In this year’s World Cup,  the top teams will all play a variation of the game inherited from the Dutch side of the 70s. But at amateur level, styles of play remain distinctive

The World Cup offers an opportune moment to reflect on the increasing divide in the international game. Traditionally larger footballing nations are able to play a more expansive, high-pressing style; traditionally less well-resourced nations often opt to sit deep, frustrate and attempt to nick a goal on the break, the odd noble exception (such as Peru) aside.

While the causes are multifarious and for debate elsewhere, one effect of this growing division in international football is perhaps the steady erosion of national football cultures or stereotypes. Nowadays it is harder to speak of a distinctive national model, with many leading nations playing, or aspiring to play, a broadly similar style of football inspired by the Dutch, whose internal debate about diverging from that very style seems to mask that in recent years they have failed to find an approach that will get them to a major tournament.

What, then, has become of hackneyed national stereotypes? It would appear, based on an entirely non-scientific, personal investigation into the matter, that these can still be found at amateur level if you look hard enough. It is on the five-a-side pitch, rather than at the Estadio Da Luz or the Luzhniki, that imagined national communities continue to hold sway.

My own experiences in Germany attest to this, at least. One moment sticks in my mind: I was lying on the ground, a mouthful of 3G pellets, appealing in vain for a free-kick from the non-existent referee. In response one player said to me “englische Härte,” a German phrase used to denote typically English traits – think Terry Butcher in Sweden in 1989. By going down easily and appealing for a free-kick, I had, in some unknown way, fallen below the standard imagined for my nation.

By going down easily and appealing for a free-kick, I had, in some unknown way, fallen below the imagined standard set by my nation.

It was the latest lesson in a cultural schooling that had begun a couple of years prior when German colleagues – the office five-a-side tournament had been divided along national lines – asked their English counterparts why they responded to every missed chance by clapping, geeing up team-mates and shouting “unlucky”.

It wasn’t unlucky, the Germans colleagues insisted: if you missed a chance, it was poor execution. They suggested, in good humour, that this insistence on the Corinthian Spirit had perhaps prevented England from adding to a solitary World Cup triumph. The unspoken message, of course, was that since 1966, Germany had enjoyed far more success.

In Colombia, some locals were impressed by the English discipline – arriving early to warm up was a novelty (our host country’s citizens usually preferred to linger longer over coffee) – while the English in turn enjoyed their local team-mates’ laidback approach (not that this didn’t occasionally – and spectacularly – switch into anger), although as a left-back, I wasn’t quite sure how much I appreciated the forward-thinking streak in the holding midfielder.

If there is a broader point beyond these vignettes, it is that national stereotypes continue to reign at amateur level because we find what we’re conditioned to look for: there were, of course, countless Germans and Colombians who did not conform to the stereotype, but those who did drew a knowing smile, making for a better post-match conversation. With no Lothar Matthäus or Carlos Valderrama to embody a nation’s imagined identity on the professional field, we perhaps search instead for those characteristics lower down the pyramid.











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