For those of us who have scarcely glanced at the back pages for the past decade, this is a shocking statement. After all, isn't English football 'The Slum Game'? Weren't English fans involved in the disaster at Heysel in 1985? Didn't more die at Hillsborough in 1989? Surely hooligans prowl the terraces bottling the innocent and the infirm. The national game is run by 'bumped-up idiots in the main', as one observer said to me. And, of course, the English team are inept, managed until recently by a foul-mouthed vegetable who failed to get them a place in the World Cup finals. Or have I missed something?
Probably. After all, my last live experience of football was some years ago, in Spain, when I watched a 'friendly' between Real Madrid and Everton. Real were hypnotic, playing like 11 temperamental artists. Contemptuously they annihilated Everton, who played a dour, leaden game of kick-and-run.
Since my previous experience had centred on an otherwise happy childhood spent supporting - the word is unusually apt - Manchester City, the rite of football is forever associated in my mind with pain, the capricious workings of fate and the futility of human aspiration.
But quietly, almost subliminally, over the last five years football has been redeemed. Politicians - John Major, David Mellor, Kenneth Clarke - made a point of being seen on the terraces. Children all over the country have abandoned Take That and are singing an endless, lyrically ingenious anthem to the glories of Manchester United - 'Come on, you Reds, come on, you Reds, just keep your bottle and use your heads.' Smart comedians such as David Baddiel and Frank Skinner make television programmes about the game, and the readers of heavy newspapers construct fantasy teams instead of doing the crossword. Serious books by Nick Hornby and Dave Hill add literary weight, and a growing 'fanzine' culture pursues mystical union in the authenticity of the soccer experience.
What has happened, in essence, is that the fans have fought back. Between 1985 and 1989 they were consigned to the cultural dustbin. Moody, violent and tragically unhip, they were seen as the deranged followers of a game that had all the socio-political and stylistic cachet of a TUC conference.
The turning point was Hillsborough. The dead weren't skinheads, they were recognisably ordinary people killed by a system that treated them like cattle. Then came the 1990 World Cup - disappointing as football, but an overwhelming endorsement of the glamour, joy and smart architecture of the game as played in Italy. Suddenly there was something to be said for football, suddenly it was Lineker's charm, Gazza's tears, art, life and sunshine.
The fact that for the next four years the English national team sank back into mud-caked, rain- soaked misery endorsed the growing feeling that the game's national institutions were failing the fans. For at the same time, club football was blossoming. Rangers, Manchester United and Arsenal were what British football was really about - rich, internationalised, slick and as much fun, as much fan- centred as rock 'n' roll. The Sky- BBC television deal perversely accentuated the effect, for it reduced the amount of English football on mainstream television and prompted Channel 4 to show the Italian league in all its glory and emotion. An accepted aristocracy of European clubs emerged and the fans became cosmopolitan, made aware by the international market in players of the teams and tactics of AC Milan or Bayern Munich, as they were of Aston Villa or, God help us all, Manchester City.
Outside the damp, airless confines of the old English game, new political and marketing imperatives were emerging. Joao Havelange, the marketing-crazed boss of football's international ruling body, Fifa, had arranged the next World Cup in the United States. Fifa's two biggest commercial backers, Coca-Cola and Adidas, wanted to engineer the game's last, biggest conquest. In particular, Adidas, a European sports equipment maker, planned to challenge the American ascendancy of Nike and Reebok. At the level of the game itself this new climate has finally filtered through to the England team. After the years of the misconceived and parochial tactics of Graham Taylor, the authorities have finally had to call in the smarter, internationally-aware Terry Venables.
In Brussels, small, intense groups of politicians have identified football as the perfect cultural glue for the new Europe. Where once Euro-idealism was predicated on some deep symmetry between Goethe, Michelangelo and Shakespeare, now it relies upon Platt, Baggio and Van Basten. The masses might not turn out for the Euro elections, but they would flock to see Arsenal and AC Milan and then, maybe, they would vote, vote, vote for Jacques Delors.
Of more practical importance were the demands of the balance sheets of the new super-clubs. They no longer wanted the capriciousness of a European Cup knock-out tournament in which 'Man U', could be removed by some unpronounceables from Turkey, they wanted guaranteed revenues. For two seasons the cup has been run partly as a league; next year a seeding system will ensure big games against worthy opponents. A full- scale Euro-league is now looming, in which the big clubs can make yet more money by controlling television rights instead of dealing with the bureaucracy of locally negotiated deals. Second-ranking clubs - oh, City, my youth, my dreams - that do not make this league will be in trouble.
But the real problem with all this, of course, is that it conflicts with the authenticity aspirations of the new, smart, fanzine culture. An internationalised super-game, marketed and run like American football, basketball or baseball with huge sponsorship deals and new conventions and laws dictated by the demands of television, is absolutely not the real football experience. The game, from the fanzine perspective, is a history and a tradition. The schoolchildren's Manchester United song, for example, begins with an evocation of the Busby Babes, many of whom died long before any of the singers were born. There is even a fad for collecting Seventies strips - specifically because they date from the days before the shirts were rudely stamped with sponsors' names and logos.
For this type of fan football is not Take That, it is Van Morrison; it is real ale, not a white wine spritzer. Above all, it is a matter of locality, with teams tied to the moods and eccentricities of their home towns rather than locked into a globalised system.
The question is: are the authentic types a purist minority or are they the true spirit of the terraces? The signs are not good. The years of English misery drove away the respectable crowds and they might only return if offered a total entertainment package. At Leicester City, for example, they decided to improve the image of their reserve team games. They did so by offering gimmicks, such as face-painting and a mascot called Filbert the Fox. Crowds shot up to 10,000 and, on one occasion, 19,000. As breakfast television so painfully learnt, authenticity is seldom as effective as daft games and stupid animals.
Of course, with the World Cup being held in the US the pressure on the purists becomes even more intense. This time we will get the whole deal: low-level, wide-angle shots of cheerleaders, big screens with electronic firework displays and even, at the Pontiac Silverdome in Detroit, games played indoors. Indeed, Fifa had to resist American demands for a change in the 'too complicated' offside law, an increase in the size of the nets to ensure more goals and 'time- outs' to allow the television stations to take commercial breaks. But even if such changes are resisted for now, the long-term direction of the game must be towards greater globalisation, commercialisation and fewer, bigger club teams, which will take over from national teams as the focus of attention.
If this means the world of Johnny Haynes, Stanley Matthews and my dear, disastrous Manchester City is being superseded, then perhaps the English game has only itself to blame. In its darkest days it was no more than a tight freemasonry of pompous little men for whom the fans were a mere messy necessity. If those fans have turned out to be a tougher, smarter, wittier breed than we used to imagine, then it is in spite of, rather than thanks to the way the English game has been run.
And now we have weeks of purgatorial ignominy as, in our absence, the Americans market the hell out of the game. At least we can console ourselves with the thought that it just won't be the same, though the slightly darker afterthought is that nothing ever will.Reuse content