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, national footballing stereotypes still hold sway.

The World Cup offers an opportune moment to reflect on the increasing divide in the international game. Bigger, more traditional footballing nations – think Germany or Spain – are able to play more expansive, high-pressing football; smaller nations tend to sit deep, frustrate their more storied counterparts and attempt to nick a goal on the break, the odd noble exception (such as Peru) aside.

While the causes are many and for debate elsewhere, one effect of this growing division in international football is the steady erosion of national football cultures or stereotypes.  Nowadays it’s harder to speak of a distinctively German or Spanish model. Those two countries, and many of the other top footballing nations,  play or aspire 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 a style that will get them to a major tournament.

What, then, has become of the old-fashioned national stereotype or of the traditional German or Spanish footballer? It would appear, based on an entirely non-scientific and personal investigation into the matter, that these are nowadays to be found at amateur level. It is on the five-a-side pitch, not the Estadio Da Luz or the Luzhniki, that imagined national communities continue to hold sway.

My experiences in Germany bore this out. 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 imagined standard set by my nation.

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

It wasn’t unlucky, the Germans 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 developing a hard-nosed attitude that would have helped add to a solitary World Cup triumph. The unspoken message, of course, was that since 1966, Germany had enjoyed far more tournament success.

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.

In Colombia, I encountered the same phenomenon. There, a relaxed approach off the field – coffee before a match was an essential ritual – extended onto the field, where one team-mate insisted on being called “negrito”.

After the Luis Suarez affair – and in an overwhelmingly English team – this was met with raised eyebrows: that seemed a stretch too far, could we perhaps use his first name instead? When said midfielder continued to ignore demands for passes addressed as thus, “negrito” began to stick.

While the Colombians were impressed by the English organisation and commitment – arriving early to warm up was, to them, a novelty (they preferred to linger longer over coffee) – we enjoyed their flair and laidback attitude to the game (not that this didn’t occasionally – and spectacularly – switch into anger, as happened once or twice), 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 plenty of Germans and Colombians who didn’t conform to the stereotype, but the ones who did made for a better, more amusing story. All the more so with the disappearance of national footballing identities at the elite level. With no Lothar Matthäus or Carlos Valderrama to embody a nation’s identity on the professional field, we find or look for, those characteristics reflected lower down instead.

Playing abroad, I learnt far more about what football culture in England is – or is held to be – by those responses from my German and Colombian friends than I did in years of racing up and down the touchlines of the pitches of suburban Oxford. We might not have won the World Cup since 1966, but they’re secretly still quite fond of us and what England represents – even the Germans. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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