The Best Time and Place… to be a Soccer Fan?

With the International break in the Premier League and the MLS having a week off before the cup final next week,Ii thought I’d take this opportunity to write about something a bit  fanciful. I was inspired by this wonderful article in The Economist’s sister publication Intelligent Life about the best time to be alive:

To all intents and purposes, the realists/statisticians/scientists among us would say it has to be today thanks to advances in healthcare and more liberal attitudes.  They are no doubt right but where’s the romance in that?! Similarly, if you were to apply it to soccer, you might say that today’s TV diet of wall to wall games of unquestionably high standard (Premier League, La Liga, Champions League) would be the best for the armchair fan.  But again where’s the romance?

I thought it would be interesting to look at some of football’s golden ages and then pick the very best. What would be yours?  Let me know in the comments!

1. The advent of Association Football  1867 – Hanging out with Kinnaird and his boarding school chums for the Big Bang moment in soccer!

Football had existed in one format or another for centuries in Britain and abroad (apparently there was a Chinese version for military training in 3rd century B.C.), but the catalyst for the beautiful game of association football was the enthusiasm of Alfred Lord Kinnaird and his aristocratic chums from Britain’s finest boarding schools.  It’s 1867 and the FA is sitting down to its first ever meeting at the Freemason’s Tavern on Great Queen Street in London (it’s still there, and a two minute walk from Covent Garden underground). The beer’s no doubt flowing, the room’s awash with Harrovians, Etonians – they’re arguing about the rules in pitch perfect Queen’s English.  It doesn’t feel like this is “the people’s game” when these gentleman of privilege are laying the foundations, but this is how it all begins.  Less than five years later England will be playing the first ever international against Scotland and soon working men in the big industrial cities will be spending their scant leisur- time alongside the pitch watching the game.

Some attendees at the Freemason’s will drop out of future meetings disgusted at the removal of carrying the ball and hacking.  They’ll go on to set up the Rugby Football Union. Those that stick around have the legacy of creating the world’s finest sport.  They couldn’t have dreamed how big soccer would become, but can you imagine how exhilirating it must have been to be one of those early enthusiasts and to set the wheels in motion, to light the spark?! “Mine’s a pint of Fuller’s Ale please old chap… now we really must talk about this using the hands nonsense…”

2. Madrid, 1945 – 1966

Living in the heart of Franco’s fascist nightmare might not have been especially wonderful, but if you were a Real Madrid fan, soccer would have been a wonderful escape.  Los Merengues’ new president Santiago Bernabeu has the vision to build a brand spanking new stadium and training facility. In 1955 he also has the brain wave of a European inter-club competition for the biggest and best teams.  Not a bad idea really, especially when Real go on to win the European Cup six times in ten years between 1956 and 1966 (five times in a row from 1956!).  And it’s not just the trophies that would have made this one of soccer’s most glorious nooks and crannies to exist in, it’s the players – attacking talent like Argentine Alfredo Di Stefano and Hugarian Ferenc Puskas.  Reliving the grainy highlights from the 1960 European Cup final at Hampden Park in Glasgow, it is clear to see that the “blonde arrow” Di Stefano and his teammates were pretty tasty soccer players and kept their fans well-entertained for a decade.

3. Britain 1966 – 1985

“This happy breed of men, this little world / This precious stone set in the silver sea” – well the denizens of John of Gaunt’s “other Eden” and “sceptered Isle” can’t have been very happy at all as the Spaniards dominated European football.  The average football fan was probably burning with shame.  We’d given the world football and it had taken it with both hands.  It wasn’t just club football where the Brits struggled to match the foreigners – Brazil were dominating the international game and England hadn’t been up to much (in 1950 they lost to the U.S. in the World Cup…ouch).  Puskas’ (see above) Hungary had humiliated England in 1954 beating them 7-1 with the great Real Madrid man himself scoring two.  England didn’t get out of the group stages of the World Cup in 1958 and then had to watch a 17 year old Pele take the world by storm. Fine players on the domestic scene like Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright and Tom Finney weren’t able to make England a world class outfit (sound familiar England fans?)

Then things began to change – the Sixties got swinging!  England won the World Cup on home soil in 1966 to put the home of football back on the international map.  Celtic became the first British team to with the European Cup by beating Inter Milan 2-1 in Lisbon (ten of the eleven players were born and raised in Glasgow!).  They were back in the Final three years later narrowly missing out to Feyenoord.  The year after Celtic’s triumph, Manchester United followed suit with Best, Charlton and co., decked out in their blue change strip, giving Eusebio’s Benfica a real lesson. Not just a triumph for English football but – with Paddy Crerand, Shay Brennan,  Tony Dunne and George Best in the side – a triumph for Scotland and Ireland too.

The British Isles were all of a sudden the epicenter of World Football again! England didn’t win the World Cup in 1970 but they created one of the most memorable games ever when they drew with Brazil in the group stages.  Pele vs Moore, that save by Gordon Banks.  Football hadn’t come home exactly, but it was certainly making a visit.  Then the Dutch invented total football and decided to mercilessly outplay everybody (especially Italian opposition) for a bit (see below).  But for the supporter in the UK, the game had more character than ever.

George Best was the game’s first popstar. Other like Kevin Keegan soon followed.  Brian Clough was emerging as manager at Derby County and his one-liners and bombastic boasting were bringing a color to the game rarely seen before.  Soccer stars were finding themselves on the front pages and on talk shows. And then a massive resurgence came.  Leeds reached the 1975 European Cup Final and were narrowly defeated by Bayern Munich (incidentally they won it the next year as well… not a bad period to have been in Munich swilling beer and eating sausage).That Leeds team had five Scots, four Englishman, one Welshman and one Irishman.

In ’77 Liverpool conquered Europe for the first time. They won again at Wembley the next year against Belgium side Brugge thanks to a Kenny Dalglish goal. They were also reigning supreme on the domestic stage, winning the league five times in eight years in the 70s. Clough’s Nottingham Forrest only won the championship in England once, but they won the European Cup two years on the trot becoming the fourth British side to lift the trophy.  Forrest’s second win was over Kevin Keegan’s Hamburg at the Bernabeu. Liverpool were winners again in 1981 before Aston Villa claimed the cup in ’82.  The Reds were back in ’84, however, beating Roma to create a streak that saw an English winner in the European Cup seven times in eight years. This truly was the golden age of English club football and a miraculous domination.

All empires fall and the English domination of European soccer was to end in the most ignominiuos of fashions. Hooliganism had been a growing problem in the UK in the 70s and 80s and at the 1985 European Cup Final in Brussels, Liverpool fans attacked a group of Juventus supporters who attempted to flee causing a crush and a wall to collapse.  39 Juventus fans died.  Unquestionably this was one of the worst moments to be a soccer fan. A real nadir.

English clubs were banned from European competition for five years but it took them nearly 15 to re-emerge as a major power.  The golden era ended abruptly and a under a cloud of shame.

4. Total Football – Amsterdam, 1970 – 1974

England had awoken from it’s tactical slumber to finally ditch the WM formation of the 20s.  But just as they did, the Dutch went and innovated a step further.  Total Football meant that, whatever formation you played, it should be a loose one and that any player should be able to take on any role within the team.  The team could move around freely, swap positions and still be competent attacking and defending.  Pressing, positional interchange and exceptional ball control and short passing were all cornerstones of the philosophy (interestingly the very things that there is such a dearth of in most England teams over recent years).

In the 1972 European Cup final the philosophy was put to the test as Ajax took on Itnernazionale (a shining example of Total Football’s antithesis, Catenaccio – Italian for “door bolt” and the name given to the defensive mentality that dominated Italian tactics).  Ajax ran out winners

There were sensational players about to make it work. The Ajax and Feyenoord team were awash with talent and combined into a formidable national side. Drunk on the intoxicating brand of football purism, the Orange-clad Dutch supporters expected to win the 74 World Cup and were encouraged as Cruyff and co outplayed all and sundry.  In the Final, West Germany’s first touch of the ball was the restart after they had conceded a goal!! But Total Football took a knock as the Germans beat the Dutch 2-1 in that game.

Cruyff’s legacy at Barcelona led to a similar philosophy in place there today.  It seems to be paying dividends for them.

5. United States of America – Summer of 1994

It started inauspiciously with Diana Ross fluffing her kick during the opening ceremony but the World Cup in 1994 was a revolutionary event for soccer in the United States.  Not only was it a wonderful world cup (Romario and Bebeto forming one of the best ever forward partnerships for Brazil, Roberto Baggio probably player of the tournament and then missing the spot kick in the final, Gheorge Hagi, Jack Charlton’s plucky Ireland team beating Italy in the first round, chemically enhanced Maradona), but it also inspired kids in the USA to consider soccer.  The New York Cosmos had folded back in ’85 and soccer seemed to be terminally ill here. The World Cup led to the formation of Major League Soccer and revolutionized how the game is seen.

For soccer fans at the time it must have felt like their dreams had come true – the world’s best players, packed out American Football stadiums hosting the beautiful game.  It was a sure sign that the game could be revived.  Young kids would want to play, people would want to watch elite players and pay to do so, companies would be happy to invest in the game and sponsor teams.  Amateur and professional soccer was on the cusp of a return.  It was time to dream big again.


1 Comment

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One response to “The Best Time and Place… to be a Soccer Fan?

  1. Andy Weeks

    Fascinating article. Always interesting to compare era’s?
    For the fan of a small club in West London I was tempted to say the modern game with its w-w coverage, beautiful pitches, fitter players. But then I thought back to the enjoyment of matches in the 50’s and 60’s. Not as fast, playing on mudbaths with a leather ball, maximum wage and players in “your” club who you knew were going to be around next season because they wern’t mercenaries following the money. And I saw England win the World Cup for the equivalent of £3.85(10 matches)!!! What more could you want? I’ll go for the Ken Coote era, what a player!

    By the way, just one factual error. England lost 1-0 to Brazil in 1970 having matched them in every way. That was the best ever England team. We will never see the like again, especially with a manager who picks Johnson at right back and won’t even have Micah Richards in the squad.
    Great article.

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