The Long Game – Periodisation

Google “periodisation in football” and you will get a bunch of websites and articles about conditioning training, peaking at the right time, and a well-known book by football coach and pot-stirrer Raymond Verheijen. What you will not get, sadly, is a breakdown of the various ways you could compartmentalise the history of football, which is a shame. Like most sports, football is very proud of its history and is not afraid of using that history to defend itself when it feels threatened. For instance, when it is suggested (normally by nefarious Darth Vader wannabees) that the top European clubs break away to form a Super League of some sort, the stock responses refer to the long and illustrious histories of the leagues in which those clubs play, the equivalent of terrace chants slating clubs for having “no history”, and the question of whether or not you “know your history”.

The history of football matters for all sorts of reasons. For people like me, it is a window into the societies in which it is played. For football fans of a different bent, history is almost synonymous with trivia. I personally might not care who scored the winner of the 1947 FA Cup Final (Charlton’s Chris Duffy, before you look it up), but this kind of knowledge is the foundation for debates about which team was best or which player was best. There are many people for whom these things matter, and if you doubt it, I can offer baseball as an example. A lot of anger was generated when steroid allegations ripped through the sport in the 1990s and 2000s. But little of that anger was directed at the outcomes of the individual seasons affected. What fans hated above all else was the fact that their stats, the way in which fans compared their idols with those of their parents and grandparents, were now worthless. Cheating to win the league was criminal, but cheating the batting and pitching averages in the process was downright heretical. Fans were furious that the greed of a few had, in their eyes, destroyed over 100 years of carefully documented comparative history.

Regardless of how you interact with football’s history, in order to understand what happened and why it happened, you need to understand the context in which it was happening. Knowing “when” something happened does not merely concern the date and time, but also the period. History is divided into periods so that it can be studied at all. As I explained in the introduction to this series, history is too vast a subject to deal with in its entirety. To understand the whole we must first understand the constituent parts, and to study the constituent parts in any depth we need to identify what those parts are.

So what are the frames of reference when we seek to chop the history of football into more manageable chunks? The most obvious place to start would be the way it is played on the field. We can examine changes to the laws of the game and the tactical developments that sought to exploit those laws.

We can consider eras in football administration. This would be particularly important given the current spate of crises at FIFA, to which many ignorant British commentators are essentially advocating a return to Stanley Rous’ way of operating, ignoring the fact that the arrogance of that era was a major contributing factor to how we got into this mess in the first place. Dividing football into pre-Havelange and post-Havelange eras would also be a helpful way of understanding the increasing commodification of football.

We can partition football by the way it was watched. In a world in which football is increasingly beholden to the whims of TV contracts and sponsorship deals predicated on TV exposure, it is worth seeing what occurred during previous times of transition, from radio to TV, from black and white to colour, and from occasional matches to the smorgasbord of options open to us today. Each had consequences for football’s marketability and the lives and experiences of those living in football’s bubble.

We can track periods of geographic supremacy. Those who believe European club football will never be superseded by its Chinese or American cousins would do well to read about post-war European superstars lured by the fantastical salaries, bigger crowds and better facilities on offer in Buenos Aires or Bogota. After all, like art during the renaissance, football is wonderful, enchanting, awe-inspiring, and an extremely efficient way to find out who had the most money at any given time.

When several of these factors converge we can draw a line. Consider one particularly well-known example: the early 1990s. In England there exists an understandable backlash against the trend of discussing historical records “in the Premier League Era”. However it is important that, while reinforcing the point that football was not invented in 1992, we still appreciate what a useful boundary the early 1990s are. In less than half a decade a series of massive changes took place both on and off the pitch that redefined football in the Northern hemisphere. Among them:

– The break-up of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, leading to the creation of many new leagues and national teams, the latter contributing to the expansion of subsequent World Cups and European Championships.

– Other Eastern European leagues saw shifts in the balance of power both major and minor after the fall of communism – compare where league titles went in the 1980s with where they went in the 1990s. Russia and Poland provide the two most striking examples.

– Jimmy Hill’s 3-points-for-a-win rule, which had been used since the early eighties in England, was adopted in leagues worldwide. Regardless of the debate over the effects this did or did not have on the way football was played, it created a natural break point when comparing league seasons.

– The creation of a group stage in the latter stages of the European Cup in the 1991-92 season, and the competition’s rebranding as the Champions League the following year.

– In England there was the reconstruction of major stadia following the Taylor Report, the post-Italia’90 boom and the creation of the Premier League for the 1992-3 season.

– In playing terms, the early 1990s marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of the careers of a generation of superstars. It really is amazing just how many of the very best players to have played for the very best football nations were born between 1957 and 1964.

– The backpass rule was abolished in 1992, which had major repercussions, both on the way the game was played in general as well as on the careers of many important players.

– The early 1990s also saw the creation of professional leagues in Japan and the United States that, unlike their predecessors, were built to last. These two countries are now regular participants on international football’s biggest stage, and their players have gone from being curiosities to mainstays at Europe’s biggest clubs.

– Perhaps the most significant footballing event that occurred at this time began in the summer of 1990, when a little known former Belgian youth international tried to engineer a move from RFC Liege to Dunkerque. Five years later, Jean-Marc Bosman had won a court ruling that would turn the transfer market upside down and make a generation of footballers rich beyond their wildest fantasies.

So, which period are we in now? It is, of course, difficult to identify a historical period when you’re in the middle of it, but it’s clear that some major changes occurred between 2003 and 2006, not least of which was the acquisition of Chelsea by Roman Abramovich, a move that ushered in the era of the Super Club.

I am not saying Chelsea ruined football, a charge their fans regularly feel provoked into refuting. What I am saying is that Abramovich’s arrival changed the rules of the game quite drastically. As I have previously argued, the way Chelsea bought players like Claude Makelele fundamentally changed the way major clubs built squads and raised the ceiling for the amount of money required to push a club into the Champions League and then keep them there. Between 1995/6 and 2002/3 the average points-per-game ratio for the league winners across England, Germany, Italy and Spain was 2.101. Thereafter it jumped over 10% to 2.38.

Crucially, this was not the only major change taking place, for around the same time, as noted by Jonathan Wilson, the powers that be finally got the offside law right after 140 years of trying. There is a legitimate argument to be made that the peak reached in May 2011 at Wembley by Barcelona was a direct consequence of the Abramovich takeover and the concurrent modifications made to the offside law. Barca’s team may have been shaped via slightly different means to Chelsea’s (or Manchester United’s or Milan’s), but the standards to which they were held were set by their competitors. After all, the phrase “you can only beat what’s put in front of you” has a positive connotation as well as a negative one – and if your task is to beat teams who were carefully constructed at a vast expense, the standards go up. Likewise, the brand of football they played was heavily influenced by the changes in the offside law that had enabled the likes of Xavi and Iniesta to remain relevant and prosper, whereas just a few years previously, articles were being written about how players of their ilk were being rendered obsolete.

While no team since has quite hit the heights of Pep Guardiola’s Barca, more and more money has poured into the game, with the entirely predictable effect of seeing transfer and wage inflation rising to preposterous levels. If nothing else, this proved Alan Sugar right when he said, while owner of Tottenham, that “it doesn’t matter whether the television company gives us £3m or £33m, we’ll piss it up the wall on wages.”

Where football goes from here very much depends on the potential effects of this inflation. For instance, we’ve reached an interesting crossroads in the endless power struggle between players and clubs. As well as pissing most of this TV money up the wall in wages, clubs are also able to invest in resources behind the scenes that were previously unthinkable, with the result that football is more systematised than at any point in the past, and unstructured individual brilliance finds it harder to shine than ever before. Yet at the same time, players now have so much money and bargaining power that this is now reflected in the aims of those at the top of the sport. Players once dreamed of winning the World Cup for their countries, then they dreamed of winning the Champions League for their clubs, and now, it would seem, they dream of winning the Balon D’Or for themselves.

Meanwhile, in the other endless power struggle between clubs and football administrators, the rise of Super Clubs means that demands for breakaway leagues might become ever more compelling to the people that really matter, namely the TV bosses upon whose generosity both groups depend. No sport lasts if it is uncompetitive, and while things might not be as bleak as they were in East Germany in the 1980s during Dynamo Berlin’s government-sponsored dominance, if the current era continues to be defined by the Super Clubs, then the wealth they accumulate and the points-per-game ratios they attain might make the argument for a super league sufficiently compelling. The only thing that could get in their way is increased competition, which could come from a variety of sources:

– Weaknesses inherent to the Super Clubs. This could mean instability wrought by the constant, unquenchable need for success, squabbles between players whose increasingly monstrous egos prevent them from working together effectively both on and off the field, and the difficulties in integrating new players or managers into the setup without the necessary time to allow them to settle in place, institution, or team.

– Other clubs taking advantage of whatever money is available to acquire and, crucially, retain, the best talent available. This money could come from TV, sub-oligarch level investment, increased gate receipts, international marketability or some combination of the above.

– Those clubs taking advantage of the relative flexibility they have compared to the Super Clubs to experiment with styles of play that exploit further changes in the laws of the game. This could mean a radical press or it could mean finding new ways to present teams with problems that existing tactical responses to the offside changes had all but eliminated, like two-striker formations.

Whence has the challenge come in recent years? From clubs who can offer some combination of the above: Borussia Dortmund, Atlético Madrid, Leicester City, and Napoli, among others. Regardless of where your loyalties lie, if you do not wish to see a new period of football history that will be defined by a European Super League, you know who to support.