The evolution of football

2011-08-27 00:00

EVERY night our household gathers around the TV to watch football. Well, it seems like every night. EPL matches used to be played on Saturday afternoons and none were shown live for fear crowds might be affected. We’d huddle around the telly and wait for the scores to come through on the teletext. By 5 pm the tally would be complete, whereupon a grave newsreader would convey them, the lilt of his voice reflecting the result.

That night we’d wait for Match of the Day. In the sixties (contrary to certain youthful opinions, it was the 1960s) football could not be shown before 10 pm. Cup finals were an exception, as was the ’66 World Cup, a dirty, defensive and muddy affair saved by the success of a home side.

As soon as the familiar music began entire families watched highlights from the two chosen matches on small and often black-and-white screens. Studio discussions were brief and consisted mostly of sharp points made by Jimmy Hill, a chinless wonder responsible for ending the minimum wage for football players. For an eternity players were paid £10 a week, never mind that crowds were huge. Sportsmen had little clout.

Now every encounter is shown all over the world and the giants of Spain, Italy and Germany can also be followed. On Wednesday inhabitants went to Harry Gwala to support Maritzburg against Pirates and hurried back to follow Arsenal’s fortunes in Europe.

In Roman times sporting events were described as sideshows staged to pacify the masses. A bloodthirsty lot, they rejoiced in the sight of lions devouring humans and uneven tussles between soldiers and Russell Crowe. But sport is no mere sideshow; it is an entertainment driven by popular demand and satisfies people’s need to compete as soap operas fill their need for stories.

The EPL reaches beyond sport. It is the most closely followed event in the world. It has been a brilliant marketing success driven by the accessibility of the language and the fame of the main teams. No other game is as simple and universal as football. No other country has as many famous clubs, all of them talking English (although, with the Geordies and Tynesiders, it’s a close-run thing).

And the EPL is growing. Leading clubs visit Africa, the United States and the Far East in the pre-season. Outstanding players from China, Korea, Japan and the U.S. are signed. Back in the sixties Clyde Best of West Ham was the only black player running around. Now most teams are mixed. India is about the only large country still to join the party, and the game is rapidly growing. Ten years ago Sportstar hardly mentioned football. Now it devotes pages to it.

Inevitably the leading EPL clubs have become large businesses sustained partly by crowds and mostly by TV contracts. Some of the clubs have been taken over by billionaires able to spend fortunes on managers and players, a change that makes the clubs dependent on their largesse. Chelsea and Manchester City could not last a week without their benefactors.

Yet football is not entirely lost to the money men. It remains a team game, and a team is more than a collection of players. Sir Alex Ferguson often talks about players needing to embrace the history and culture of his club. He played a big part in creating those things. Manchester United had sunk into a drinking outfit when he arrived and it took him years to turn them around. Now the tea is everything. Watch Wayne Rooney assist his defence and know it.

Standards have risen. Long passes routinely find their mark and are controlled in an instant, short passes are used to weave spells in a manner calculated to impress Harry Potter. Pitches are better, referees fitter, skill is protected and balls are lighter. Of course, players still dive and act, but at least they are exposed.

It’s been a fine start to the season, with Manchester United playing with renewed energy, City sifting resources adroitly, Arsenal looking handy and purposeful, Chelsea belatedly trying to add pace to their power, Liverpool hoping to revive and Spurs continuing to tease long-suffering addicts.

Did I mention Spurs? It seemed like a good idea at the time. In the sixties Spurs had Jimmy Greaves, a noted goal poacher with, it emerged, a penchant for slow horses and empty bottles, and Pat Jennings, a daring Irish goalie with vast paws. Youngsters like to associate with success. It has proved to be a life sentence

Now everyone has a team, not just the locals. My household mostly backs United, but a rump support Chelsea and Arsenal, while two brave souls have adopted City and Liverpool. Spurs do not merit a mention. Fathers have a lot of power, but not that much.

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