaps is further evidence that England is more confident in itself.

Talking football, however, is now no longer just the preserve of the masses. It possesses a substantial middle-class following - a far cry from the dog days of hooliganism. Part of its renaissance, however, has taken on a peculiarly English character. The story of English football in the 1990s is the rejuvenation of English teams, English players, and an English spirit. Is it any wonder that a sense of Englishness has developed not just in the UK, but with regard to Europe as well?