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Those Feet

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David Winner – Those Feet

 

I don’t think you can really understand what it means to be English without understanding football. It’s such a part of English history, is so well-covered by the media, that even if you have no interest in it at all, it can still affect you. The peculiar relationship the English have with football is what this book is all about.

 

Winner runs through the obvious from the stiff-upper lip, sport makes a man out of you (and stops any disgusting sexual depravity) Victorian public school attitudes, to natural British pessimism, ability to laugh at ourselves yet utter belief that we are morally right. Sometimes, there are some surprising revelations that may push things a little far, but Winner always provides a seductive argument quoting experts he has interviewed and reviewing past events, all in a highly readable, entertaining way. For instance, the role played by the name “Roy” both in real life and fiction is uncovered along with what makes a hero to us English. Many times I read about some behaviour and recognised it as something I knew happened, but just hadn’t been able to pin down before.

 

He even has a look at the way we relate to the rest of the world. Foreigners it seems, view us with a mixture of amusement and respect, which in turn relates to how they see themselves.

 

One chapter on England’s relationship with Italy was particularly enlightening. Far from seeing themselves as the family-orientated, emotional, mafia that we see them as, the Italians see themselves as survivors of centuries of poverty and misrule where they are the victims. They are in fact, deeply cynical. On the football pitch, whereas us British want to win because we see ourselves as morally right, the Italians believe it is their destiny to win and that can mean by fair means or foul.

 

‘One English cliché about the Italians is that they have “hysteria”’, writes Winner. ‘Actually Italians are never hysterical. They are cold and calculating: you think your way through things. If you want to understand catenaccio read The Prince. Why did Claudio Gentile mark Maradona so violently in the 1982 World Cup? It’s just basic Italian cynical realism. They thought: “If we’re going to win the game , we have to stop Maradona” so Gentile kicked the shins off him.’

 

Other chapters I enjoyed are the roles played by the weather and how our kick and run game is shaped by playing on muddy fields that don’t allow the ball control or tricks of other continental players, that we’re finally coming round to the fact that we need to do something about it. And then there’s our history, the way we hark back to a “golden age” and call our footballers the new Bobby Moore or the new Alan Shearer. Then finally, it’s back to the roots of the English game and the ‘football’ that used to be played through the streets and was more akin to a riot. What would the Victorians make of the fertility rituals behind them? What would they make of today’s multicultural teams given our xenophobic tendencies?

 

Football may seem like trivia, just another sport, but it’s important because it encapsulates English culture from the working class to the top; it’s ingrained into our psyche. It reflects the nation’s obsessions at any given time, and gives them something to obsess about. It’s a constant in many people’s lives and has a significance all of its own precisely because it is of significance to many people. If you can understand the how and the why of football culture – and that means what goes on off the pitch as well as on it - then you can understand what makes the English tick. As Winner says

 

‘England fans don’t just live in the past, they commit its names and dates and scores to sacred memory. They remember players’ shirt numbers, their own journeys to stadiums, their team’s place in the league on a given day, the texture of the meat pie they ate at half-time, the temperature of the Bovril they spilled. And all of it is important.’

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