Britons abroad

To say that British players are too insular to settle and succeed in Europe isn’t true or fair. Some do, some don’t, writes Brian Glanville.

His several years in Madrid left David Beckham blessedly untouched by the Spanish language. Now he has spiralled steeply down to the Sargasso Sea of the supposedly Major League Soccer, in peripheral Los Angeles. From one of the world’s greatest clubs, to a team which, even at that low level, has made a shocking start to its own season. Though at least people there speak English.

Does it matter? Did it matter? Beckham after all, after being spitefully insulted when he announced his departure to Los Angeles by the bombastic President, Ramon Calderon, and initially made a non person (or player) by manager Fabio Capello, emphatically had the last laugh, making major contributions to Real’s surge towards the Championship.

From the moment he arrived at Madrid Airport, he was greeted as a glittering star, by sharp contrast with the meagre welcome later afforded to Michael Owen, arguably a far more talented footballer that Beckham, destined largely to play a woundingly subsidiary role in Madrid, though he scored frequently enough when he did come off the bench. But Beckham is essentially a product of the ‘zeitgeist’, the spirit of the times, renowned less for his football than for his looks, his trendy clothes, his general allure; a role model not so much for young footballers, given his sharply defined abilities, but for the fashionable young. As much in the Far East as in Europe.

The English have never been renowned as linguists and are constantly put to shame by the supreme mastery of language and English idiom by foreigners who come to play here. Jan Molby and Peter Schmeichel, Danish internationals who played with distinction for Liverpool and Manchester United, spoke without the trace of an accent; unless it was Liverpudlian or Mancunian. Iceland’s Eidur Gudjohnsen, who played for Bolton and Chelsea before leaving for Barcelona, is equally fluent and adept.

But how much does it matter? With Ian Rush, I think it did. “He’ll never learn Italian,” I remember Graeme Souness, once Rush’s team-mate in a powerful Liverpool side, saying to me when Ian was so unhappily at Juventus, a couple of decades ago. And I remember Ian once telling me, over the dinner table in Turin, “I hate the training. I’m like an outcast.” He lasted one unhappy season.

What a contrast with his Welsh international centre-forward predecessor, John Charles, who arrived at Juve for the then record British fee of £65,000 and almost at once conquered Turin, He was Re John, King John, ‘il buon gigante’, The Gentle Giant, a perfect sportsman for all his power, seldom missing a game in his first three seasons, scoring no fewer than 87 League goals, instantly and materially helping Juve to the League title. John’s Italian was far from perfect, but he certainly got by.

You might say the same, at managerial level, of Jesse Carver, who died in obscurity in seaside Bournemouth when into his 90s, but had remarkable success in Italy. He won the Championship with Juventus at his first attempt in 1951, later managing Roma, Inter, Lasio, Sampdoria and Genoa. I knew him during season 1954/5 when he was working in Rome and when, in my presence, Sir Stanley Rous, then the all powerful secretary of the Football Association, offered him Walter Winterbottom’s job as England team manager. That was in May 1955; Jesse didn’t take it and Walter carried on for better or for worse for another seven modest years.

Jesse’s Italian players adored him — I have seldom seen a more whole hearted tribute to any manager than the letter Jesse received and showed me, in great secrecy, from the international right-back, Bertucelli. But his Italian was never fluent or grammatical. “Lui parkare mostesso,” he went to say, which being literally translated, meant, “He to speak me the same.”

Football itself, you might say, is a universal language. When Terry Venables, an England international footballer himself, manager of a string of major English clubs and eventually of England themselves, was coaching in Barcelona, he actually had an English interpreter, but he picked up Spanish so quickly — I spent time with him there — that he was known to wave his interpreter impatiently aside in training, because he felt he’d not been properly translated; then speak himself.

To say that British players are too insular to settle and succeed in Europe isn’t true or fair. Some do, some don’t. Paul Gascoigne, irrepressible maverick, who played for Lazio in the 90s, was no linguist but endeared himself to colleagues and fans alike as much for his pranks as for his undoubted skills. Once, before a Lazio game at the Stadio Olimpico, he belched into a TV interviewer’s microphone; a small scandal. And it was typical of him that, having recovered from the self-inflicted knee injury suffered in the FA Cup Final at Wembley which put him out for a year, he should, with a ludicrous tackle from behind in a mere training game, sustain a broken leg when inadvertently kicked by the then young Alessandro Nesta, due to captain Italy in time.

1961 saw no fewer than four British players arrive in Italy and arguably it was the least talented of them, robust blond England centre forward Gerry Hitchens, who stayed and succeeded, at Inter, Turin and Atalanta. Little Jimmy Greaves hated it in Milan with that club and was home by Christmas, but not before scoring nine goals in 10 games. Scotland’s Dennis Law and England centre-forward (though Scot in all but name) Joe Baker were equally unhappy in Turin, though they lasted most of the season and Law, that whippet of an all-round attacker, was greatly admired by the Turin fans.

In 1986, Gary Lineker, who’d just become top-scorer in the World Cup finals in Mexico, and Welsh international centre-forward Mark Hughes joined Barcelona; with strikingly different and significant results. Gary and his wife went to great pains to learn Spanish, and ended by speaking it fluently. Mark never learned it at all. He had a thoroughly unhappy and frustrating time at Nou Camp. Gary, until Johan Cruyff arrived and stuck him out on the right wing, excelled. While acting as interpreter for Hughes, who went home at the end of his first season.

Beckham meanwhile, with a ferociously ambitious but untalented wife, has been welcomed ecstatically by Galaxy and fans. But the news that the club mean to tour the world, hoping Becks’ presence will make the fortunes, implies a naive belief that he can do what the immensely more-gifted Pele did in the 1970s for the Cosmos. That, plus the endless long flights demanded by the MSL in the States, plus trips to Europe to play for England, could wear the poor fellow to a frazzle. Above all, he ain’t no Pele.