George Best’s résumé, in the late 1960s, was pretty much flawless. He was a dazzling, edge-of-the-seat winger, certainly one of the finest players on the planet. For a time, he perhaps did not even require the caveat. He was an English and European champion. Along with Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, he was a sanctified member of Manchester United’s Holy Trinity.
More than that, he was a true crossover star. He was a fashionista. He was a heartthrob. He dated models. He graced the hippest nightclubs. He owned a trendy boutique. He was a darling of the swinging ’60s, a genuine celebrity. He had sufficient cultural cachet that he was known, in Spain, as El Beatle.
All of that should, of course, have afforded him unquestionable authority when it came to the game that made him famous. Sadly, though, that is not how it works.
There are rules at play here, whether you think they are fair or not, and Best transgressed them. In 1968, a couple of months after helping United win the European Cup, Best was invited, or decided, to write a book. It would be the first of several iterations over the coming years.
Its title condemned him. He called it “George Best’s Soccer Annual.” And, as we know, nobody who calls it soccer can be taken seriously.
In the seven, going on eight, years that I have been with The Times, no criticism has recurred with quite such frequency — and quite such conviction — as the idea that anyone who uses that word automatically forfeits any claim to either legitimacy or authenticity. Real fans call it football. Using “soccer” identifies you, immediately, as an interloper: at best a neophyte, at worst a fraud. Or, worse: an American.
In my case, of course, that’s fine. There are many reasons to dismiss my views on pretty much everything. But it seems a shame that Best should have fallen foul of the same regulations.
Still, at least he was in good company. Matt Busby, the totemic manager of Best’s great Manchester United side, published his 1974 autobiography under the expertly triangulated title “Soccer at the Top: My Life in Football.” Walter Winterbottom, the long-forgotten pioneer of the idea that if players were allowed to practice with a ball they might get better at using it, produced a 1952 instruction manual named “Soccer Coaching.”
And Raich Carter, one of the defining figures of the sport’s first half-century, started a magazine dedicated to the game the same year. He called it Soccer Star. A few years later, a sister publication would emerge. That one was, and still is, called World Soccer.
The truth, of course, is that the soccer/football dichotomy is really quite a new thing. It is strange that a relatively small proportion of people do not seem to know that the word “soccer” itself is — like beans on toast, Sam Allardyce and stealing statuary from the Greeks — British. It derives, most likely, from an abbreviation of the “association” bit of “association football,” a shorthand to distinguish that sport from its arcane and absurd cousin, rugby.
And, for years, it was a word that British people used. In their 2014 book, “It’s Football, Not Soccer (And Vice Versa),” the academics Stefan Szymanski and Silke-Maria Weineck posited that Britain used “soccer” almost interchangeably with “football” for much of the 20th century. Their theory runs that it only became “anathema” once Americans “started to take an interest” in a game they had, until that point, largely ignored.
I would quibble with a couple of the finer points of this line of argument. Speaking as a child of the 1980s, the idea that “soccer” was value neutral is inaccurate. As a term, it was very much middle-class coded: It was only the rugby-playing classes, after all, who would need a way of differentiating between the two sports. (It is different in Ireland and Australia, where other versions of “football” held similar popular appeal.)
It was also, somehow, futuristic. The 1980s had been a dark decade, after all, lying in the shadow of the disasters at Heysel and Bradford and Hillsborough. Football, as The Sunday Times wrote in 1985, was a “slum sport played in slum stadiums by slum people.” Soccer was cleaner, fresher, more modern. It may, in some ways, have been used as a form of rebranding.
This dovetails with the other point of contention with Szymanski’s and Weineck’s approach: the timeline. Their suggestion is that the British backlash against the term began in the 1970s, with the advent of the North American Soccer League, and particularly the arrival of Pelé at the New York Cosmos in 1975. Soccer, in their reading, became an indicator of American cultural expansionism.
Pinpointing an exact date is impossible, of course, but this seems a touch early. In the 1990s, the satellite broadcaster — and both benefactor to and beneficiary of the Premier League — Sky started programs titled “Soccer A.M.” (1994) and “Soccer Saturday” (1998). It is reasonable to assume that the executives who created the formats would have gone in a different direction if they had been aware the word was taboo.
My personal theory is that 1994 represents the event horizon. England did not qualify for the World Cup that year, when it was held in the United States, but the tournament was given the usual wall-to-wall coverage regardless. (A decision was made, seemingly at a governmental level, that as a nation we would support Ireland; we did not ask the Irish if that was OK.)
The broadcasts presented people in Britain with several hours of programming a day in which Americans discussed the popularity or otherwise of “soccer” on their shores. At the same time, football was shaking off the stigma of the 1970s and ’80s and emerging as a cornerstone of what would come to be called “lad culture.”
“Football” was a way to express not just manliness but authenticity. It was, after all, the working man’s game. “Soccer,” on the other hand, had always been middle-class, which was bad enough. Now it was American, too. It had the air of an affectation, a word used by those who did not belong, who were not real. The terms were no longer interchangeable.
That has not changed, to any great extent, in the intervening 30 years, even as football has become such a cultural phenomenon that it has long since become a sort of default; being interested in it is not a particularly useful social indicator. And yet the use of the word soccer still elicits an almost visceral response in most British audiences.
That can, most likely, be traced back to its association with the United States. Britain’s interpretation of the trans-Atlantic relationship is an odd one. It craves American approval: For artists or bands or actors or even businesses, “cracking” America remains the final frontier, driven by not just a commercial imperative but a cultural one, too.
Soccer is no different. The Premier League is desperate to win American fans not only because of the money on offer in the world’s richest consumer market, but because it represents a sort of ultimate triumph for both the league and the sport. America’s embracing of English soccer could, on some level, be read as the diminution of its own sporting landscape.
At the same time, though, there is little appetite for that to be a bilateral process. The idea that America might be able to shape soccer, that it might wish to change it, that it might even be able to improve it is either unthinkable or intolerable.
It is why there is a surprising amount of energy dedicated to belittling Major League Soccer, why American owners of English teams are greeted with skepticism, and why the elimination of the United States from a World Cup is greeted with a disproportionate amount of glee.
In England, there is a desire for America to like our game, to endorse our taste, in some ways to prove that we were right all along.
But it should be understood, at all times, that it is very much our ball. Feel free to play with it, but do not mistake that for ownership. It belongs to us, and we will decide how it is structured, how it is played, and — crucially, angrily, in the face of all rhyme and reason, despite the fact that we came up with the word in the first place — what it is called.
Super League Agnostic
Roughly five hours elapsed on Thursday after a court ruling on European soccer’s intractable super league debate before we heard claims of victory from both sides.
A22, the sports consulting firm behind the plan to remove the “UEFA” bit from “UEFA Champions League,” claimed the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the legality of its proposal meant that the sport was “finally free.” UEFA, on the other hand, interpreted the court’s decision as a ringing endorsement of its own position, proudly proclaiming that soccer is “not for sale” and pointing out that the judgment is “actually positive.”
The popular position, here, is to support UEFA. The super league project, after all, was always a land grab by the world’s biggest clubs, an attempt to siphon off yet more of the money sloshing around soccer and to crystallize their places at the very summit of the game essentially in perpetuity. All of these things are bad. They are still bad even in the revised (and somewhat improved) proposal.
The problem, of course, is that for all of the loaded language — you know it’s not a fair hearing when one side is consistently being accused of “plotting” — and the professions of undying love to the spirit of open competition and sporting merit, the world that UEFA is perpetuating is indistinguishable on a practical level: a handful of teams from an even smaller handful of countries who dominate the landscape, and everyone else left to rot.
Neither side has a plan to address the many genuine challenges soccer faces across Europe. Both sides are driven entirely by self-interest. UEFA’s position both as a competition organizer and a governing body remains fatally flawed, and an insurmountable hurdle for actually improving the game. Thursday’s ruling means both sides can claim they have won. In reality, all it ensures is that everybody loses.
A Fun Game
At the end of last month, Dolores and Joe Rizzotti sent me an email that contained an attachment. As a rule of thumb, I know it’s a serious bit of correspondence when there’s an attachment involved. (Please note: It does not make it more likely that I will read it.)
On this occasion, though, I was glad I did. “The only thing missing from the 2022 World Cup was some of the world’s greatest players,” they wrote. This is, of course, true: The tournament took place without Erling Haaland, Mohamed Salah, Victor Osimhen and every single Italian on the planet.
“The World Cup occurs every four years and we wait almost 1,500 days to watch 30 days of soccer,” they explained. “It should be a tournament with all the best players on the field for all to see.” Their solution to this eternal issue — George Best and George Weah, we should remember, never played in a World Cup — is something they call Team World.
It would, they say, be a “squad made up of international players from countries that did not make the World Cup.” Last year, it could have included Gigi Donnarumma in goal; a defense built around David Alaba; a midfield of Nicolo Barella, Dominik Szoboszlai and Martin Odegaard; and an attack of Haaland, Salah and Khvicha Kvaratshkelia.
“We understand that the increase in teams for the 2026 World Cup from 32 to 48 takes away some of our proposal’s thunder,” they conceded. “But it still leaves 163 FIFA-recognized nations that will not field a team in 2026, but may have a player or two who deserve to be seen on the world stage.”
According to their plan, Team World would occupy the 48th spot in the tournament, and it would compete like any other nation. Now, this is very clearly not going to happen, but I think it is an excellent idea. In fact, it is an even better idea in an expanded tournament, because it would most likely involve players from even smaller nations. (Nobody feels sorry for Norway or Italy, for example.)
So the challenge for you, over the festive period, is simple: Name the best team you can from nations outside the top 48 of the FIFA’s men’s rankings. And to make it slightly harder, no country can have more than three players. The best answer wins — well, nothing, probably.
To give you more time to compose your teams, we’ll be taking next week off, but we will return on Jan. 5. In the meantime, send your selections — as well as any questions or comments you may have — to [email protected].
And, even more important, have a wonderful Christmas/winter solstice/Saturnalia. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this newsletter as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I’ll see you in 2024.