It is too easy to forget the lessons of history. With the modern, globalised world setting its gaze firmly upon the horizon of technological progress and instantaneous communication, the events and gradual metamorphoses which have conspired to shape our environment can become obscured in the rush for the future.
The idea behind the ‘Decade by Decade’ series was to highlight some of the formative moments in the history of football and, as the collection of articles expanded, to provide an overview of how the game has gradually changed over the last eighty years. Through collaboration with a whole host of great writers who volunteered their services, I hope that that ambition was achieved.
Beginning with the 1930s, we delved into a decade characterised by local heroes of near-mythical status and a game still largely dominated by British methods as coaches such as Fred Pentland and Jimmy Hogan spread their knowledge throughout Europe. Indeed, set against a tumultuous political background which would eventually lead to international conflict, the game was gradually diversifying away from its roots as methods were absorbed into an array of different cultures and given exciting fresh identities. As the sun set on the thirties and Europe burned, football – despite significant disruption – was being expressed in a plethora of new ways and emerging as the truly global game which we know it as today.
As the world emerged from the thick smoke of war, so football began to flourish and produce increasingly technically intricate and beautiful teams. The 1950s was the decade of the Mighty Magyars and the Busby Babes, a time of style and sophistication, of technological advance and sweeping cultural change within the game. As a period of innovation, the fifties stands out as a particularly fertile time, the widespread installation of floodlights and foundation of the European Cup being just two changes which would change the face of football forever. Technology and imagination had combined to prime the game for massive worldwide appeal it would go on to enjoy in the years to come.
The 1960s and seventies were, in many ways, the beginning of football’s modern age. With television coverage of the game now more widespread and, if you were lucky enough to have access, in colour, the global scale of football was being realised in peoples’ front rooms. With World Cups being beamed around the world, the likes of Pele, Cruyff and Beckenbauer were very tangible characters to even the most casual of football fans. No longer was the game the relatively parochial pursuit it had once been, it was now the world’s obsession, a collective narrative on a previously unimaginable scale.
Following in the distant, historic footsteps of the Mighty Magyars and Austria’s Wunderteam, the Brazil side of 1970 and the Total Football of the Dutch ensured that their decade would be remembered as arguably the most beautiful there has ever been, a time of rich Technicolor and exotic brilliance. Football was more diverse and yet, through increasing media coverage, more local than ever before. Exquisite, globalised, but not quite monopolised by the ubiquitous advertising of the present day, it is easy to see why the seventies are often viewed as the game’s golden age.
However, after the glorious high summer of the 1970s came the darkness of the eighties. While this was a decade with more than its fair share of majestic football (the French team of Platini and Tigana being a case in point), the joy was overshadowed by the deeply painful tragedies of Heysel and Hillsborough. With hooliganism a serious problem in Britain, the eighties saw a great deal of soul-searching as Thatcher’s fractured society spawned equally discombobulated football. The all-conquering Liverpool side of Kenny Dalglish may have won ceaseless plaudits and gone down in history as one of the best of all-time, but the catastrophes of Heysel and Hillsborough obscured all else. Football would have to wait to get its confidence back.
Looking back, the 1990s seem to be a time when the game reinvented itself, the Premier League arriving to enliven a sport suffering from collective traumas. Suddenly the game was a hive of commercial activity, a product marketed across the world and a culture common to all corners of the earth. Into this highly-scrutinised environment were introduced several of the finest players to have ever graced the game, global superstars such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and Luis Figo thrilling vast audiences as part of internationally branded teams.
This march towards the hyper-globalisation of football continued into the 2000s, the game now the obsession of billions and one of the few genuinely cohesive forces that can be found in the ‘global village’. As spectators we are now able to watch action from leagues as far flung as MLS and the J-League at the flick of a switch, to enjoy overseas football on an almost daily basis. It is easy to pine for the past, to revel in rose-tinted memory, but – in terms of keeping track of the game around the world – we have never had it better.
Through all the ups and downs, the glory and the sorrow, what cannot be denied is that football has kept generations riveted with its magical blend of athletic artistry and social connection for decades. I hope, through the work of the many writers who have contributed, the ‘Decade by Decade’ series has communicated that message.
Here’s to a glorious future for the beautiful game.