Is British Soccer a Different Game?

By Paul Gardner

I would rate it as one of the major conundrums of world soccer -- but it’s a pretty obvious one, with an even more obvious answer. So ...

Question: Why are there so few British players with foreign clubs?

Answer: Because the Brit players are not good enough.

Quite probably that is the correct answer, though it would be difficult to prove it. The money motive cuts across any attempt to explain matters: If English players can haul in excellent salaries by staying home and playing in the EPL why should they even think of going overseas?

So maybe it has nothing to do with the caliber of the players. But one wonders. As it happens, British players have never been in demand. Back in the early 1960s, when English salaries were pathetically low compared to those in Italy or Spain, there was no mass immigration of players to those countries. The Italians did come calling, and walked away with some top stars, notably Denis Law and Jimmy Greaves. Both were back in Britain after just one season. Only one player reached unquestioned stardom in Italy, the Welshman John Charles, who scored 93 goals during five seasons with Juventus.

Englishman Gerry Hitchens stayed the longest, playing with four different clubs over nine years.

Otherwise the record of British players in foreign climes is one of brevity and mediocrity. It is said, without explanation, that British players do not adapt well. And left at that.

Which raises another question: Is British soccer somehow different, then, from that played everywhere else? After all, there are oodles of Brazilians and Argentines playing in foreign countries, plus plenty of French, Germans, Africans, Dutch, Italians and Spanish. But virtually no Brits. What is the problem here?

The question was buzzing around in my head this past weekend as the menu of weekend games served up side-by-side games from England and Spain.

I found the Spanish games -- Racing Santander 0 Barcelona 3, and Real Mallorca 0 Real Madrid 0 -- the pick of the crop, their soccer more skillful, more intelligent, easier on the eye. The Real Madrid game even managed to be one of those rare 0-0 ties that presented plenty of goalmouth action at both ends of the field.

The EPL games -- Blackburn 1 Arsenal 2, and Aston Villa 1 Everton 0 were, definitely, different. Defining that difference is not so easy. Evidently, it is not a matter of excitement -- the Arsenal game had plenty of that. I’d venture that the EPL games featured more overtly physical play. I don’t mean dirty play or fouling, I mean merely that the impression is of players constantly performing at or near the limits of their physical powers, whether that means running or jumping or kicking or heading or tackling. If that impression is correct, then it seems likely that I found more subtlety in the Spanish game.

I think that was so, especially from Barcelona, which won 3-0, comfortably enough. But while watching that game, I couldn’t help thinking -- still in the context of the peculiarities of the British game -- of Javier Mascherano.

An Argentine midfielder who has been playing for Liverpool for three seasons. And now Barcelona wants him. Why? He does not strike me as a Barcelona-type player. When have they ever needed a midfield pit bull? As it happens, I see Mascherano much more suited to the British game. So it will be revealing to see if he undergoes a transformation in the Barcelona shirt.

Were Mascherano a British born-and-bred player, I feel sure he would not be able to adapt. But he is a player with an Argentine pedigree and I think that will make a difference.

Indeed, that may be the answer the question posed above -- Is British soccer different?

An Argentine pedigree means a solid, unshakeable grounding in the fundamentals of ball control and technical skills. Whereas my observations over many decades have convinced me that the English pedigree is something very different. My feeling is that the fundamentals of the British soccer player are not skill-based at all. They are, rather, a collection of attitudes, which can be summed up in the phrase “getting stuck in.” A rather crude-sounding phrase that I’ll define with an emphasis on its more positive qualities -- namely, commitment and a devotion to a hard running, hard tackling, no-nonsense game.

No, there is not much room within those boundaries for artistry and subtlety. And it is the lack of those qualities -- those soccer qualities -- that makes the British game different ... and, I think, inflexible. British players do not adapt well to playing in foreign leagues because their fundamentals do not allow them to. Their gung-ho attitude may have to be tempered, but that can probably be achieved. But the sudden need to upgrade their skills, to find a more sophisticated, more skillful way of playing the game, that is not so easy, probably not possible, beyond the formative early teen years, or even earlier.

While English players do not adapt to foreign leagues, it is also true that some foreigners have trouble adapting to the English game. The chief culprits, it seems, are Brazilians who -- or so we are told -- find the English game too rough, or too fast, or don’t like the English winter. Or maybe it’s the cooking.

Odd that Brazilians have flourished in Germany so well, isn’t it? Or almost every other country you can think of. Again, the British game proves to be the odd man out.

Perhaps the most puzzling aspect of this Brit difference is that it ought not to exist at all anymore, certainly not in the EPL where over 50 percent of the players and a quarter of the coaches are foreigners. But the EPL is different. Something in the British soccer atmosphere makes it fundamentally different.

12 comments about "Is British Soccer a Different Game?".
  1. Alan Gay, August 30, 2010 at 8:33 a.m.

    I agree with Paul, I think this discussion has a direct bearing on how youth development is done in the US. At least in the southeast, it is an all-British affair. The style of play is definitely about getting stuck in. Technical skills aren't so much taught as recruited onto the top clubs at the U13-U15 level. The new national academy reinforces the focus on recruiting over development, and the style is very linear.

  2. Raul Zavaleta, August 30, 2010 at 8:50 a.m.

    The EPL is certainly different, the question is why. Why does it retain its physical style even with the influence of foreign players and coaches? Is it simply a response to the consumer preference? Or is it that the 50% percent English players impose the style over the rest? I am not sure because even teams that field mostly foreign players retain such style. Paul does not give us an answer; I am interested in others' comments.
    I am sure, however, that I, as a consumer in the US soccer market, do not want that style here, but I am afraid the British influence in our youth system will infect our soccer and give us a totally ineffective player development system as it exists in England.

  3. The Real Pico, August 30, 2010 at 9:12 a.m.

    A passing commentary in a Spanish broadcast during the last World Cup made allusion to the large number of African players in the EPL more than any other league, and the fact that they are more adept to the physicality of that style of play was something to think about. One cannot deny the excitement of the breakneck pace of the EPL game but it I still cringe every time I see a senseless big boot to nowhere. It is as if the players do not have the confidence in their technical abilities to resolve a situation with elegance and imagination.

    Or as someone once said: EPL = NASCAR, La Liga = Formula 1.


  4. Gene Jay, August 30, 2010 at 10:05 a.m.

    EPL is different of course--so is every league of every sport I can think of, when played in different countries. Japanese baseball is very different from MLB, even though they have lots of american players (and we have lots of Japanese players--some really awesome).
    Certainly the English don't export too much. But I'm not sure the Italians or Germans do either. At least compared to the Brazilian, Argintine and the rest of South America and Africa. I'm thinking, without having any stats to back me up, the French, Dutch,former Yugoslavian countries and Porto export the best of the European countries--even better than Spain. Of course those domestic leagues are much weaker than the big four of ENG/SPA/ITA/Ger. Weather it is because those players have left that the league is weaker, or those players have left because the leagues are weaker, is a chicken v egg type of thing. Statistically I would be surprised if England exports much fewer players than GER or ITA. Would love to see that stat if anyone has it.

  5. bgix , August 30, 2010 at 11:49 a.m.

    I think the difference can be directly traced to the ref's. Matches will become just as physical as the refs allow them to become, and the refs in EPL are most if not all English. Even anball handling artist will become more of a bully, knocking people off the ball with authority if he is allowed to do so, or perhaps more importantly, those around him, and the opponent marking him are allowed to. It is self preservation.

    And if a move back to a league that punishes physical play, he will retreat to his roots. Perhaps it is just more difficult for an inherently physical player to adjust. Or as Mr Gardner suggested, to have developed the (high level) technical game in the first place.

  6. Alan Gay, August 30, 2010 at 12:16 p.m.

    I would be interested in any informed observations about how England fairs (poorly) in world cup play informs this discussion. WC play seems like neither EPL or Spain/Italy. Does England fail to achieve an EPL-level of play, or does their (EPL) style not hold up well in WC play?

  7. James Froehlich, August 30, 2010 at 3:58 p.m.

    Bravo Paul for withholding the meat cleaver and trusting to the scalpel to analyze the "why?" of English football performance. Without getting too psychological, I think you may be ignoring the cliche (perhaps) that what constitutes a "real man" in England/US is different than the European ideal.

  8. Loren C. Klein, August 30, 2010 at 4:49 p.m.

    What keeps Englishmen from going abroad? Cash. Players in the nPower Championship make equal to players in other top-flight leagues, so why prove yourself when mediocrity pays so well. And before people bring up Paul's point on the paucity of Englishmen abroad in the late 1960s, unless you were a South American going to Italy or Spain, or an Eastern European getting asylum, no one was going abroad to play anywhere, hence the reason for the shock that was Cruijff going to Barcelona.

  9. dick berg, August 30, 2010 at 5:26 p.m.

    As per your observation regarding the bullying style of play in England....I, too, enquired about the same while living in London 1988-91. The most common answer was that the condition of their fields (pitches)were usually very wet and sloppy so their game was mostly played in the air. That created the type of player that was commended for winning headers and fighting physically
    with opponents for position. Players with ball skills were rare (George Best the exception)

  10. Aldo Baietti, August 30, 2010 at 7:14 p.m.

    Interesting article but I'm not sure any European country with a top league exports all that much.

  11. Charles O'Cain, August 31, 2010 at 9:59 a.m.

    EPL is a better blend of skill, strength and speed of play "players constantly performing at or near the limits of their physical powers". Unfortunately, "simulation" is high in the repertoire of skills among European and South American players, rewarded by their respective referee groups. Certainly one can "dance" on the ball with more flair and "think" (display what Mr. Gardner lauds as "intelligence") if the defender can't approach for fear that the ballerina will fling himself to the ground apoplectically in the (usually successful) bid for a free kick. Certainly it's more likely that one will play out of the back if the defender can't come to close the play down. There's a reason that the EPL is the most successful TV offering on the real world market, if not in Mr. Gardner's version of it. It's why I hear there's more NFL on TV than there is flag football.

  12. jock mccruyff, September 6, 2010 at 5:05 p.m.

    the answer is simply poor son plays under 15s in Glasgow and the games can be quite violent, but all the ref ever does is wave play on. And then we wonder why we cannot produce techniclly gifted players,anyone who puts thier foot on the ball ends up 3 metres up in the air. What chance do Brittish kids have. The same mentality moves on to the senior game, with the same poor refs.Howard Webb world cup final? Iam convinced if you put Brittish refs in charge of Spanish youth & senior football for 10/15 years, it would end up just as bad as .

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