Off the bat it must be said that the problem for me in reviewing “Englischer Fussball” is remaining unbiased. I have been reading Honigstein in the Guardian for years and as a weekly columnist on German football he is excellent. I found it very engaging and well-written but I was already predisposed to liking the book. Therefore feel free to take this review with a pinch of salt.
Each chapter is fairly short and self-contained, generally dealing with a specific issue in English football. However several broad themes run throughout the book. Commercialisation, hooliganism and relations with foreigners recur in most chapters. Honigstein obviously likes much of English football but seems bemused by the attitude we have to our stars, our clubs and our managers. The way that clubs have been taking advantage of fans since the start of the 20th century is laid out in devastatingly simple language. Only a few weeks ago fans of Dortmund and Stuttgart boycotted the derby game in protest at a rise in ticket prices. The idea of fans of Liverpool and United or Arsenal and Spurs doing the same is unimaginable. The sight of the North-West derby being played to an empty stadium would be front page news in every paper but the quasi-religious fervour of the British fan prevents any such boycott happening.
Much of the book fills you with shame about the state of our game. Honigstein systematically dismantles most of what we feel is good about our national game. The myths that English players don’t dive, have a unique sense of fair play and compete like “real men” are put through the wringer. The German paints a picture where the technical wizards of the game have suffered time and again in England. The hard-men have been preferred over the flair players for far too long and Honigstein blames the World Cup victory in 1966. Manager Alf Ramsey went for what could kindly be called functional football over skilful ball-players, setting the tone for the next fifty years in the domestic game. Honigstein points out just how many technicians have suffered since ’66. Names like Frank Worthington, Rodney Marsh and Charlie George were cruelly overlooked when compared to the likes of Nobby Stiles or Jack Charlton. The urge to apologise is so strong because the words are so uncomfortably accurate.
British relations with foreigners are complex and not particularly noble. Honigstein is ruthless in pointing out the hypocrisy of the English, particularly the press. Match of the Day still regularly ignores incidents of Wayne Rooney or Steven Gerrard tumbling in the box but with gleefully replay Drogba or van Persie doing the same. Overall the book shows a Jekyll and Hyde league. On the one hand the Premiership has developed into the biggest money machine in the world. It has attracted the best stars, regularly dominates in Europe and is played at the most breathless pace imaginable. The flip side is a nation stuck in the tactical wilderness, more willing to rely on bruisers and kick-and-rush than a more technical Latin style of play. There is so much to like about English football that the failings come across as even more glaring than they otherwise would.
As previously mentioned, my status as a Raphael Honigstein fanboy disqualifies this review from any sort of professionalism, but nonetheless it’s an excellent read and the foreign perspective on our game is refreshing and intelligent. Buy the book. It’s worth it.