No, England Did NOT Invent Football (Soccer) As We Know It

A soccer official claims that the game has been "stolen" from England. Here's why that argument is flawed.

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Phil Noble / Reuters

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney (L) challenges Fulham's Brede Hangeland during their English Premier League soccer match at Old Trafford in Manchester, northern England, March 26, 2012.

In a performance rendered all the more tragicomic by his accompanying rant about the availability of alcohol in Qatar and his unplanned plunge into a decorative pool, Premier League chairman Sir Dave Richards two weeks ago insisted that England had been robbed. “England gave the world football,” Richards complained at a sports security conference in Qatar. “For 50 years we owned the game … We were the governance of the game. We wrote the rules, designed the pitches and everything else. Then, 50 years later, some guy came along and said: ‘You’re liars,’ and they actually stole it. It was called FIFA.” (FIFA is the game’s global governing body.)

Well, yes, and no.

England invented a game of running around kicking a ball in the mid-19th century (although the Chinese claim to have played a version centuries earlier). They called it “football,” not because the ball is played with the feet, but because the game is played on foot rather on horseback. The term “soccer,” more commonly used in America now, was old English slang based on shortening “Assoc.,” a reference to the game’s formal name, Association Football (as distinct from Rugby Football). The point, however, is that the game first played in Sheffield in the mid-19th century — and throughout England for many decades hence — bears little resemblance to football as we know it today. And England, sad to say, has spent most of the past century trying, mostly in vain, to catch up. (Most of the top players and coaches in Sir Dave’s English Premier League are not, it should be noted, actually English.)

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If the pinnacle of football civilization today is Barcelona FC — whose intricate passing, close control and off-the-ball movement has made them not only the most formidable team in the world, but also the foundation of the Spanish national team that currently holds the World Cup — the English game of the of 19th and early 20th century was cro-magnon by comparison.

Back then, a player would run with the ball towards the opposing goal and his teammates would run alongside and behind him, hoping to pick up the loose ball if their man was tackled — after which, they’d run with the ball with their teammates around them, or else the opposition would do the same in the other direction. (You know, rather like 4-year-olds do when they’re first learning the game.) The idea of moving the ball towards the opponent’s goal by passing it from player to player was invented in Scotland (which, if you know your football geography, is a different country) in the early 20th century. Curiously enough, although entirely unrelated, six of the coaches in the English Premier League today are Scottish, more than from any other country (just four are English).

Scottish coaches took their style to Central Europe in the 1920s, creating the foundation for the legendary prewar Austrian national team, whose star forward, Matthias Sindelar, may have been the first “false 9,” wearing the center-forward’s number but drifting deep in search of the ball. These players ghost across the forward line in a way that made life impossible for defenders accustomed the more rigid formations: today, the role is exemplified by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi or Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney. That same interwar Scottish-influenced game in Central Europe laid the foundation for the “Magnificent Magyars,” the Hungarian national team led by the genius Ferenc Puskas, whose 6-3 thrashing of England at Wembley in 1953 (with the new “false 9,” Sandor Hidegkuti, scoring a hat trick) showed the Brits just how far they’d fallen behind the top teams in the global game. Sure, England won the World Cup on home soil in 1966, but that tournament win was a unique exception in the history of international football, which had England fans in 1996 singing of “30 years of hurt,” which would now of course be 46 years of hurt.

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The era of Brazilian dominance that began with Garrincha, Vava and the precocious teenager Pele destroying all comers at the 1958 World Cup owes a significant debt to Bela Guttman, an itinerant Hungarian-Jewish coach (whose career as a player included a brief spell with Brooklyn Wanderers in New York City). Guttman took the Austro-Hungarian game and transplanted it, coaching some of the world’s best teams, like Brazil; he also had influential spells coaching in Italy and Portugal.

Even the current Barca game so dominant in Europe and at the World Cup is not entirely indigenous. It is a product, in fact, of the influence of the Dutch “Total Football” of the early 1970s — the emphasis on quick one-touch passing, movement and positional flexibility that made the Netherlands the outstanding team of both the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, even though they won neither. (Curiously, the “Magnificent Magyars” had also been by far the outstanding team of the 1954 World Cup, but lost the final to a fitter and better-drilled German side.)

Rinus Michels, coach of that 1974 Dutch team, had actually arrived at Barcelona in 1972, bringing with him the philosophy of Amsterdam’s legendary Ajax football club. Critical to the Dutch game is the belief in instilling it in youngsters before puberty in the world-famous Ajax academy, which for decades was to football what Hogwarts is to wizardry. Michels was joined at Barcelona by Johan Cruyff, the most sublimely gifted footballer the world had seen since Pele. Cruyff’s number 14 became a universal icon among footballers for playmaking game intelligence. Excelling there as a player, Cruyff later coached Barca himself (one of four Dutchmen to do so after Michels), and remains an influential figure on the club’s board. And loads of his countrymen have also played at Camp Nou — indeed, if Barca today doesn’t have any Dutch players has only one Dutch player in a fringe role in its squad, that’s because it has so successfully implemented the Ajax “grow your own” model, with the core of its current team having come through its own academy, La Masia, which was modeled on the Dutch one.

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Cross fertilization is a staple of a game that has become steadily globalized in recent decades. Even England’s style of play and technical abilities have been substantially improved by the presence of so many foreign players and coaches in their top league, and they’re unlikely to be humiliated by any team as they were by the Magyars in ’53. Then again, the global dissemination of basic tactics and organization means that, these days, even minnows like Trinidad or New Zealand can go to a World Cup and avoid humiliation. England is still struggling to mimic successful playing styles in a game it claims to have invented. It has had two foreigners coaching its national team in the past decade, to no avail.

Now, it plans to give the job back to an Englishman. But the real challenge in teaching England to play top-tier competitive football doesn’t lie simply in coaching the national team; it lies in the emphasis on technique in coaching England’s 6-year-olds; in teaching the 9-year-olds to pass and move in an evolving geometry that keeps the ball away from opponents; in teaching the 12-year-olds to look up and see the whole pitch, and their teammates and opponents on it, through the eyes of a coach, and so on. In other words, to import “foreign” virtues at the grassroots, as Barcelona did in the 1970s.

To suggest football was somehow “stolen” from England is to imply that Mozart owes royalties to the crude percussionists of the cro-magnon era. Better to figure what England could “borrow” from modern football, if it is to become internationally competitive any time soon.

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