No trouble naming the great years: 1946 (England’s greatest ever national side), 1953 (Puskas and co.), 1962 (Garrincha and Pele), 1966, 1970 (Pele and co again, this time in glorious technicolor), 1972 (Netzer’s West Germany), 1974 (total football) and 1982 (Brazil once again), 2006 for the Argentines. You’ll have your own candidates in spades.
It’s harder to work out the “worst” years. Worst in what respect? No one could be interested in rehearshing a list of dull, uninspired seasons or the tedious likes of the ’90 and ’94 World Cups. Some guidelines are required, and I offer the following:
- Years in which football culture changed for the worse in some tangible way
- Years in which politics and war did football real and lasting damage
- Air disasters
- Individual tragedies
I’m going to leave out stadium disasters, as they turn into rather unpleasant numbers games when put into lists. In 1988 I was shown the Fire Brigade video of the Bradford City disaster, and what’s in it still invades my dreams from time to time.
It’s all very grim.
Here are my nominees:
- 1883: Blackburn Olympic become the first professional side to win a tournament, beating Old Etonians in the FA Cup Final. They were among the first teams to be specifically coached, by a former international called Jack Hunter who introduced them to the Scottish passing game and took them away for a rest break in Blackpool before the Final.
The football codes in Great Britain bungled professionalism, in the end. Within thirty years of that Final, both rugby and football had ghettoized themselves along class lines, to their enduring detriment. As for Olympic, their advantage became their undoing. Local rivals Blackburn Rovers received better financial backing, and tempted the best Olympic players away. Their ground is now buried beneath a local school.
- 1925: the Offside Law changes, allowing only two defending players to come between the last attacker and the goal, instead of three. Right away, it took less thought and skill and guile to score. Within a year, George Camsell of Middlesbrough scored his 59 goals in a season, immediately followed by Dixie Dean’s 60. Both had enormous talent, both benefitted from a period of defensive chaos. Herbert Chapman, writing at the start of the 1930s, complained that the game had lost its quality and subtlety, that the new rule favoured physical strength and the hopeful long punt upfield. He and Charles Buchan pioneered the third back approach – a defensive measure seen as boring at the time. In the long term, the South Americans didn’t, and by 1950 the difference was beginning to tell.
- 1931: the death of John Thomson, Celtic goalkeeper. Before World War I, the deaths of players in action was far from uncommon, even in soccer as opposed to rugby (although neither on the scale of American Football, some of whose Edwardian tactics were intrinsically lethal). But Thomson was the greatest keeper in Scottish football, a capped international, a trophy winner and a star. Colliding with Sam English, a Rangers forward, Thomson fractured his skull and died later that afternoon. The event was captured in a thankfully blurred press photograph. Thomson’s death came as a shock and a body blow: his home town is still a place of pilgrimage for Celtic fans and Scottish football enthusiasts in general. Coming as it did at the time of Scotland’s greatest economic peril, it can only have deepened an already dark national mood.
- 1938-9: the Anschluss and the annexation of Czechoslovakia. Austria and Czechoslovakia were the true European powers in football before World War II. The events of the 1934 World Cup, in which a bent referee muscled Italy past the pair of them at the tournament’s climax, rankle still, and some Czechs regard themselves as the tournament’s true winners. Germany was not so football-orientated, and the first thing annexation did was to kill off a vibrant, growing football culture. It wouldn’t grow again in quite the same way. It was also the real end of the Mitropa Cup, a real European club tournament, best imagined as a mix of European and UEFA cups. And it led to personal tragedies. For a long time, the death in 1939 of Austria’s greatest footballer, the “Man of Paper” Matthias Sindelaar, was thought to have been accidental – carbon monoxide poisoning from a blocked stove. It’s now thought to have been suicide. Sindelaar had refused to play along with Nazification, continuing in fellowship with Jewish colleagues in the face of demands that they be ostracized. He couldn’t live under the Nazis: but in preWar Austria, suicide was illegal, and his friends wanted to spare him the posthumous ignominy.
- 1949: The Superga plane crash wipes out “Il Grande Torino”, the last flowering of Italian football’s first golden age. They still hold an astonishing array of Serie A records, and the team made up the overwhelming bulk of the Italian national team. The only scar on their record is an unfair one: a 4-0 home defeat to an England side whose like we have never seen again. It must have been one of the matches of the century. The accident crippled the Italian team in the World Cup of the following year, and it would be over a decade before Italian football found itself back at the cutting edge of the game.
- 1958: the Munich Air Disaster. Little more need be said.
- 1971: the creation of a single state championship in Brazil. Brazil was the last of the great footballing powers to institute a countrywide football league. The sheer size of Brazil, and the relatively undeveloped transport system, had ruled out such a development before, and not enough had changed to make it a success by 1971. Instead of raising standards, it triggered the foundation of many new clubs, spreading the available talent too thinly, damaging the finances of the likes of the famous Santos and bringing a partial end to the production line of outstanding talent that had been Brazilian football since the 1930s. Enough momentum remained to bring forth the 1982 Brazilian side, but nothing remotely comparable since.
- 1989: Surinam Airways Flight PY764 crash wipes out the “Colourful 11” from Surinam. The Colourful 11 were an exhibition side made up of Surinamese talent playing in the Dutch leagues. Amongst their number were names such as Ruud Gullit and Bryan Roy. On this occasion, prior commitments held the famous names back in Holland, and it was the second string who perished. Football can distort thinking to the extent that one might almost regard this outcome with relief.
- 1993: Gabon air crash wipes out the Zambian national side. We are still waiting for the African World Champions. This Zambia team were a very serious candidate to make an impression at the ’94 World Cup. Because of the crash (and some bent refereeing) they didn’t qualify. Zambia have yet to fully recover, in footballing terms. In human terms, the families of the dead, who lost major breadwinners, have yet to be properly compensated.
Time to do something more cheerful…