A couple of days ago, I posted a quotation from Marcello Lippi to the effect that because English teams always use the same tactics, the press has to resort to “passion” and “inspiration” to tell one coach from another. In drawing attention to this, I wasn’t casting aspersions on the entertainment value of British football, as some comments seemed to imply. I was making a gesture towards the discourse that surrounds British football. I’m doing the same again today. What follows is also taken from The Italian Job:
I was privileged to spend several hours with both men (Arsene Wenger of Arsenal and Alex Ferguson of Manchester United) in researching this book. I found Wenger passionate and Sir Alex cultured. Yet these sides of their personalities rarely come across in the media. Why? Because they do not fit the stereotype. There is Wenger, the real-life person, and then there is Wenger, the character in the on-going media soap opera. The same applies to Sir Alex. A cultured, intellectual Sir Alex would spoil the story-line, as would a passionate, over-enthusiastic Wenger.
But the issue is not just the stereotyping. It’s one of personalizing. Whenever Arsenal played Manchester United for most of the past decade it became Wenger v Sir Alex. Amazingly, given the array of superstars on the pitch over the years, the ‘story’ – more often then not – was about the two managers. When one beat the other, it was because somebody had been ‘outfoxed’ and had lost the ‘mind game’. Never mind the twenty-two men on the pitch. It happens with players too, of course. I’ve been told it’s something they teach you when you become a journalist. You’re told to seek out the ‘human side’ of the story and make it personal. If a striker scores a hat-trick against his old club it’s about ‘revenge’. If a team loses, it’s because the manager ‘failed to inspire them’. But sometimes – in fact, most of the time – there is no ‘human’ side. No great personality turned the tide, no riveting mental battle was won, no personal demons were exorcised. It is simply the fact that one team outscored the other. Maybe they were better tactically. Maybe they were more skilful. Maybe the referee helped them. Maybe they were lucky. Maybe it was some combination of the four. But it is more than possible that the result had nothing to do with ‘bottle’, ‘inspiration’, ‘determination’ or any of the other dozen or so mental factors that are generally discussed in post-match interviews in England.
This distorted, limited discourse is not just restricted to the press. It’s the level at which the game is discussed in every pub and living room in the country, almost every club boardroom and it’s the level of most of the decision makers in our game. I’ve said here before that although we want to win (the World Cup, the European Championship, whatever) we don’t want to be clever in and around football. We’re an intelligent nation, almost too much of the time, and football is one of our spaces to be stupid in. And that’s the problem. There are entire dimensions missing from the understanding of the game in the country of its birth. To get another World Cup, we’re going to have to recover those missing elements. As things stand, it’s not just that we aren’t interested in recovering them. We don’t even know they exist.