Brainless machismo still plagues British soccer

By Paul Gardner

LONDON -- One of last weekend's big soccer stories here -- or so it would seem from press coverage -- had to do with the reading out of Saturday's English soccer scores. On the radio. I was rather surprised to hear that this rigmarole still exists -- I wouldn't have thought anyone listened any more. It has the feel of something dusty and archaic that the combined forces of television and the Internet and iPhones should have swept into oblivion long since.

Certainly, back in the 1970s, reading the results was regarded as one of the most menial of broadcasting assignments. After all, how much personality could one inject into a necessarily unemotional and flat delivery of lines like Brentford 1 Hartlepool Nil? And there were at least 30 such lines, one after the other, to get through, with meticulous accuracy and with a methodical slowness that allowed gamblers to check and double-check their pool entries, game by game.

At high school we used to gleefully mock the voice intoning -- with such ponderous solemnity -- the scores of so many obscure games. Comedians have found the football results a rich source for sketches (two great examples are by Michael Bentine and Mel Smith).

So much for my awareness. The radio results reading goes on, and is now big news because it has a new reader. A genuine soccer fan, and an experienced broadcaster. Well, big deal. But it was considered such because the new reader is one Charlotte Green. Yikes! A Woman! Run for the hills ...!

Just what was behind the rash of media stories about Green and her new job is not clear to me. Surely, we’re beyond the time when it could be thought that a woman couldn’t do this? Or maybe shouldn’t do it? Of course, Green did the job effortlessly (The Observer), even brilliantly (The Sunday Telegraph).

So, while the appointment of Green to a previously male-exclusive job sort of proves that those macho soccer attitudes are fading fast, the totally unnecessary hullabaloo surrounding the appointment pretty strongly suggests that a lot of people did see something remarkable in a well-qualified woman getting the job.

And those people are not wrong. Brainless machismo is alive and well at the core of British soccer. Yes, I’d say that it has got tired of mocking feminists (or maybe just seen the light) -- its targets these days are male players who don’t fully engage with the traditional Brit soccer mode of getting “stuck in.” These players are mostly, if not all, foreigners (i.e. non-Brits) and they exhibit their shameful lack of machismo by diving and/or by theatrically pretending to be injured.

Two recent stories back up this view. In fact, the first of them is so complete an example of what I’m talking about that I’m suspicious of it. But it appeared in the Daily Mail , so ...

It’s former ManU defender Phil Neville speaking about Cristiano Ronaldo’s early days at the English club: “He dived a lot. He tried to buy fouls and he came in for a lot of criticism. The boys were hard on him for his diving and it was putting us under pressure. I'd say the first 12 months there was a massive toughening up process. In training at the time you had Roy Keane, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes, and every time he got the ball they kicked him and they kicked him -- not just once, they kicked him every day, every week, all season.”

Three top players with a top club, deliberately and methodically kicking one of their own players (a foreigner, that goes without saying) for a whole season. Can that really be? Neville is in no doubt that getting stuck in on Ronaldo (but Neville doesn’t tell us, did Keane and Butt and Scholes enjoy this?) paid off because Ronaldo is now “the best player in the world.”

Ronaldo the world’s best player because he spent a whole season being kicked by his own players during training, and so learned to be more macho? Neville’s assumption doesn’t bear much scrutiny. First, Ronaldo was accused of diving throughout his career in England. So much for the toughening-up measures. Second, the diving accusations stopped abruptly when Ronaldo moved to Real Madrid, to the more sophisticated Spanish soccer culture which has a greater appreciation of soccer skill and is therefore much less ready to see a dive every time a player goes down.

Third -- something Neville himself brings up: “I would see him take a ball and run around the whole of the training complex, developing his skills, developing a trick to beat a defender… it's probably a mile-and-a-half around the complex, and he did it every single day.” Which might have helped.

I have no doubts at all about my second example of just how Brit machismo clouds soccer judgment, as I saw the whole thing develop on television. Glasgow Celtic vs. Barcelona in the Champions League. With Lionel Messi on the injured list, attention focused on Barcelona’s new star, the Brazilian Neymar.

Things would not be easy for Neymar -- Celtic, with its huge army of 60,000 ardent fans, is not an easy place to play, and Celtic could certainly be cited as a team that holds dear the Brit “get stuck in” credo. But Celtic can play soccer too, and this was a game it might have won (it beat Barcelona here 2-1 in a memorable game last year).

Barcelona was, for sure, the more accomplished team, the better team if you like, with a whopping 82 percent domination of possession time ... but the scoreline was still 0-0 at 59 minutes, when Neymar -- having a lively but not spectacular game -- set off on a dribble and was promptly -- and obviously -- tripped by Celtic captain Scott Brown. As French referee Stephane Lannoy raced up, yellow card in hand, Brown sealed his own fate by aiming a kick at Neymar, still on the ground. The yellow card disappeared, replaced by a straight red, and Brown was gone. Celtic’s 10 men held on for 15 minutes, until Cesc Fabregas clinched it for Barcelona with a neatly headed goal.

Post-game, Celtic coach Neil Lennon looked distraught at the loss and focused on the red card as the turning point. And so we got from Lennon -- whom I have always seen as one of the more level-headed guys in his profession -- a revealing glimpse of the Brit “get stuck in” mentality. The red card was not justified, he said. It was all down to Neymar’s theatrics; he had greatly exaggerated Brown’s “tap -- if you want to call it that,” said Lennon.

This is just pathetic. Brown aims a kick at Neymar who is on the ground (Brown having dumped him there). He makes contact with either Neymar’s arm, or the back of his rib cage -- a rather vulnerable area. A mere “tap” says Lennon. Possibly -- the replays are the familiar “inconclusive” ones. Lennon did not quite get around to muttering the hallowed “it’s a man’s game” line -- he made do with “it’s a physical game.” Nor did he maintain that Neymar should have got a yellow for simulation -- but he made it abundantly clear that, as he saw this incident, Brown was the hero and Neymar was the villain: “It’s a physical game, and I don’t think Neymar does himself any favors with the way he behaves at times.”

This sheds a pitiless light on the emptiness of the Brit attitude. To justify itself, it needs to sanctify the villains and to vilify the victims. Pretty well exactly one year ago I was writing in this column about another young Brazilian who was being condemned as a diver by a Brit coach, Tony Pulis. The Brazilian was the teenager Oscar, just beginning his career with Chelsea. The referee had (quite wrongly) carded Oscar for diving, and Pulis was quick to exonerate his player -- Ryan Shawcrosss -- who had “tackled” Oscar, and to applaud the referee: “this is England and we can’t watch players fall over and not talk about it.”

It is sad to see Neil Lennon lining himself up with Pulis (who got himself fired as the Stoke coach, ousted at least in part because the Stoke fans got fed up with the dreadful soccer he imposed on his team). The issue is clear enough. Do the Brits want a sport that welcomes the crudities of a Scott Brown or a Ryan Shawcross? Or one that encourages the skills of a Neymar or an Oscar?

Until the Brits get themselves on the right side of this one, until they acknowledge that “getting stuck in” is no longer an admirable quality but simply an excuse for lousy soccer, their game will continue to languish.
11 comments about "Brainless machismo still plagues British soccer".
  1. Allan Lindh, October 3, 2013 at 3:37 a.m.

    Brown kicked him, it was clearly deliberate, and Neymar's scream was instantaneous, you can't fake that. Having said that, Neymar does dive sometimes around the box, and at times is guilty of deliberate dirty fouls himself -- check out his foul on dos Santos in the Mexico-Brazil match in the Confederations cup.

  2. Charles O'Cain, October 3, 2013 at 8:52 a.m.

    Neymar is without doubt a highly skilled player, but he is also notorious even in his own country for spectacular dives and almost comical simulation. Suarez similarly has wonderful skills, but does that also mean his mouth (verbal and dental) must be welcomed in British soccer? And Torres with his nails? Speaking of "crudities"... does Mr Gardner welcome these "skills" also into his vision of a more beautiful EPL? As for Oscar, now there's the real thing. I'll even watch Chelsea to see him play.

  3. David Mont, October 3, 2013 at 9:14 a.m.

    I'm not at all sure that there was a kick by Brown, but I'm quite certain that Neymar's death agony was simulation beyond comical. Also, not sure I understand that bit about the female radio announcer. I remember hearing female score readers on BBC in the late 1980s. Why is it a big deal now, some 25 years later?

  4. Kent James, October 3, 2013 at 10:01 a.m.

    Although I am all for skillful soccer, PG needs to acknowledge that some skillful players dive, and that they should be criticized for it. If Brown purposely kicked Neymar while he was on the ground, regardless of how lightly, he deserved to be sent off, and has no one to blame but himself. But Ronaldo did dive much more earlier in his career than he does now (and Neymar has the same reputation). Diving is cheating, and should be condemned (yes, PG, I'm talking to you). Exquisite all skills and diving need not go together, so people who condemn diving are not necessarily anti-skill (or anti-foreigner). Look at Messi. The most skillful player in the world, and you never see him dive. When he gets knocked down (often purposely), he's back up and scampering away (usually still with the ball). That's a positive expression of the toughness that athletes should embrace.

  5. Aaron Murray, October 3, 2013 at 10:14 a.m.

    Gardner does so well on many other topics, and I enjoy reading him. But this almost constant, ongoing campaign against anyone who criticizes diving/simulation or who lauds old-fashioned physical play -- and as the history and traditions of this game demonstrate if you study them, clean play CAN BE physical and it CAN BE hard -- does him no favors. Why such vitriol toward the idea of soccer being a physical and often hard game? Are the Irish supposed to stop being Irish? That's how they grew up playing! Who has the authority to say it must be antiquated? It's a part of the game. Agreed that hard, cynical, dangerous fouls of the type that Danielle de Rossi or Nigel de Jong or Dunga have dished out are something different and should be harshly punished. The fact remains that the greatest practitioner of the beautiful game, Pele, broke through hard tackles and stayed on his feet and dished out hard tackles himself aplenty. (That's not to say that those fouling Pele dangerously shouldn't have been reprimanded, suspended, and harshly fined.) Why this implication that we MUST like the way the modern Spanish play, as if liking ticky-tacka and 80% possession is a requirement of anyone in the know? What does Barcelona really have anyway: a number of truly great players and then walks-on-water Messi. Without those tremendous players along with a Messi to dribble right up the middle and go for the goal, ticky-tacka doesn't necessarily work. So why must everyone play like that to be modern? And Messi doesn't dive, or go to ground easy. Why the implication that it is modern or even on the cutting edge to be a diving/simulating Ronaldo or Ashley Young while a long ball and hard tackle must be from the dinosaur age? There are many styles and ways to play the game, which is what makes it fun to watch. Why shouldn't we also enjoy a beautifully played long ball, or a hard, CLEAN tackle that gives pause to an insouciant attacker? It's well known that the culture in Britain, and the US for that matter, doesn't regard simulation in the same way the Spanish do. (Although I'm sure plenty in Spain don't think it's too cool either: I think di Stefano has had a say on this.) If the British were equivocal about simulation, then they wouldn't be British. Cheating is cheating and there is no gray area. It may be a generality, but as generalities go it is a worthy one. And I'm happy overall with the way the US currently play, with a very few examples of simulation -- though I've seen a couple unfortunately. I can't imagine Michael Bradley faking it, or even going to ground easy, and I don't expect that I'll ever see that day.

  6. Ken Jamieson, October 3, 2013 at 10:45 a.m.

    The fact that British soccer is, and has been, in decline since 1966 and that fewer and fewer Brits actually play in the Premier League must indicate that something is wrong with the British game. Much as Canadian hockey had to become introspective with the advent of Europeans in the NHL, so must British soccer re-examine itself if it is to return to the pinnacle of the sport. "Getting stuck in" is no different than "If you can't beat them on the ice beat them in the alleys" mentality hockey had in Canada for years. I am not sure if any American sports are sufficiently challenged by non-Americans for the US sports fans to really understand what Paul is talking about. It is more than just diving or simulating, it's about allowing the gratuitous physical aspects of the game to overtake the skill aspects to the point your brand is not competitive anymore. Much as diving is an issue in hockey, it is a by-product of less talented players using other-than-legal methods to limit the skill players. Skill players will do what they must do to bring these tactics to the attention of the referee, even if it means diving to accentuate the perceived foul. For every dive in the game their is at least as many grabs and pokes done in a sneaky and underhanded way, one need only watch the off-ball activities on a corner kick. I do not condone diving, as I believe it take away from the game and cheapens the reputation of the diver, but so too does the cheap shots and overly aggressive play characterized as the "tough parts of the game." An overall balancing out of the game is required. Coaches that believe "getting stuck in" is a valid tactic to counter skilled players are the Neanderthals of the sport.

  7. R2 Dad, October 3, 2013 at 12:43 p.m.

    These comments all apply to the adult game, but impressions and habits are developed in the youth game and that's my concern. Coaches teaching and young kids learning how to play the game. Because learning to deliver "hard" tackles and play over the top are valid tactics, but if that's all you can do you end up playing like the British teams that PG rants about; all tackles in the defensive half, no midfield play, no passing. Aaron writes about letting the Irish play the way they know how, but should we be teaching our kids to play like that? The obvious answer is No, because Spain can CHOOSE to play that way if they wished but the Irish can never CHOOSE to play like Spain. Being of Irish extraction this pains me to say, but their kick-and-run style of play is the least common denominator of the sport, for the least skilled players and teams. Moreover, Aaron's point about "hard" tackles is passe. At least 50% of the time a tackle is "hard" because the defender is using reckless or excessive force, regardless of whether the attacker was stripped of the ball. Before the late 90's, toe-poking the ball from the attacker while inducing blunt force trauma was allowed (even encouraged). That's a "hard" tackle, and that's why it's no longer allowed. Can you tackle cleanly and strip the ball while running flat out? It's possible, but the margin for error is small so in my opinion that's a skill best left to be developed in the early teen years, at the competitive level. Should we teach our kids to spend more time tackling and less time passing? No, because more injury comes to kids who defend this way. I deal on a regular basis with Irish coaches and their sons who like the "hard" tackle. We don't let the bad habits they brought over from the homeland take root here. Players are carded and coaches have been ejected for arguing this specific point. Eventually they learn the tactic so praised in the UK is a liability in the US.

  8. Mike Gaire, October 3, 2013 at 1:03 p.m.

    Yet more mindless Brit Bashing from Gardner! When will this ever end? I am so fed up with reading this ridiculous "passion of the converted" from this Ex Brit! I hope they declare him perosona non grata in the U.K.

  9. ROBERT BOND, October 3, 2013 at 2:53 p.m.

    Y'all all missing the point-Bayern are modern fussball, & other teams that pass to gradually work the ball in to a set-up, that let pure possession teams that will pass the ball endlessly & pointlessly out side the penalty do so as long as they want, but pounce quickly in the area to start deadly counter-attacks.....Kroos & Boateng showed they can play rough, too, when there's a point to it..other than Mueller, they don't go down easy, either....only the Gunners seem to get that this is new way to move forward, as Swansea had more possession, but not more points.....shoulder tackles the way to go....

  10. Kent James, October 3, 2013 at 11:32 p.m.

    The terms in this discussion have multiple meanings. Some people (on both sides of the debate) consider hard tackles to be a dirty (or at least illegal) tackle. Describing a player as a "hard" man usually means they are a dirty player (or at least a player unwilling to be shackled by piddly rules). And if that is the case, I agree with R2 that this sort of play needs to be eliminated. But I don't think that's the type of play Aaron was advocating. A more accurate term is physical play. And soccer is a physical game, and I think that's a good thing. For example, on a corner kick, hard defenders will do whatever it takes (grab the shirt, push, etc.) to prevent their mark from getting a clean play on the ball. This sort of "defending" should be penalized (the refs let way too much of that go). But a physical defender will see where the ball is coming, and jump early and strong in an attempt to get his head on the ball, regardless of who else is challenging. He may not get the ball, but as long as his path is directly to the ball, neither should he foul. But he may make physical contact with other players who are also going for the ball, and even if he does not win the ball, that contact may be enough to throw of the accuracy of their shot. Non-physical players will either not go up (leaving a free header) or make a token effort (afraid to make real contact) that isn't much better. It takes courage to go up for a header in a crowd, and this is the positive side of the Irish/British culture. Another example is when a player is unleashing a powerful shot; a courageous defender will throw his body in front of the shot (not into the shooter, in front of the shooter, so it should not be a foul nor dangerous to the shooter), courageously "taking one for the team". Of course, a "hard player" will tackle through the shooter, and that should be harshly penalized for the dangerous play it is.

  11. Aaron Murray, October 5, 2013 at 10:48 p.m.

    When it's a 50/50 ball, a call to get "stuck in" doesn't mean play dirty, it means to challenge courageously and physically for the ball. Last I checked courage and physicality were good qualities to teach our youth. Definitely not advocating any equivocation about harsh punishment for tackling from behind or with two legs in the air or with studs up or anything dangerous. On the contrary, I think penalties should be much harsher for "hard man" play like what De Jong and Evans both did in turn to Stuart Holden. Or what Dunga did to Tab Ramos or De Rossi to McBride. Much harsher! But it comes back to this. Cheating of any kind is cheating and should be punished harshly. FIFA may say football is like life, not always fair, as they stick one hand in the cookie jar while with the other they hold off at any attempts to institute video replay. But pros are pros and will take note and stop cheating if penalties are strong enough and meaningful enough to them. In the same way, diving/simulation is cheating and should be punished equally as heavily, with video review as needed -- and no crap about that being inconclusive, if some cases really are inconclusive then fine, no penalty. Most refs, like us fans, will be able to make the call easily on seeing the replay. But none of this has anything to do with a clean hard tackle or physical play. This is a wonderful and important part of the game. Nothing like a clean tackle on a 50/50 ball staying low, making contact at the same time as an attacker, who you as the defender are facing. Shakes up the attacker and lets him know you're there, but in no way does such a tackle threaten anyone's career or endanger your opponent.

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