Football isn’t fair

Not so long ago one saw soccer described as an un-American activity. The reason for this appeared to be that for many American sports journalists, soccer seemed an illogical, even unfair activity. This because so often a team which has dominated a game but has somehow failed to score is suddenly caught in a breakaway by the opposition who score themselves. By Brian Glanville.

Soccer in the USA has radically expanded in recent years. There is a championship, Major League Soccer, which takes on more and more clubs every year. It produces an increasing number of players who come to Europe and succeed with leading teams. Yet not so long ago one saw soccer described as an un-American activity. The reason for this appeared to be that for many American sports journalists, soccer seemed an illogical, even unfair activity. This because so often a team which has dominated a game but has somehow failed to score is suddenly caught in a breakaway by the opposition who score themselves.

This by sharp contrast with the American gridiron football game, where there is a sort of grinding logic, where “plays” take the oval ball forward in gains of yards at a time, until in due course either a touchdown is scored or a goal kicked, or the opposition takes possession of the ball and begin the protracted journey in the opposite direction.

I suppose the term “random” would be opposite. Years ago, I recall talking to the lake Walter Winterbottom, at the headquarters of the Football Association, when he was both manager of the England team and Director of Coaching. Football, he said, was different from other sports, such as basketball, because it is so very difficult to score.

A bygone Spurs and England star, the inside right Willie Hall, the scorer of five goals against Ireland, to whom the following lines were attributed:

“Eight feet high and eight yards wide, Miss that space and the ball’s outside. If you fail to score hard luck is cried.

But it’s not hard-luck, It’s rank bad shooting.”

To be fair, it might just be that an inspired goalkeeper saves one shot or header after another, or when a keeper is beaten, the ball hits post or bar; or a defender kicks the ball of the line.

Recently, I saw a clear example of the kind of “injustice” which can happen. In West London, Queens Park Rangers were at home to Leicester City, each team in the top three of the so called Championship alias the Second Division. Rangers wholly dominated the first half, forcing save after save from an agile goalkeeper in Denmark’s Kasper Schmeichel, son of Peter, the former Manchester United star.

Late in the half, however, Leicester, who till then had not achieved a single shot or header on goal, broke away. The ball was flicked on to their solitary striker who turned sharply past his marker and shot low into the far corner of the goal, a strike which would win the game. Perhaps it demoralised Rangers since in the second half the virtue seemed to have gone out of them and although they came close to equalising at the very end of injury time, it was a rejuvenated Leicester which made the scoring chances in the second period.

Counter attacking football isn't wholly dominant though so many leading teams now play with a single striker, sometimes with five men strung across the midfield, sometimes with another attacker playing just behind the striker “in the hole” as Wayne Rooney does for Manchester United. In the mid 1970s, so called Total Football was a glittering European phenomenon, splendidly practised by Bayern Munich and the West German international team, Ajax and the Dutch international side. The implicit optimistic theory was that anybody could do anything, defenders attack, attackers defend. It might be said that it reached its zenith in the World Cup finals in West Germany in 1974 when the Germans captained by Franz Beckenbauer, who invented the role of the attacking sweeper, defeated the Dutch, captained by the electric all purpose centre forward, Johan Cruyff. But Total Football though it lasted for several years, was perhaps a little too good to be true and in due course faded away.

It had made no impact on Italian football, where the parsimonious “catenaccio” was still the order of the day. Even though its salient practitioner, Internazionale of Milan, was well beaten by Cruyff’s Ajax in the Rotterdam final of 1973. Armando Picchi, the Inter libero or sweeper, by contrast with Beckenbauer, seldom if ever came out of defence. Counter attack was the name of the game and very efficient Inter were at making it work. Though in due course Roma and Milan under the shrewd Swedish coach Nils Liedholm opened the doors to a far more open and adventurous game.

Yet counter attacking football goes back much further than that. Cliff Bastin, a major Arsenal and England star of the 1930s, scorer of 33 goals in a single season from outside left, once told me that when Arsenal had much of the play, the team grew worried. It still managed to score freely even to the extent of getting over 1000 League goals in a single League season: but counter attack was the name of the game and the team was nicknamed ‘Lucky Arsenal’, thanks to the way their full backs George Male and Eddie Hapgood, kicked the ball off the goal line.

Today, Barcelona wholly eschew defensive football and still quite recently have been held up as the outstanding force in European football, but even they have latterly lost their ascendancy. As indeed they lost that home Champions League tie to a deeply defensive counter attacking Chelsea in 2012.