In 2000, Diego Maradona published his autobiography El Diego. The English translation came out in 2004 and Martin Amis reviewed it in the Guardian. A lovely read (the review) which, not only gives a deep view into the flavour of the book (I haven’t read it), but also illuminates the quixotic personality of one of the greatest footballers ever. Since it is written for the Guardian with its British audience, obviously Amis needs to write something about the two goals.

In South America it is sometimes said, or alleged, that the key to the character of the Argentinians can be found in their assessment of Maradona’s two goals in the 1986 World Cup. For the first goal, christened “the Hand of God” by its scorer, Maradona dramatically levitated for a ballooned cross and punched the ball home with a cleverly concealed left fist. But the second goal, which came minutes later, was the one that [England manager] Bobby Robson called the “bloody miracle”: collecting a pass from his own penalty area, Maradona, as if in expiation, put his head down and seemed to burrow his way through the entire England team before flooring Shilton with a dummy and stroking the ball into the net. Well, in Argentina, the first goal, and not the second, is the one they really like.

This post is not about South Americans and their style of football, however brilliant and entertaining they may. This is about the football of England, the exact opposite. But this opening piece on Maradona is important. It gives you the contrast. Gary Linekar scored a goal in that match in 1986. He ended the tournament with six goals and got the prize for being the top scorer. They are all hard working goals. Nowhere near as glamourous as the ones created by Maradona. But while the aesthetics may not have been there, one still respected it.

English football for a long time was one about good old guts and gore. There is a famous photograph of Terry Butcher coming off an international match (a WC qualifier against Sweden) in a shirt soaked in blood. When asked about it, he claimed  “Off the pitch I was always an ordinary, mild-mannered bloke. But put me in a football shirt, and it was tin hats and fixed bayonets.” 

Nick Hornby, who made football popular as a literary theme, in his essay for The Thinking Fan’s Guide to the World Cup reflects on his relationship with English football. He speaks of the ’80s when the “English disease” i.e. football hooliganism made him reflect on his nation’s sport

“In the mind’s eye now, England games during that decade were frequently only just visible through a cloud of tear gas.”

[…]

“And so, perhaps understandably, some football fans started to feel a little conflicted about the national team. In 1990, when England played Cameroon in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, it wasn’t hard to find people in England – middle-class, liberal people, admittedly, but people nonetheless – who wanted Cameroon to win.”

English football fans apart, the key trend that has happened in England has been the EPL. The emergence of club football has made spawned “professional, media-aware, occasionally petulant and very, very rich” footballers in complete contrast to the likes of Terry Butcher.

“The England fans who went to the friendly match against Argentina (played, as is the way of these things now, in Geneva, for reasons that remain obscure) were still singing their “No Surrender to the IRA” song, and there’s more than a suspicion that they’d rather watch Terry Butcher and his fixed bayonets than David Beckham, a man who, after all, has been photographed wearing a sarong. But then, that’s England all over at the moment. We’d still prefer to be bombing the Germans; but after sixty years, there’s a slowly dawning suspicion that those days aren’t coming back any time soon, and in the meantime, we must rely on sarong-wearing mutlimillionaire pretty boys to kick the Argies for us. We’re not happy about it, but what can we do?”

(note: this book was published in 2006, as a lead up to the WC then)

As a football fan since 1982, I had the same changes in my appreciation of the English. From a solid respect for the likes of Linekar, Butcher, Shilton and Gascoigne (in my mind, the last of the “tin hats and fixed bayonets” generation), it has become complete scorn and disgust for the likes of Lampard, Terry, Rooney and co. (Probably the only EPL player who I place in very high regard is Ryan Giggs. But he is Welsh.). Admittedly, they are good footballers. Beckham, even at his age, is still the best ball bender in the business and his accuracy with the overhead pass is, as yet, undiminished. Rooney still has the wherewithal to be a goal scoring playmaker in the lines of a Ronaldinho. Yet, there is still a scorn and schadenfreude when one sees England or an English club lose a game. The on-cue English quarterfinal exit via tie-breaker in 2006 was, if anything, an affirmation to Nick Hornby closing his essay with the words “Allez, Les Bleus.

Events of last week triggered me to write this post. Across the world, a number of football managers of various clubs retired from the profession, finished their contracts with one club & signed up for another club or were sacked from their jobs. A few of these manager events happened in England as well.  At the presentation at Old Trafford, the Mancunian announcer called upon Sir Alex Ferguson as “the greatest British football manager” – lots of achievements in the past but more importantly lots of football expertise left behind as a legacy for the future.

But if you saw the outburst of sentiment from Indian football fans, it was reminiscent of the anguish felt by fans at the passing of MGR, NTR and the like. It was the end of the world for them. End of football for sure. Subhash Bhowmick ending the season with yet another I-League title, this time with Churchill Brothers, was of no interest to them. If only these people had seen English football in the 1980s.

It is quite funny to see Indian football fans junk their own football in the country and tie their loyalties to England and English clubs while Englishmen like Hornby question their own loyalties and comfortably settle for the French partly due to the presence of Arsenal players in the team – Vieira, Petit, Henry, et al.

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