11 May ~ We've reached 1994 in our 25 years of WSC retrospective. Many reasons were posed for England's failure to qualify for the World Cup in America that summer. In WSC 93, Simon Kuper proposed that players in England would become more sophisticated – and more successful – if they were encouraged to express themselves more off the pitch
As Basile Boli has found, being a professional footballer in Britain is a bit like living in Albania circa 1955. You are free to praise your Leader, or the glorious community in which you labour, but if you say anything else you lose your job, or are fined for 'bringing the game into disrepute'. The greatest crime of all is to give your views on tactics, just as no Albanian was allowed to suggest suggest alternative ways of running the economy.
Ryan Giggs knows the rules. For years we waited for him to speak, and when at last he did he said nothing interesting. Giggs, of course, suffers from the peculiar handicap of playing for a man who thinks that if he were allowed to talk he'd become an alcoholic. But the rest of the Premiership sounds exactly like him.
I spent a year travelling around the world interviewing players, and when I came back home a friend said I must have had a pretty dull time, what with professional footballers being cretins. He was wrong. If you talk to players about football and people in football, they are lucid and often quite funny. They did strike me as a touch self-centred, but that is what happens when every day people come to you and ask you how you feel and then write down the answer and print it in a national newspaper. Also, the players knew that whereas we journalists really wanted to be them, none of them had lain awake as children wishing they were Brian Glanville. They were on top, and they treated us like dictograph machines.
But no, they weren't particularly stupid, and yet British footballers say things like, "At the end of the day, we'll just go out there to enjoy ourselves, hopefully." Partly this is because their mates will laugh at them if they sound sophisticated. Though the middle classes loved Gary Lineker, his nickname was 'Goldenbollocks'. However, the main reason why players sound like morons is that they are terrified of saying anything mildly controversial. The only time a British footballer tells all is when he runs out of money and sells his 'story' to the Sun.
Open a French or Dutch football magazine, on the other hand, and you will find four-page interviews with players who sound uncannily like sentient human beings. Some, like Ruud Gullit or Marco van Basten, are even a bit brighter than the average human. Alex Ferguson might argue that this only matters to fans: we would like to hear proper interviews with footballers, and it is largely because none exist that When Saturday Comes can flourish. But in fact, if our managers let our footballers talk, British football would probably be a lot better.
In Britain, only managers are allowed to talk about football, and when they do they sound like Army officers. Take Bobby Robson telling Pete Davies, author of All Played Out, about Bryan Robson: "You could put him in any trench and know he'd be the first over the top... he wouldn't think, well, Christ, if I put my head up there it might get shot off. He'd say, 'C'mon, over the top.'" As Brian Glanville has noted, Bobby Robson was obsessed with World War II, but he is not alone. Here is Graham Taylor lecturing the press after England's defeat to the USA: "We are in a battle aren't we? It's a battle we'll stick out together." British managers love soldiers, which is why they pick David Batty over Chris Waddle. Soldiers obey their superiors.
Of course, managers like George Graham, Alex Ferguson and Walter Smith do have a point. Because we have no debate, British team spirit is the best in the world. The Dutch seldom manage to take their best players to the World Cup; Klinsmann aside, the German players hate each other, and the whole country knows it; and even in Russia, four players missed the World Cup this summer because of a row with the manager. No one ever refuses to play for England, and we never have any nasty dressing-room rows, not over tactics, anyway.
Yet that may be a problem. Ruud Gullit walked out of the Dutch camp before the World Cup. He didn't like the trendy young Ajax players who sang on the team bus and declined to treat him with the respect he deserved, and he secretly feared that he wouldn't get a place in the team, which would have been unbearably humiliating. But the main reason why he walked out is that he disagreed with Dick Advocaat, the manager, over tactics. Gullit wanted Holland to play quite defensively, partly because he is a realist, but partly also because he wanted space up front to roam, the way he did at Sampdoria last year. To be at his best, Gullit had to play the way he wanted to.
Contrast this with Chris Waddle and John Barnes at the World Cup of 1990. While in Italy, they complained lucidly to Pete Davies that Bobby Robson would not let them leave their positions. They felt shackled. They told Davies exactly how they wanted to play. But of course they did not tell Robson, and they only told Davies because he was writing a book that would appear months after the World Cup, when Robson would be managing PSV Eindhoven. Perhaps this helps explain why Barnes and Waddle have had mediocre England careers.
Yet in shutting up, they were merely being sensible. "I've got a reputation of having my own opinion, and they don't like that in Great Britain," said Hans Gillhaus, the Dutch striker, after four years at Aberdeen. "As a footballer there you're just a number and you do what the boss says. That's what you call the manager: 'Boss'. At half-time or after the match, it was customary for the manager to swear for a while at a couple of players. Most players accepted it. The Dutch boys would go against it, and there'd be a row."
It's quite hard to think if you're not allowed to talk. If your tactics are quite complex – as they are at Ajax, or at Milan – it helps if you can discuss them. Arrigo Sacchi, as manager of Milan, reported that his three Dutchmen had given him "new ideas and views", and said that it was largely thanks to them that "a new style was introduced that diverged from the traditional Italian mode of thought and style of play." (Later, Van Basten decided that Milan needed an even newer mode of thought, and Sacchi had to go.) At Genoa, one manager tried to make the team play total football like Ajax, and failed. The club's resident Dutchman, John van't Schip, commented: "To play the Ajax system you have to understand it, and especially talk about it a lot."
As long as English players have to shut up, our game is unlikely to become very sophisticated. Nor will we have many playmakers. Ryan Giggs should soon be the best player in Britain. When he is, it would make sense for him to be running the United game, as Matthäus does for Germany or Gullit did for Holland, or even as Cantona does for United. Unfortunately, as long as Giggs is treated like a child he'll probably stay a winger, dependent on lesser players to give him the ball.
One day the Berlin Wall will fall again, and players will talk. Then there'll be no more John Motson interviews, no more ghostwritten autobiographies with titles like The World to Play For, no more books called Gazza!, and no more managers' programme notes. Every footballer will be Eamon Dunphy, and England will win so many World Cups that everyone will start supporting Germany. Simon Kuper