Thirty years of hurt has turned into fifty, and England are still waiting for football to come home. But English football fans have been mourning the death of football as they know it since well before before Nobby did any dancing. A century of self-imposed footballing isolationism has left England trailing behind the rest of the world. As Britain sits on the brink of another period of self-imposed isolation, it seems appropriate to reflect on the causes and consequences of English football’s island mentality.

In the early years of football, England was the epicentre of the footballing world. From the docks of Odessa to the shores of the Río de la Plata, via Vienna, Milan and Madrid, football spread around around the globe through Britain’s networks of trade and empire. Expatriate players taught the game and to locals, and local clubs imported English coaches to train them. 1

Yet within a generation it had become apparent that game played in the home of football was outdated compared to the international version it had spawned. In the 1924 Olympics, the crowd jostled to watch the Uruguay players:

slippery as squirrels, who played chess with the ball. The England squad had perfected the long pass and the high ball, but these disinherited children from far-off America didn’t walk in their father’s footsteps. They chose to invent a game of close passes directly to the foot, with lightning changes in rhythm and high speed dribbling. 2

In England, in contrast, this new style of football was looked upon with the sort of mildly xenophobic suspicion that will be familiar to modern-day football fans. Foreign players may have been skilful and intelligent, but they lacked directness, speed and strength of character. Basically, they wouldn’t cut it on a cold night in Stoke. 3

The assumption was (and to a large extent still is) that England invented football, so should be best at it, seemingly forgetting that most of the rest of the world has been playing it for almost as long, and conveniently ignoring the fact that for most of that period England have, patently, not been that good at it. 4

Yet, rather than being outplayed, outclassed or, heaven forbid, outfought, England are almost always outdone by foreign tricks, dives and sleights of hand. Blame Ronaldo, Simeone, Maradona; it’s not our fault, we were hard done by. Disallowed goals, cruel penalty shoot-outs and dodgy referees are wheeled out as excuses; lucky penalties and Russian linesmen conveniently glossed over. 5

Rather than being an advantage, England’s status as creators of the games seems to be precisely what has hindered them for so long. So sure have coaches, players, media and fans been of England’s innate superiority, that it has led to over a century of inglorious, self-imposed isolation – with disastrous results.

The history of football, as much as anything, demonstrates the power of networks in the development and sharing of ideas and technology. It was not on the muddy fields of England that football as we know it was developed, but the cafes of Vienna, Budapest and Prague; the slums of Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo and Buenos Aires; the interconnected capitals of western Europe; where new solutions to new problems were devised, shared, copied and improved.

It’s no coincidence that the most successful style of football comes from the densest and most interconnected region in the world. 6 Since the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, the five EEC nations at the heart of the EU have been by far the most successful footballing nations in the world. 7 Between them, Germany, Holland, Italy, France and Belgium have appeared in World Cup semi-finals 28 times – the rest of the world combined have managed just 32.

Even the mighty Brazil have barely challenged western European supremacy for over a decade – their 7-1 humbling on home soil at the hands of Germany in the 2012 semi-final being as close as they’ve come.

The success of these five countries contrast starkly with those on Europe’s periphery. Isolated by politics and geography, Spain, Portugal and Russia have reached just three semi-finals between them in the same period. 8 England, isolated by geography and pigheadedness, have done so just twice. 9

Debates in many periods of history often revolve around where and how ideas, technologies and movements develop and spread. Do they start in a centre and spread outwards? Or do they develop in parallel, with similar solutions being found in response to the similar challenges? 10

It’s clear that parallel developments have taken place in football. For example, hitherto untried 4-2-4 formations were developed independently as far apart as Brazil and the USSR. 11 But it’s clear, in football at least, being at the centre of a network, learning from others, sharing ideas and resources, is far more beneficial than sitting on the outside, refusing to look in. Moreover, for solutions to be developed in isolation, there has, at least, to be a recognition that a problem exists. England, for so much of its footballing history, has stubbornly refused to do so.

But, without wanting to fall into the age-old trap of English footballing optimism, it does look like times are changing, at least to some extent. Roy Hodgson is by far the most networked manager in English history. He’s won titles in Sweden and Denmark, coached in Switzerland and Italy, and managed two other national sides before England. 12

And Hodgson’s squad is made up of a generation of young players who have grown up in the modern, multi-cultural football landscape of the Premier League, connected to the continent and beyond. They’ve learned the tactics and techniques of great foreign coaches and players, copied their tricks, stolen their sleights of hand. This is a new breed. They’ve scraped through their group and a second round tie awaits. Perhaps this time it might be different. Maybe football really is coming home. But if it does, it won’t be the same football that left. Not by a long shot.

James Chetwood is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Department of History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently researching personal naming patterns in medieval England. You can find James on twitter @chegchenko.

Image: Diego Maradona celebrating his second goal scored to England during the 1986 FIFA World Cup, Clarín newspaper, [Wikicommons].


  1. Jonathan Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics (London, 2014) is an excellent overview of the development of football tactics from its inception to the modern day.
  2. Uruguayan journalist, Eduardo Galeano, cited in Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, p. 47.
  3. Again, see Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, especially chapters 8 and 15.
  4. Only three times have England reached the semi-finals of a major competition, and only once not on home soil.
  5. That’s not to say we don’t blame our own side. Convenient scapegoats litter the wreckages of England campaigns: penalty missers, turnip-headed coaches, disgraced captains and wallies with brollies; not to mention foreign sounding goalkeepers and, worst of all, foreign coaches, who don’t understand the ‘English mentality’.
  6. See Simon Kuper & Stefan Szymanski, Soccernomics (London, 2012) for more about football and networks.
  7. I’m discounting Luxembourg here because, well, it’s Luxembourg.
  8. Russia here refers both to Russia since 1991 and the USSR prior to it.
  9. Spain’s recent successes have only been possible since embracing the networks of European football – a process in which Johan Cruyff was instrumental.
  10. In my own period of study, for example, Robert Bartlett has theorised on the ‘making of Europe’, suggesting that this process was catalysed by the outward spread of ‘Frankish’ culture and technologies from a Franco-German core to Europe’s peripheries. Others, such as Christopher Dyer, have suggested that developments in many areas were actually due to economic ‘characteristics that were common across Europe, which meant that people solved problems in similar ways’.
  11. Boris Arkadiev’s Dinamo Moscow and Martim Francisco’s Vila Nova, amongst others, seem to have implemented this new formation in isolation in response to defensive frailties. See Wilson, Inverting the Pyramid, p. 143.
  12. He also speaks eight languages and is a Knight of the Order of the Lion of Finland.
Tags : England footballEU ReferendumEURO 2016history of footballhistory of sport
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