Whatever you might say about the professionalism controversies in England in the 1880s, it was the case then, and has been ever since, that practically all the actual football is played by amateurs.
Snopes-type legends about amateur football abound. About street football, which is alleged to have honed ballplaying skills so well – you can see an October 1930 clip of a street game here and decide for yourself. (British Movietone: registration possibly required). In other countries, it’s beach football, or a relationship between football and forms of dance, forms of self-defence, or football and dances which are self-defence in disguise.
At any rate, the Snopes-style myth connects poverty with skill on the ball.
South American countries were the first to truly value that kind of skill, and were the first to use football as a specific means of national self-expression. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina went from football beginners to the best in the World in about 20 years – i.e. their very first footballing generation came up trumps (I’m assuming here that the 1924-1930 Uruguayans were a match for England and Scotland, which they almost certainly were).
By modern standards, these were poor countries whose kids did not allow poverty to keep them from taking up the craze. But I wonder. Not all of their best players came from the humblest backgrounds. And the pre-War period was South America’s golden age of growth and reform and relative prosperity.
Things are getting better in parts of Africa, but for much of the continent, “golden age of growth and reform and relative prosperity” aren’t the ones you’d choose to describe, say, 1970-1995. I’d like to know more than I do about the comparative levels of coaching and football education in early-century South America as compared to post-colonial Africa.
Here are two interesting sets of photographs which show two aspects of the contemporary scene in either place. David Thompson of the eponymous comment site brings us images of some extraordinary grounds in Brazil. And here is Jessica Hilltout’s fascinating series about contemporary African street football.