Innovation Elsewhere

The last real footballing innovation that came from England was the W-M formation – the Chapman/Buchan third back game, invented in 1925 as a response to the mayhem inspired by a change in the offside laws.

My previous post on this subject mused on some of the reasons why Britain ceased to be the engine of footballing development. This post is about some subsequent developments – about what I really mean by innovation.

New Ball Skills

One of the joys of the game is its frequent beautiful novelty:


That’s the Cruyff turn, obviously – an explicitly seventies creation.

The last distinguishable skill I can trace that has British roots is the body swerve, which is likely to have been Jimmy Hogan’s invention. Sadly, he found few takers for it on his home shores. Stanley Matthews later made it his own, by which time it was a staple of football in Austria, Hungary and South America.

The first explicitly non-British skill might have been the bicycle kick, attributed to a number of South American players including the Great War era Chilean Ramón Unzaga Asla, who is alleged to have used the technique in matches in 1914 and 1916.

New Directions in Playing Kit

Of course, the kit you wear has a direct bearing on what you can actually do. Between 1905 and 1955, the principle change in British football kit concerned the shirt, which became looser and lost the potentially dangerous laces on the collar. The boots and shorts changed little.

The spread of the game into warmer climates in Europe and South America made change in those places inevitable – British kit was just too hot and heavy to be tolerable. Here are Argentina and Uruguay in 1928: the boots have already exposed the ankle, although shirts and shorts look British:

By 1950, as Brazil and Uruguay demonstrate here, South American kit had become the model for the rest of the world. This is what football at the very top would look like up until about 1980:

From there, only commercialisation and new artificial fibres would provoke substantial change. Except for one thing: the demands of European mud. This mud, to be specific:

Adi Dassler – founder of Adidas – whose brother kept it in the family by founding Puma – equipped the West German team’s boots with his new screw studs, which – in appalling conditions – enabled them to lengthen their studs and gain an advantage over the up-until-then unstoppable Hungarian side.

Playing Styles

This is a difficult area. Does the unloveable catenaccio count and Charles Reep’s long-ball game not? And what about the influence of Paisley’s Liverpool? And how much does the Dutch Total Football owe to Jack Reynolds working in Holland in the 1940s?

Fortunately, perhaps, in any rock-paper-scissors of football, Total Football beats Catenaccio:

The Brazilian style, so dominant yet so hard to copy in the 1958-74 golden age, is actually a development of the original Scottish short-passing style, taken to South America by Archibald McLean in the years immediately before the Great War.

What the Brazilians added to it was training and preparation. But for Brazil becoming entangled – as every footballing power became entangled at some time – in arguments over professionalism, they would probably not have waited until 1958 to win the World Cup. The sheer size of Brazil held them back too. Transport was inadequate for a properly functioning national organization for many years, and early Brazilian national sides were taken for the most part from one or other of the competing regional administrations.

The 1938 World Cup took place in Europe. Brazil’s team spent a month together prior to the long voyage out, and arrived some three weeks before their first match. In 1958, they were the first team to bring sport psychologists along as part of their camp (the shrinks covered themselves with glory by declaring Pele not to be a big match player and recommending that he not be picked). It took until Glenn Hoddle’s reign as England manager for our own preparation to reach this kind of level of care and planning.

International Competitions

Britain was not against international matches, of course – after 1907, most summers saw an England side of some kind touring Europe. And the first real, properly organized and executed international football tournament took place in London, as part of the 1908 Olympics. (Had FIFA followed through on its plans, the first World Cup proper might have taken place as early as 1906 – and England would have been there).

But the inspiration was French, as were the Olympics themselves. As would be the World Cup itself, founded in response to the spread of professionalism to the international game and the consequent devaluing of the Olympic tournament. As would be the founding of UEFA, just one of a number of pan-European bodies of the 1950s that the British held back from.

In the first half of the twentieth century, England at least can be excused. The first game against non-British opposition came in 1908, a 6-1 away win against Austria – which was followed shortly afterwards by an 11-1 win, also away.

It would be 1929 before England lost an international match against foreign opposition. But that game, as was the case with most of these early internationals, was played with an unusually weak England team – and in the heat of midday Madrid, that weakened team were unfortunate to go down 3-2.

It’s a shame that England never faced Uruguay or Brazil or Argentina before the 1950s; until World War II, English teams assembled by bumbling amateurs, at the last minute and on the back of a fag packet, were enough to see off most of what Europe could come up with. The odd close shave, the odd ill-tempered scrap – but otherwise, England bestrode the soccer world as the USA bestrides the American Football world today.

It’s also worth remembering that in the pre-War era, Europe was scarcely the social democrat paradise of the ’60s and ’70s: Jimmy Hogan’s work in Hungary and Austria took place amidst huge corruption, state and public violence (including guns at games) and vicious racism. And it’s worth asking what point the World Cup had for England back then – or for Scotland, also absent, but who escape much of the opprobrium for it.

2 Replies to “Innovation Elsewhere”

  1. “Aldi Dassler – founder of Adidas “. “Aldi” is a famous discount chain but Adidas founder’s name was “Adi” Dassler. That why the company’s name is A d i D a s , “Das” from Dassler.

    (James says) Thanks Tom – typo corrected.

  2. If you want to sharpen this analysis, I think it’s worth splitting it into two eras, perhaps pre and post WW2?

    There was a period (maybe stretching from the beginning of the game to about 1920, I’m sure you can place it better) where basics of the game were still being invented. You talked about the stadia, the rules and basic organisations in your previous post. The bicycle kick is a good example in the skills area of a similar thing. Likewise the adaptation of kits to the warmer climes of Brazil. If we stretch the period enough, you can include the Adidas adaptation of boots to mud.

    As inventors of the game, the British teams had quite a hand in this period, naturally enough, but once the game has settled we enter a different kind of history.

    In the second period, which we’re living through, there are far fewer notable innovations and a lot of the innovations we’re talking about are small compared to that establishing period of the game. But, in terms of winning competitions these days, they are still important. They also often have a “pre-history” inspired by “some gent from the British Isles” but one value of splitting the eras allows us to see this “pre-history” as what it is… a distraction that lets us claim we’re still innovative.

    This highlights the true issue, which is not so much about “innovation” as “adoption of innovation.”

    Let’s take the story of “Total Quality Management.” It can be traced in “invention” or “innovation” to Americans like Deming. But, US industry largely ignored it. So off he (and others) went to Japan and put it into practice. Look at the history of the car industry for the results.

    This sounds a lot like some of the stories of various footballing ideas invented by a “Britisher” but only adopted in his travels to some far off place.

    Of course, all this leads me back to my previous comment and the training emphasis. If you train around basic skills then you have a platform to:

    a) Invent new skills (as in your Cruyff turn example).

    (Bergkamp would tell Arsenal teammates to “just hit the ball at me” because he had learned the basic understanding and skill of how to control the ball. From the combination of the arrival angle of the ball and the position of the defender he could then magic up a dazzling move. See Youtube for examples.)

    b) If you spend your childhood learning ball skills and tackle skills, along with “pitch spatial awareness” you can slot into a number of different tactical systems. By contrast, if you’re taught football through the medium of 4-4-2 (as I was in primary school and I’m sure many others were) then it’s much harder to implement a new way of doing things when Steve McLaren asks you to be part of a back 3 for the first time in your life…

    What’s the difference in attitude? Predictably, you might link it to the difference between the Wehrmacht and the English Tommy, or attitudes in industry. The British worker exists to do as he is told, in other countries there’s a notion of more “job autonomy,” perhaps derived from a craft tradition?

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