IN THE early stages of the Space Race in the 1950s, when the USSR held a lead over the United States, a gloriously cynical political commentator noted that the Soviets were now in a position to boast to the Americans that “our German scientists are better than your German scientists.”
This was an allusion to the mass defection (to either east or west) of the cream of Teutonic physicists and engineers at the end of the Second World War. The point of the barb was that any jingoistic crowing on either side of the great ideological divide sounded pathetically hollow, since neither of the superpowers could truthfully claim the credit for their achievements.
A similar trend towards unwarranted nationalistic “pride” has been developing in football – and it has been, unquestionably, most virulent in the British game – to the point where it is often impossible not to wonder how broadcasters and print journalists, as well as fans, have been able to maintain the intense level of chauvinism that underpinned their allegiance two decades ago.
Watching Arsenal go through the same torment against Bayern Munich on Tuesday as Celtic had experienced at the hands of Juventus the previous week, only a blindfold could have prevented anyone from noticing that, in both events, the comprehensively superior winners were, respectively, quintessentially and unmistakably German and Italian.
Bayern and Juve each fielded teams that featured seven home-bred players, while Arsenal played three Brits (two English, one Welsh) and Celtic, much more representative, showed double that number.
But, in the context of the club’s identity, the Scottish champions contained only three authentic natives, in Scott Brown, Charlie Mulgrew and James Forrest (Kris Commons surely has to be considered a convert, having been born and raised in Mansfield and come to Scotland at the age of 28).
Of course, supporters’ ardour for their clubs is elemental and utterly resistant to compromise, driven by a desire simply to see them do well, and largely indifferent to the diverse nationalities of their personnel. But it is unlikely that any could claim convincingly that, given the choice, they would not prefer to see the success achieved with a team principally stocked with compatriots.
Like the Italians and the Germans, the Spanish have remained jealous protectors of their sense of national identity, despite the regular importation of South American players. In actual numbers, the traffic from Argentina and others from their continent has been light, the pronounced emphasis on nurturing endemic talent nowhere more evident than at their most celebrated club in recent years, Barcelona.
In England, that kind of preservation of a long-established and worthwhile heritage began to be eroded the moment the new-born satellite television companies began to turn the game into a global promotion in order to recoup the previously unimaginable sums of money they were prepared to invest.
Manchester United under Alex Ferguson have been, from the outset, the most reluctant to embrace the philosophy of cosmopolitanism, but, with the maturing of the golden generation of Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, the Neville brothers and others towards retirement, even the most decorated manager in history has had to yield a certain amount of ground in the cause of sustained excellence.
He continues to put up a fight, however, with no fewer than seven Britons taking part in the 1-1 draw away to real Madrid that gives them a favourite’s chance of making the last eight of the Champions League.
That would make them almost certainly the last English club standing in the tournament, an occurrence which should not be lost on the multi-cultural under-achievers of Manchester City and Chelsea.
It should also be a matter of some concern to the English that they are emulating the Scots in the ever-diminishing production of top quality. As argued in this column recently, Gordon Strachan has inherited a national squad of about 30 players, all of average abilities, lacking even a single exceptional member. South of the border, only the youthful Jack Wilshere of Arsenal appeals as a genuine virtuoso.
This dearth of quality explains why Celtic (and Rangers in better times) have had to resort to foreign recruitment to maintain their pre-eminence. The blight now seems to be polluting the English. At the Emirates on Tuesday, the inclusion of Per Mertesacker and Lukas Podolski in the home side merely helped to demonstrate that Bayern’s Germans were better than Arsenal’s Germans – even if only because there were considerably more of them.
Kirkwood claim shows astonishing naivete
In making the first anniversary of Rangers’ plunge into administration by spraying yet more vitriol in the direction of former players, Billy Kirkwood was surely playing the populist game that seems to have become the Ibrox club’s favoured form of ballyhoo.
The youth coach insisted that those who had rejected the opportunity to rampage through the SFL’s Third Division had forsaken the chance to become “legends”. This is a word which, like silver hallmarks blurred into illegibility by excessive polishing, has lost its meaning through over-use and abuse.
Kirkwood was notably careful not to include such seasoned high earners as Steve Davies, Allan McGregor and Steven Naismith in his condemnation, targeting relative novices like John Fleck, Jamie Ness and Gregg Wylde. “They had a chance to play in front of those fans,” said Kirkwood, “to become really popular and say ‘I stayed with the club, I helped to pull the club back into the top division’. Ally McCoist has done it and he is an absolute legend.”
Revealing a naivete that is quite breathtaking in a middle-aged man with a 19-year playing career on his record, Kirkwood omitted the detail that McCoist is a 50-year-old
millionaire, while Fleck, Ness and Wylde traded an uncertain future at Ibrox for at least a measure of security elsewhere.