Think soccer’s Book of Genesis meets Julian Fellowes’ "Downton Abbey." "The English Game" is the latest historical sports drama to hit Netflix’s virtual shelves, chronicling the game’s early class conflicts that eventually led to the proliferation of the sport’s professionalism worldwide.
The year is 1879, and soccer — which still looks a lot like rugby in the late 19th century — is a sport mostly played by aristocrats like Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft from Kingsman) who have the luxury of free time to endeavor in a sport. Kinnaird (playing for the Old Etonians), considered by some historians to be the first soccer star, epitomizes the pomp and influence that the upper classes held over the sport — and by extension, the working classes.
Further north in Darwen, Lancashire, a cotton mill factory team owned by James Walsh (Craig Parkinson from Misfits) seeks to be the first working class team to win the FA Cup. To help his chances, Walsh secretly pays two Scottish players to come down and play for his outfit professionally. One such Scot is Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie), understood to be the first man to be paid to play soccer.
As the series argues, the shift from amateurism to professionalism in English soccer forced the game to open up to the masses, letting the working class compete with the wealthy. "The English Game's" historical contributions are excellent and entertaining. Learning some intricacies to the early game — like how Scottish soccer players introduced the passing game to the English — sheds valuable light on a topic often passed over. The show’s pitfalls arrive with the relatively drab family dramas and romantic escapades that more often detract from the story’s believability than add.
Best line from Episode 1
Says Arthur Kinnaird, player for the elitist Old Etonians: “This game is meant for amateurs and gentlemen. Not professionals. It’s our game. We invented it!”
Replies Kinnaird’s wife: “You’re afraid that teams like Darwen will take over your game. You’re scared you’ll lose control of it.”
Did you know?
While playing goalkeeper for the Wanderers in the 1877 FA Cup final, Arthur Kinnaird caught a shot from an Oxford University player and stepped backward into his goal, recording one of the first significant own goals in soccer history.
The FA mysteriously annulled the own goal some time later, changing the score line in the record books. In the 1980s, football historians armed with new research discovered the cover-up and changed the records accordingly.
How to watch
"Love it or loathe it, 'The English Game's' love of the game is likely to illicit a rise out of fans, but tedious plotting stretched too thin may inspire others to riot."