The quantity of football writing available to the football fan appears to rise exponentially as time passes. Whether it’s humble blogs like this one, publications such as The Blizzard or the increasing number of football books appearing on the shelves of Waterstones, as football fans we’re well provided for. It’s got to the point where it’s pretty much impossible to have kept up with all the latest reading available and unfortunately the quantity of football writing means we often neglect some of the classics that were written many moons ago.
One of these classics is Willy Meisl’s Soccer Revolution. (Another review of this book can be found at the marvellous Football Attic, but I couldn’t resist writing another one) Despite being written in 1955, the topics is covers are remarkably prescient, and the problems it lists within the English/British game are sadly familiar. Willy Meisl was a multi-talented sort of chap. Not only was he a very good journalist in his own right, involved in the production of multiple books, he also played football as a goalkeeper at a good level and even represented Austria at water polo. Meisl, an Austrian-Jew, found himself in the United Kingdom after being forced to flee his country after Nazism took hold in Germany. In an interesting segment of Soccer Revolution Meisl compares the approach Britain used towards Germany between the two World Wars and the way they view football tactics.
Round the thirties and towards the World War II we in Britain were living through a ‘safety-first’ period. Little wonder it proved the most fangerous in politics and economics in the nation’s and world’s history; it helped us bring about Hitler and almost brought down the Empire plus the world!
The dictators incited their peoples with the slogan: ‘Live dangerously!’ As it turned out they overdid it, but it was touch-and-go and it would have given them world domination.
Throughout the book Meisl laments at the lack of creativity, thought and exuberance shown by the average British footballer in comparison to their continental counterparts. When talking about a FIFA XI that had played England in the early 50’s Meisl commented:
they were technically better equipped than most of our stars, passed with incomparably greater precision, positioned themselves much more cleverly – in short played better football in spite of being to all intents and purposes strangers to one another.
Most of us who follow football closely will have read similar glowing praise of foreign sides (whether that be Spain, Barcelona or <insert your Hipster XI here>). Whereas the British sides are often castigated for their focus on speed and power in preference to technical ability. Meisl also criticises the British attitude towards “getting stuck in” and “tackling hard”. This is an attitude that remains today. Watch a Premier League match and listen to the crowd when a centre-half wins the ball with a steaming tackle or a firm header. If his opponent is knocked to the ground the crowd is heard to roar in appreciation. The crowd’s reaction in La Liga or Bundesliga is very different. Despite these uncomfortable truths the game in the UK is changing. Slowly.
In the pre-European club competition age it wasn’t uncommon for British club sides to travel into Europe to play continental opposition. Meisl recounts some fabulous stories including Southampton defeating a Vienesse side 6-0 and Saints’ keeper Robinson making such an impression with his flying saves that the word “Robinsonade” was adopted by Austrians and central-Europeans for that type of save. After the game the ever-willing Robinson gave an exhibition to the Austrian spectators where he was pelted simultaneously by six balls, saving each and every one of them.
Another fantastic tale details Swansea Town’s trip to play in Denmark in 1923. Worried that the Swans might not be as big a draw as other names in British football (Herbert Chapman’s great Huddersfield Town side had played there the same year and Arsenal had recently visited), a committee member went into the Swansea changing-rooms before the match and offered each player ten cigarettes for every goal their team scored.
The visitors were very obliging, winning 8-2, so the committee-man had to provide 880 cigarettes!
What’s clear from Meisl’s account of 1920s and 1930s football is that foreign tours to Europe were an integral feature to many British football club’s seasons. Everton and Tottenham even played an exhibition match against one another in Vienna, a pre-cursor to the looming Game 39 perhaps?
I found this paragraph interesting. It was written in 1955.
The unpalatable truth is that English soccer has gradually deteriorated, finally fallen off its pedestal and now keeps on rolling downwards. No longer does it impress by its quality, but only by its breadth. With her 40,000 clubs England still is the most diligent soccer player.
The sorriest feature in this drama is that the English, with very few exceptions, cannot get themselves to recognize what has happened. IOn their self-satisfaction and conceit they still fancy themselves the first in the football world and their defeats sheer accidents. The fact is that English soccer has an enormous amoiunt to learn from the rest of the world, about training, courses, tactics, organisation and strategy.
Despite the above being written in 1955 I think that the attitude expressed was still prevalent in England a few years ago. The now ubiquitous Champions League and foreign league football on our television screens has led to even the occasional follower of football to realise that these foreign lads can play a bit. It’s also worth mentioning that eleven years after this was written England did win the World Cup.
Meisl writes of the fantastic Hungarian side of the 1950s in reverent tones. His description of their style of craft over the English speed and power is very much the sort of language used when you read about the current Spain side. There are some fabulous examples of the English press getting ahead of themselves as England prepare for the game in Budapest (after the 3-6 reverse at Wembley).
- SPEED WILL CONQUER PUSKAS & CO
- ‘JET’ JEZZARD* OUR SECRET WEAPON
- ENGLAND’S CHANCE OF REVENGE – HUNGARY WORRIED
We lost 7-1
(Refers to Bedford Jezzard, a Fulham centre-forward)
Meisl continues with a scathing attack on the sport’s press. He details the reaction to Wolverhampton Wanderers’ victory over Honved which saw them dubbed “the best club side in Europe, if not the world”. Meisl counters this argument brilliantly, pointing out that only a couple of weeks earlier Honved had lost against Partizan in Belgrade (and Partizan were only 7th in the Yugoslav league at the time). He also notes the news reports saying that Wolves had won on a quagmire of a pitch:
May I just remark in passing that quagmires are usually not considered the best-suited pitches on which world championships ought to be decided.
It’s a fascinating read for anyone with even a passing interest in the history of football especially beyond these shores. Austrian and Danish football is covered quite well as is the experience of following a World Cup as a journalist (in 1950 nearly all the journalists went home once England were knocked out). His approach to the game and outspoken attitude mean he’d be a sure-fire hit were twitter around in the early 1950s. He’d certainly give Raymond Verheijen a run for his money!