The Game Is the Same

National soccer styles are disappearing -- good riddance?

AFP / Getty Images
AFP / Getty Images

For England, it was a watershed moment. With a 6-3 defeat to Hungary at Wembley Stadium in 1953, the self-proclaimed motherland of the game was beaten on home soil by a team from outside the British Isles for the first time. It was a technical and tactical thrashing. Confronted by the brilliance of Ferenc Puskas and the revelation of nominal forward Nandor Hidegkuti switching positions during the match, England had no answer.

Despite the fact that Hungary was the reigning Olympic champion, the schooling came as a seismic shock to English football. With no Internet or television, there had been no scouting to aid the hosts — no early warning system. Hungary was simply unleashed on England and was playing a hitherto unseen brand of football, turning the English world upside down. In today’s era of Total Footballing Awareness, could it ever happen again?

Football is a game that can throw up delicious contrasts: possession-based teams versus counterattacking teams; teams that value dribbling and creative freedom against the organized outfits that focus on the collective. Different cultures give rise to different tactics. For instance, though teams from the Balkans and Argentina traditionally place huge value on the importance of the playmaker — the enganche — Britain has rarely found room for the role at all.

More than 60 years on from the defeat against Hungary, and the England team is as far away as it has ever been from the top of the football world. Yet that world is changing in other ways. These days, the identities of those delivering the fatal blows are no mystery. England was eliminated from the World Cup in Brazil after just two matches, courtesy of winning goals by former Manchester City striker Mario Balotelli of Italy and current Liverpool hero Luis Suárez of Uruguay.

Globalization means familiar battles but also familiar styles. For example, the notion that Brazil plays carnival futebol no longer seems rooted in reality. The host nation’s squad has more players operating in England alone than in South America, with prototypically functional, battling midfielders — the kind England used to be known for — such as Ramires and Paulinho among them. And it’s not just players working abroad who have homogenized the football culture. Seven members of the Selecao have played under Jose Mourinho, a coach as far removed as possible from the Brazilian legend of joga bonito.

Of course, Mourinho has also won the league in four countries. His kind of peregrination is becoming commonplace for top coaches, and it brings a cross-pollination of ideas. Deploying the 4-2-3-1 formation has become the footballing equivalent of assembling a McDonald’s restaurant — quickly constructed and instantly understood. Whatever happens to be the geographical accident of his birth, the professional football player soon becomes accustomed to similar tactics and teammates wherever he goes.

Just look at the numbers. In terms of quality, the Champions League in Europe is now regarded as the pinnacle of the game, and the 2014 World Cup includes 91 players owned by the eight clubs that made last year’s quarterfinals. That’s just eight teams. In total, more than half of all the players in Brazil’s squad are owned by clubs in Europe’s top five leagues. Under those circumstances, cultural differentiation is becoming more and more unlikely.

This homogenization is a nightmare for the lazy football commentator or armchair pundit. The dubious cliché of naïve African defending can’t be applied to Ivorian duo Kolo Touré and Didier Zokora, who boast a quarter-century of European experience between them. And professional clubs are hardly naïve of African players’ talent, either. When one captures the world’s attention at the 2014 World Cup — as Nigeria’s Kenneth Omeruo and Ghana’s Christian Atsu have — he tends to be owned already by Chelsea.

And yet, this is not merely a lament. Though globalization and homogenization go hand in hand, they can still throw up intrigue. The sort of shock that greeted England back in 1953 may be a thing of the past, but the spread of the game can still spring a surprise on the punters. Iran had no foreign-based players when it went to Argentina for the 1978 World Cup, but the team that so nearly secured a dramatic draw with Argentina in 2014 included five stars from Europe. The next watershed moment might not be so far away.

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