Prodigious deception: The next World Cup is to be played in Qatar, regarded by many as an unsuitable venue

Triumph of the horrible game

Michael Henderson reviews The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-first Century by David Goldblatt

One evening in the Fifties, two of England’s most distinguished footballers were invited to play in a benefit match at Grimsby. Tom Finney, later knighted, won 76 caps and scored 30 international goals, a remarkable record for a man known mainly as an old-fashioned No 7 on the right wing. Nat Lofthouse, a fearless centre forward called “the Lion of Vienna” after he led England to a notable victory in the Austrian capital, netted 30 goals in 33 England matches. 

They were genuinely great players from English football’s golden age. Yet that night they received not a penny. Instead they were paid in the local currency. “I got a cod,” Lofthouse recalled later, “and Tommy was given a haddock. It was only fair because he was the better player!”

The Age of Football: The Global Game in the Twenty-First Century by David Goldblatt, Macmillan, £25

Finney of Preston North End and Lofthouse of Bolton Wanderers were one-club men who spent their working lives in the towns of their birth. Finney didn’t win a trophy. Lofthouse was an FA Cup winner in 1958 when the Trotters beat a Manchester United team weakened by the Munich air crash. They earned less in their careers than some modern players bank in a day. Yet, as this long, tiresome, yet necessary book inadvertently reveals, those great players had the best of it. Theirs was never an innocent game, but it was far more wholesome. 

What a horrible, bloated game football has become. It was always rough round the edges. When he gave up reporting on the game in 1969, appalled by the excesses of supporters in the early days of hooliganism, John Arlott pronounced it “seedy”.Now, thanks largely to the money that has flooded into the sport from television, it has become an ugly and unavoidable part of popular culture. It always was part of popular culture, of course, and nobody knew that better than men like Finney and Lofthouse. But cultures change, and football has changed utterly, corrupting almost everything it touches.

It isn’t David Goldblatt’s intention to portray football as a cesspit. He clearly regards his research as a labour of love. But the evidence is clear on almost every page. Everywhere the game of Association Football goes there is muck. It attracts so many disgusting and rapacious people, from the stands to the boardrooms, that one wonders whether the author had to take a shower each morning before he picked up his pen. 

Racism, xenophobia, antisemitism and sheer unpleasantness pour over the reader in waves. Throughout the world, football is so thoroughly mired in corruption that the game itself — the simplest ever devised and therefore the most popular — gets lost in the telling. Even the best players willingly add their names to the charge list. Luis Suárez has been suspended three times for biting opponents, yet in Uruguay he is regarded as a hero. He should have been drummed out of the game.

Those drawn to clumsy composition will treasure this manuscript more than people who simply enjoy football

In his eagerness to give us a truly international account of the world’s favourite sport Goldblatt has left no stone unturned. He goes everywhere, hunting for stories, and tells us everything we need to know, and quite a lot we don’t. In Europe, no less than South America, Africa or Asia, the wrong people are in charge, and usually unrepentant. The Qatar World Cup of 2022 is merely the latest instalment in a lengthy sequence of prodigious deception but, as Goldblatt points out in almost every chapter, nations seek to define themselves through success on the field, or if not success then at least visibility. Imagine: a World Cup in Qatar. It isn’t hard to join the dots. 

We have to endure some terrible writing along the way. Nigeria, Goldblatt tells us, “is nothing if not entrepreneurially energetic”. Ajax of Amsterdam, one of the great clubs of Europe, produce players who are “uniquely Dutch” in their perception and use of space, as if Pieter de Hooch had just returned to teach them all how to paint bricks.

There are pages of sludge, in paragraphs that often exceed 400 words. Proust could get away with such digressions. Goldblatt, being Third Division South, cannot. Those drawn to clumsy composition will surely treasure this manuscript more than people who simply enjoy their football. 

How about this? “Across the vast oceanic archipelago of Indonesia, the fourth most populous nation on the planet, football mania rages through its over a quarter of a billion people.” Like a knife through butter, he might have added, though mercifully did not.

Not everybody will see the game through his eyes. Raheem Sterling, for instance, was not necessarily the victim of “tabloid demonology”. Any player who chose to daub his body with a tattoo of a handgun and turned up late for England’s departure to the World Cup of 2018, would invite criticism. As for “the everyday xenophobia and anger that descended on England” after the referendum of 2016, Goldblatt fails to acknowledge that anger may exist on both sides of an argument. The behaviour of the Remainers, expressed on a daily basis by the likes of Anna Soubry, was every bit as batey as that of the Leavers. 

The game that so many loved for all the right reasons has been appropriated by all the wrong people

There is also a reference to “the almost complete collapse of social mobility” in the United Kingdom which may puzzle those who see a land richer in opportunity than any other European country. Finney, who was called “the Preston plumber”, and Lofthouse, who began his working life down a pit, were genuine representatives of a working class that no longer exists. That social phenomenon is not something which troubles sociologists like Goldblatt, for whom matters of class are strictly notional.

Football is not all bad. Much of it is very good, even if some of us cling to the Woodbine-scented days of yore with greater affection than we feel for today’s highly-paid wonders. 

Lionel Messi and Xavi, the stars of Barcelona’s recent success, would have stood out in any age. Jurgen Klopp, who has taken Liverpool back to the snow-capped peaks of Europe, is a real football man. It’s not hard to warm to him.

The game that so many loved for the right reasons has been appropriated by all the wrong people, with predictable consequences. This book helps to explain how. But, by ’eck, it’s a hard slog.

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