Football in India is not new – and has a greater tradition than cricket

Historically, India had many of its own sports, one of which, kabaddi, is having a major resurgence through national and international TV coverage. The first Western sport that India excelled at was hockey (in some countries termed field hockey). It’s still very popular among Indian men and women. The Indian men’s team first competed in the 1928 Olympics, long before independence from the British, winning gold, won gold at the next five Olympics, and eight golds in total up to 1980.

Mohan Bagan Athletic Club 1911. Winners of the Indian Football Association Shield

When those outside India think about sport in that country, we automatically think of cricket. But this is an outsider’s perspective, and from the present day. Football in India is not new, and has a greater tradition than cricket.

Cricket, by comparison, was historically a smaller sport in terms of the number of players, and didn’t gain mass popularity until after the Indian cricket team started to perform well. India made its Test Cricket debut in 1932, but didn’t win a test until 1952. Decades of steady improvement followed, but the game only really took off in the national public imagination when India won the Cricket World Cup in 1983, defeating the favourites and two-time defending champions the West Indies in the final. Sachin Tendulkar joined the test team in 1989 and became India’s first cricket superstar. India’s international results have continued to improve. In 2008, the launch of the Twenty20 cricket league, the Indian Premier League, drawing star players from around the world, took cricket in India to a new level, both in terms of attendances at games and mass TV audiences. Cricket is now huge in India, but it is relatively recent, since the 1990s.

So what of football? The British brought the game as the imperial rulers of India and spread it principally through the British Army stationed in the country. The Durand Cup, first held in Shimla in 1888, was the first Indian competition and is the third oldest surviving football competition in the world, after the English and Scottish FA Cups. The Indians soon took up the game and in 1892 the Sovabazar Club, in beating the East Surrey Regiment, became the first Indian team to beat a British side. The first of India’s major clubs, which is still going today, was Mohun Bagan. They made history in 1911 by becoming the first Indian team to win a major trophy, the Indian Football Association Shield, beating the East Yorkshire Regiment in the final, in front of 60,000 fans. This became part of the narrative of the independence movement. If they could even beat the British at their own game – football – why shouldn’t they run their own country?

Football drew huge crowds and had mass popularity in some parts of India, especially in Bengal. Indian teams started to play overseas from the 1930s, including internationals. The All India Football Federation was founded in 1937. After independence, a barefooted Indian team played at the 1948 Olympics, losing only 2-1 to France, after missing two penalties. India did not refuse to go to the World Cup in Brazil in 1950 because FIFA had banned them from playing barefoot – this is a myth. They would have played in boots, but chose not to go in part because of the cost of travel, and also because at the time they favoured the Olympics over the World Cup. In the 1950s India became the best team in Asia, performed well at Olympic football tournaments and won the Asian Games. The game also remained very popular in many regions of the country.

India is a vast country, and there was no national league until 1996. Football was regionalised, very popular in some places, largely unknown in others. But the same, to some extent, can also be said of cricket in India. Football in India has a long and strong history, but it’s been relatively weak in performance, especially in international terms. This doesn’t inspire the next generation, when the cricket team is often ranked number one, and there is big money to be made in cricket, but not football. But this is changing. TV has brought the football leagues of Europe to India, and the English Premier League and La Liga have proved immensely popular, and professional football in India is developing. Football has not come from nowhere in India, whereas arguably cricket did. Football in India has long, deep roots. Football in the past was more popular than cricket in India – and today, it is slowly beginning to rival cricket once more.

For my full argument that football in India is not new – and has a greater tradition than cricket, please see my new book, ‘What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths’, published by Bloomsbury, London, UK.

Most football managers make no difference at all

Football managers, as at no point in the game’s history, are now celebrities that transcend the sport, such as Sir Alex Ferguson, José Mourinho and ‘Pep’ Guardiola. There were managers in English football before this who were famous – think of Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly, Brian Clough – but not at the level of global fame of today’s managers. Today, football managers have cult-like status. We think these great names, these great characters, make the difference between success and failure. In the past, when clubs were fairly equal in financial resources, they may have done. But now it’s largely a myth. Most football managers make no difference at all.

There are notable exceptions!

The simple fact is that in modern football it’s all about the money. The richer the club, the more it has to spend on buying the best players and paying the top wages to attract these players. Statistically, the more a club spends on wages, the more successful it will be. The correlation between wages and league position in the Premier League and the Championship is as high as 87 per cent in one study, 92 per cent in another, leading to a conclusion that it’s around 90 per cent. It’s as simple as that. That leaves the manager’s role as able to explain only up to a 10 per cent difference – better or worse – to this. Of course, there will be variations from season to season, there is no guarantee each season that wages will dictate league position. Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United and Pep Guardiola at Manchester City have had relatively bad seasons. This is down to luck, good or bad, with the likes of injuries and refereeing decisions. But over a few seasons, the higher the wages, the greater the success will be, as long as the manager is basically competent.

While the ability to pay higher wages will always have been a factor, it was much less so in the past, which means the manager previously had more impact. There was a maximum wage for footballers in England until 1961, and though some clubs got around this with ‘extra’ payments to players, broadly this meant there was a level playing field among the top 30 or so clubs in England. Managers then could make a real difference. Even after the maximum wage was abolished, the top 20 or so clubs could still compete fairly equally for the top players from the 1960s to the 1980s, which meant the manager still made a significant difference. This is the era of the likes of Bill Shankly at Liverpool, Don Revie at Leeds and Brian Clough at Derby County and Nottingham Forest. But since the English  Premier League began in 1992, the gulf between the top six clubs and the others in terms of their financial resources has grown exponentially, and so even the best manager at a poorer club struggles to succeed. Ranieri at Leicester City was a one-season exception.

            So where does this leave the cult of the manager? Yes, some are better than others. But the best managers, who also tend to be at the best clubs as these can pay the highest manager’s wages too, can only add a few percentage points in the modern game. Sir Alex Ferguson would not have succeeded at Manchester United if it did not have the money to pay such high wages to players. Let’s remember, he was nearly sacked after his first few seasons with the club. His success there is in large part down to his ability to attract the best players by being able to pay top wages, something that was challenged towards the end of his time at United, by Chelsea and then Manchester City.

So it’s largely about the money. Most managers, assuming basic competence, do not now make much, if any, difference. A few, like Sir Alex Ferguson, do add something special, but there are very few of his calibre, to make a real difference.

For my full argument that most football managers make no difference at all, please see my new book, What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK.

It’s science, not artistry, that made the Brazilians the best at football

There is a widespread belief that Brazil has been so good at football, because their players are somehow more naturally gifted. Which is, of course, complete nonsense. From time to time Brazil has produced some exceptionally talented players, such as Pelé. But so have other countries. Brazil hasn’t won five FIFA World Cups just through natural talent, but by hard work, practice, and, crucially, the appliance of science – before most of the Europeans.

The great Brazil side of 1970

The man behind Brazil’s greatest successes was Joao Havelange, who was President of FIFA from 1974 to 1998. Havelange was the eldest son of wealthy Belgian immigrants that settled in Rio de Janeiro early in the 20th century. Havelange wanted to become a professional footballer but for someone from his social background this was not acceptable – sport should be amateur. Havelange pursued swimming and competed for Brazil in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, and at the next Olympics in Helsinki in 1952 he was in Brazil’s water polo team. He then went into sports administration and by 1958 he was president of Brazil’s sports federation, which at the time included Brazilian football and its national team. He held this post until 1973, during which time Brazil won the World Cup three times.

Brazil had failed in the first five World Cups, most notably in 1950. Deep still today in the Brazilian football psyche – despite five World Cup wins since! – is the scar of Brazil’s highly unexpected (by Brazilians) defeat in the deciding match in the 1950 World Cup against Uruguay in the Maracana Stadium, in Rio, Brazil, in front of 200,000 fans, known as the ‘Maracanazo’, the ‘Maracana blow’.  At the 1954 World Cup an ill-disciplined Brazil lost 4-2 to the great Hungarian team in the quarter-finals, with two Brazilians sent off. Brazil did not expect to win in Switzerland in 1954 – no team had won on another continent in the first five World Cups – but Brazil’s failure in 1950 had to be expunged.

Havelange didn’t know much about football tactics, but his organizational skills were supreme. While preparations for earlier World Cups had been amateurish, the Brazil squad that travelled to Sweden for the 1958 World Cup was perhaps the best prepared national team in history until then. Nothing was left to chance. Brazil had a thorough training schedule before the tournament. With the players and manager in Sweden was a backroom team which included coaching staff, a doctor, a dentist and a psychologist. Brazil asked that at their team hotel female staff were replaced with men, so that the players would not be distracted. Before the final against hosts Sweden Brazil even complained about the Swedish cheerleaders, and these were banned from the game. Brazil, inspired by a hat-trick by a 17-year-old Pelé, won 5-2, and became the first team to win the World Cup on another continent.

The same scientific approach, together with talented players, ensured Brazil’s victory in 1962.  By comparison, England’s approach at this time was amateurish. The team was chosen by a selection panel rather than the coach Walter Winterbottom. An English woman was found in Chile to cook English food for the players.

In 1966 in England referees failed to protect Pelé, who was kicked out of the tournament. Havelange made sure that Brazil’s preparation for the World Cup in Mexico in 1970 was even more meticulous. The team was together for three months before the tournament. The training programme using techniques developed by NASA, including altitude training. Brazil triumphed in 1970 not because they had the best eleven players, but because they had the best preparation.

Having been instrumental in leading Brazil to three World Cup triumphs, Havelange challenged the Englishman Sir Stanley Rous to be elected President of FIFA in 1974 – and won. He prepared brilliantly for this election. Again, Brazilian planning had defeated English ‘amateurism’. Havelange’s meticulous planning and scientific approach ensured Brazil won three World Cups – and effectively took control of FIFA for the next three decades.  

For my full argument that it’s science, not artistry, that made the Brazilians the best at football, please see my new book, What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths, published by Bloomsbury, London, UK.

The Chinese did invent football

Fans around the world recognise that the English invented modern football, Association football. Yet many countries then claim to have invented football, in that they had an earlier version of the game, their own form of football. And it’s true, there were many earlier football games around the world, going back thousands of years.

Cuju, the ancient Chinese football game

So who has the best claim to have invented ‘football’? The English themselves have claimed this, with earlier versions of the game dating back to the Middle Ages. Complaints by London merchants led King Edward II of England to issue a proclamation banning football in London in 1314 because ‘there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large balls from which many evils may arise which God forbid; we command and forbid, on behalf of the King, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future’. Playing football was seen as a distraction from practising archery, which was a mandatory occupation for every Englishman for much of the Middle Ages, because archers were so valuable in battle at this time. This led King Edward III and King Edward IV of England to ban football in 1349 and 1477 respectively. The latter stated that ‘No person shall practise . . . football and such games, but every strong and able-bodied person shall practise with the bow for the reason that the national defence depends upon such bowmen’.

Earlier football in England had no structure, no formal rules. Many other cultures had football going back at least a thousand years, such as the native peoples of North America, including the polar regions. When the British arrived in Australia, they found that the native people had their own football games, collectively called Marngrook. Norwegian Football Association visitors to the National Football Museum told me that the Vikings invented football, playing with the severed head of one of their enemies after a battle. South Korean FA visitors told me the same story a few weeks later. The ancient Romans and Greeks had ball games, but it is not clear that we can in any way call them a version of football. 

The Italians have a better claim for inventing football, as calcio fiorentino (also known as calcio storico, ‘historic football’), an early form of football that originated in 16th-century Italy. Once widely played, the sport is thought to have started in the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. There it became known as the giuoco del calcio fiorentino (‘Florentine kick game’) or simply calcio, which is what Italians call Association football. Calcio was highly organised, with a set number of players, a marked pitch, and officials – many of the features of the modern football game.

But just as the ancient Chinese seem to have invented everything, so they also have the best claim to have first invented an organised football game. This has, quite rightly, been recognised by FIFA. There were different versions of this ancient football game, called cuju, and the game evolved over time, beginning in military exercise in the third century BC. Cuju had a delineated pitch, a set number of players, clear laws, and at one point a league with professional players. It appears to have lasted until the 16th century. There were at times a small number of women players. There is an excellent museum of cuju, the Linzi Football Museum, in Zibo, Shandong province, where the game originated. In 2015, Xi Jinping, the President of China, visited the National Football Museum for England, of which I was then the Chief Executive. My gift to the President was a copy of the first laws of Association football from 1863. His gift to me was a replica of a cuju ball, the first organised football game in the world …

For my full argument that the Chinese did invent football, please see my new book, What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths, Bloomsbury Publishing, London, UK.

Well I got as far as getting dressed ready to play! Cuju at the Linzi Football Museum, Zibo, China

Do we need a Premier League Hall of Fame?

The Premier League has announced that it is going to launch a Hall of Fame. This begs the question – why? There is already a Hall of Fame for English football, the National Football Museum Hall of Fame. As the Director of the National Football Museum, I set this up in 2002, to honour the all-time greats in English football. The Museum’s Hall of Fame is for the greats of the game from the beginning of Association football in 1863, up to today. Many great players from the Premier League era have therefore been inducted into the Museum’s Hall of Fame. The Premier League’s Hall of Fame will of course only cover from 1992 to the present day. When Premier League era players are inducted into the Museum’s Hall of Fame, they are being considered against the very best, the all-time legends of English football. The Selection Panel for the Museum’s Hall of Fame is the Hall of Famers themselves, led by the Museum’s President, Sir Bobby Charlton. Only the very best therefore are inducted, chosen by the greatest. So, there is effectively already a Hall of Fame for the Premier League, with the best of the Premier League era being judged by the same criteria as the all-time legends, like Best, Charles and Dalglish.

How the Premier League Hall of Fame inductees will be chosen and who will choose them is not clear. It appears fans will have some involvement, being invited to vote to help select the additional former players to join the Hall of Fame in 2020, after the first two have been revealed on March 19th.  The strength of the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, by comparison, is that it is chosen by the existing Hall of Famers, which gives it complete credibility. Who is going to disagree with the likes of Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Trevor Brooking? The great Bernhard ‘Bert’ Trautman, in receiving his award from Sir Bobby Charlton, said it was the “greatest moment of my life, to receive this accolade from my peers”. To be eligible for the Premier League Hall of Fame, players must be retired, and only a player’s Premier League career is considered in their candidacy. But what if they only played for one or two seasons in the Premier League?

Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, the Vice President and President of the National Football Museum respectively

Is the Premier League Hall of Fame just to be for players, or will it also, like the National Football Museum Hall of Fame, include managers? Sir Bobby Robson, when inducted into the Museum’s manager’s category, said “I’m overwhelmed. This is a huge honour. To join such an illustrious group is fabulous.” The Premier League Hall of Fame will also of course lack the diversity of the Museum’s Hall of Fame, which includes women players, players with disabilities, and has a special awards section for those who have made an outstanding contribution for the good of the game. Niall Quinn was inducted in this category, for donating the £1 million raised by his testimonial game to charity. He said he was delighted, but recognised that unfortunately he would never be good enough to make it into the Hall of Fame for his playing abilities! He was a very good player – but not a great one. Halls of Fame are much more complicated to set up and run than it appears, as I have written in my forthcoming academic book, Sport and Museums: Curious Connections? (Routledge, 2020).

I am fully in favour of the concept of a Premier League Hall of Fame. But we need clarity on key questions, such as who will choose and how, and above all, how it will relate to the National Football Museum Hall of Fame.