The wonderful thing about football and its ubiquitous nature is that since very early in its development sides from different cultures, playing with markedly varied styles have come up against each other. Since the first international match played back in 1872, where a smaller, lighter and nippier Scottish side came up against a heavier and more powerful English side (the result was nil-nil), it has been evident that the chance to see teams from different countries come up against each other is attractive because it adds an extra dimension to games that domestic ties lack.
European club football has used this principle beautifully. After Real Madrid swept to power in the first year of the European Cup in 1955, it has been clear that having teams who are usually kept geographically apart test each other creates intrigue and more often than not brilliant drama.
This is true not just of the professionals but all the way through to the very bottom as well. I have just returned from playing in Europe’s largest amateur tournament, the Prague Barrel. Aside from being a 3 day, all the beer you can drink, melee, with twelve countries represented, it was also the chance for teams to pit themselves against other sides from around Europe.
In such competitions jokes about different national traits are never far away. Cultural stereotypes, however, have always been controversial. Indeed a study led by Antonio Terracciano and Robert McCrae of the US National Institute of Health showed that people’s idea of their cultural characteristics do not match the observed trends possibly indicating that such sensed traits are perhaps largely fiction.
In response to this study a psychologist at the University of California commented that “Stereotypes about national character seem to be largely cultural constructions, transmitted through the media, education, history, hearsay, and jokes”.
I would also add football to that list. Individual cultural differences may not exist but as I said I believe European competition has been popular because of the clashing of different styles and those styles can be placed loosely into national groupings.
Now logic would suggest that, particularly in the professional leagues, with globalisation and increased movement of footballers between domestic leagues that these trends will have diminished. We found, however, that as we made our way through the tournament that these stereotypes continue tolive strongly in the amateur levels of the game.
In our three group games we encountered teams of Swedes, Germans and Italians. The footballing cultural examination of the Swedes was tricky as they were too inebriated to play with a formation let alone a style but the Germans were a large, solid team that hit very fast on the counter and the Italians were expectedly defensive, relying on a couple of technical forwards to cause nuisance up front.
Our march through the tournament was finally halted in the semi-final as we were pummelled 6-1 by a group of Spaniards who although very pleasant off the field and who played great, technical football on it were obviously willing to do pretty much whatever was needed to progress to the final. There were Busquets-esque (a tongue-twister if ever there was one) falls to the ground, invisible cards galore and flagrant (admittedly successful) attempts to rile our best players. Highlights (not many from our point of view) of the game can be seen below.
Now this is not an attempt to characterise every team at whatever level across Europe according to their traditional national style but it was interesting to see that perhaps the rate of change in football is less at the amateur level than it is at professional. The extension of this argument is then perhaps that coaching of young players and the way they are taught to play football is governed and directed by the styles to which the professional teams are playing at the time.
This begs the question, in the present day when football policy makers, coaches and young people are all not just affected by their own domestic game but have huge access to football from abroad as well, will national styles become a thing of the past not just in the professional ranks but throughout the wider game as well?