THE PREMIER League is a multi-national circus of talent that has – rightly or wrongly – transformed football in England into the most intensely marketed, lucrative and, arguably, most controversial league across Europe.
Football in Britain relies heavily on foreign players, to such an extent that its critics claim it has damaged the fabric of the England national team.
But the situation English football finds itself in today is a marked contrast to the xenophobic game we once knew, characterised by periods of isolation, suspicion of foreigners and nervous trips to “the continent”. At one point, football folk even talked about leaving UEFA in the 1970s.
Notwithstanding the very conspicuous racist element of some football grounds down the years, and the reaction to the introduction of black players in the 1960s and through to the 1980s, Britons eyed the antics of footballers in European countries such as Italy and Spain, not to mention behind the “iron curtain” with no small degree of wariness.
This sentiment went back decades and was never more apparent than when Italy came to London in 1934 for the infamous “Battle of Highbury”. Italy had won their second World Cup a few months earlier, a competition that England took no part in as they had left FIFA in 1928.
Although the game captured the imagination of the public, the English saw Italian footballers as something of a curiosity. Their star man was Inter Milan’s Guiseppe Meazza, a charismatic player who thought nothing of dancing the Tango with a white gardenia tucked behind his ear. It was difficult to see his English counterpart, Ted Drake, adopting a similar persona.
Pathe News called it “the most important football match ever played”. It was certainly one of the most brutal as the 90 minutes became a catalogue of fouls, dirty tactics and dangerous play.
There were multiple casualties with England’s full back Eddie Hapgood, one of seven Arsenal players in the team, breaking his nose, Manchester City’s Eric Brook fracturing his arm and Ted Drake coming away with two black eyes and a leg that had been cut to ribbons.
England won 3-2 and didn’t earn as many plaudits as they might have expected after beating the World Cup winners, but Italy were bombarded with criticism. The Daily Mail asked, “should these games be played?….Italy were not greatly concerned with the ball.”
The Dundee Courier felt the game signalled a change in attitude. “This was not a match but a battle…it is evident that the rules of the game as played on the continent bear little resemblance to the laws that govern football in this country. These continental teams, backed by the uncontrolled enthusiasm of their countrymen, have no regard for the safety of their opponents.”
On journalist made a note of the foul count – 37 mild, 24 bad and 42 dangerous kicks. It should be added that England were no angels. Monti, their stricken defender, was carried onto the train home and Italy’s eccentric manager, Vittorio Pozzo told reporters: “This is the cause of our defeat.”
A year later, England braced itself for the visit of Germany. It has to be recalled that 1935 was a year in which a number of incidents pointed the way towards global conflict. Germany started to rearm and formed the Luftwaffe. In September, the Nuremberg Laws, an anti-Semitic doctrine that made it illegal for Jews and non-Jews to have any form of relationship, came into effect.
When it was announced that England would play Germany, there was something of an uproar. The Trade Union Congress called for the game to be postponed, but it went ahead, and given the anti-semitism of the German government, the choice of venue – White Hart Lane, home of Tottenham Hotspur, a club from a heavy Jewish area – seemed somewhat insensitive.
London waited for an invasion of some 10,000 Germans eager to watch the game. Headlines screamed warnings to the public. In an age when stereotyping was not a crime and political correctness had not emerged as an artform, the British press portrayed the Germans as bull-necked, bespectacled and very noisy. Every single one of them was labelled a Nazi. The head of German football, Herr Linnemann, was called a “Nazi football dictator”. When they arrived, there was genuine surprise at their manner. “All were smartly dressed and almost every other man carried a camera and pair of binoculars.”
England won comfortably by 3-0, and the teams left the field arm-in-arm with the Swastika flag flying inappropriately from the roof of White Hart Lane. But the Daily Mirror was quick to praise the good spirit on the field. “Doesn’t sport reconcile, doesn’t it bring nations together, can’t we kill war with perpetual football?”.
The introduction of European club football in the 1950s undoubtedly had this in mind, with the French very much the driving force. Under floodlights and in the atmosphere of two-legged ties, there was something very exciting about European football. We did look upon the fiery Latins, ruthlessly-efficient Germans and “crack” Russians and eastern European clubs with curiosity and, at times, with some disdain, but they invariably had more savvy than British teams. Their methods were not always appreciated, but the Latins dominated the early years of the European Cup.
Quite a lot of clubs had unpleasant experiences on their travels, such as Chelsea when a balloon of urine was thrown at the bench by Roma fans. Tottenham took part in a rough-house game in Romania that was known as “The battle of Bucharest”. But one of the incidents that provoked great debate over Britain’s future involvement in Europe involved Arsenal in 1970 in the old and confusingly-named Inter Cities’ Fairs Cup, the forerunner of the UEFA Cup and Europa League.
Arsenal travelled to Rome to face Lazio, a club that had a reputation for having a right-wing leaning, and came away with a 2-2 draw. The trouble started at the post-match dinner. Lazio presented each Arsenal player with the kind of “man bag” that might have been de rigeur among Italian males but was definitely out of place in the one-dimensional world of football in Britain. The Gunners’ players were a little taken aback and one might suggest, insulted. A fight broke out in the restaurant and in the street. This came in the same week that Chelsea also faced provocation in Greece when they played in Salonika, with fireworks being thrown on the pitch and a generally intimidating atmosphere greeting Dave Sexton’s team. Only a couple of years earlier, Manchester United and Celtic had been involved in brutal encounters with Latin American clubs, adding fuel to Sir Alf Ramsey’s “animals” comment about Argentina at the World Cup in 1966. There was no moral high ground to be gained, though, for English football had its own gourmets of raw meat in Norman Hunter (Leeds), Ron “Chopper” Harris (Chelsea) and Peter Storey (Arsenal).
But there was uproar over the street fight in Rome and some people suggested English clubs would be better off pulling out of European competition, that Europe was more trouble than it was worth.
Ken Jones of Goal magazine admitted that British clubs “must deplore the more delinquent aspects of European football, but it may be necessary to accept them as an inevitable outcome of the pressures fuelled by international competition.” At the same time, he called any move to pull out of Europe, “nonsense”.
It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the influx of foreign players gathered momentum, notably in 1978 when Tottenham signed the Argentinian duo Osvaldo Ardiles and Ricardo Villa. Although most clubs joined the race to sign overseas talent, it wasn’t until the 1990s that is really took hold as football globalisation accelerated. In some respects, the plethora of foreign players helped revive what had become an ailing product in the 1980s.
We barely blink an eye these days when teams representing Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool rarely field an Englishman. We may wonder what it is doing to the national team, but the environment has made foreign players welcome and made them popular with football fans up and down the country. What happens next is anyone’s guess, although it is a safe bet to assume that, even with enduring uncertainty of Brexit, a micro industry will spring up around finding ways to continue the import of talent. After all, where would English football be today without the creative input of foreign players?