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The Transition Of The Beautiful Game

Football as we know it today has come a long way from the times of Pele and Maradona in the previous century.

The changes to every aspect of the game have been quite pronounced, from the stadiums to the kits to the actual on field action. The technical aspect of football has undergone a remarkable change for the better, but with the barrage of negatives recently attacking football, such as un-sportsman conduct, a growing tendency to resort to cheating and deception, and the vast inflow of money, one question is prompted – Has football changed for the better or the worse?

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Over the course of this article, I shall be attempting to go over some of the various defining aspects of football over the decades.

Demands The modern game is exponentially more demanding than what it was in the yesteryears, with both the physical as well as technical aspects of the sport evolving rapidly. Players today cover more ground than what their counterparts did back in the 70s and 80s. Gone are the days when there was a concept of ‘1st and 2ndchoice goalkeepers’. With new concepts like the False 9 and the inverted wingers, players are expected to be a lot more aware of their positional attributes and ability to read and locate space on the pitch.

Passing out from the back has become an essential pre requisite for any modern defender, and you would struggle to find a goalkeeper in the modern game who can get away with not playing the role of a sweeper, in addition to his shot stopping responsibilities. In English football, moreover, the winter period is more torrid and unforgiving than anything else during the season, and a PL season with the excessively cramped fixture list on and around Boxing Day was summed up by Kevin De Bruyne as one where you feel good for the first 10 games, tired for the next 10, and like shit for the 10 to follow.

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Respect, Appreciation & Acceptance One thing that cannot be questioned about the football of the 20th century is that it created a lot warmer, accepting and respectful aura around the game than the one we see today, with managers and players frequently exchanging verbal jibes pre and post matches, tussles on the touchlines and the frequent standoffs on and off the pitch. Once in a blue moon, we may also see an all-out brawl, as Man City have found out twice this season (Against Manchester United and Wigan).

Press conferences and post-match interviews are becoming increasingly dominated with a barrage of questions, quoting a certain manager’s subtle provocative or unnerving remark, and waiting for a reaction, when instead, they should rather contain questions on the team’s tactical approach to the game, the manager’s opinion on the type of game they had just witnessed / would shortly witness, etc. Furthermore, it seems obvious enough that different men would approach the same game differently, and have a varying approach for varying opponents.

In this regard, certain managers are glorified for their ‘open’ set up for a big game, whereas certain others are vilified for ‘negative’ and ‘backward’ philosophy, without taking into account the potential factors for the same. And likewise, instances of players and managers openly commending the opposition for being the superior side are few and far between, with the blame game being played on most occasions, and grudging half agreement, coupled with potentially cold attitude towards the opposition’s approach, style and execution taking centre stage.

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Analysis and Statistics Unarguably, world football has come a long way in terms of the arsenal of statistical and analytical tools that today’s experts possess. New statistical terms are being added to our dictionaries every season, and with their inclusion, the job of a statistical analyst becomes both, more easy and more difficult simultaneously. Easier for the plain reason that he has a very wide array of helpful tools at his disposal, and more tougher as the sheer complexity that goes into designing and optimally using such techniques mandates that they need complete knowledge of what they’re looking at and calculating.

However, one thing that can be unanimously agreed upon is that today’s pundits and journalists and analyists have a much more detailed insight into the sport and the on field action that their earlier counterparts. And this has not only improved the precision with which the behind-the-scenes staff of a club can formulate opponent specific strategies (Example being that Guardiola’s staff had noted that Bournemouth’s wall had jumped to defend every free kick, the knowledge of which De Bruyne was able to effectively extract and exploit, as he struck the ball along the ground, under the jumping wall and into the back of the net). Not only this, the ever increasing detail of insight has facilitated viewers sitting at home to delve deeper into the tactics and gain better understanding, and most importantly, it has brought to light and given the rightful recognition to several tactical masterclasses that would have, in the absence of such tools, gone unnoticed and unappreciated.

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The Playing Of The Game Football today, in my opinion, is about as hard to play today as it was back then. You’d regularly hear a lot of people complaint about how the ‘physicality’ of the game has gone out the window, and how the ‘contact sport’ aspect has subsided. We regularly see players resort to negative tactics such as simulation, deception of the referee, deliberately drawing fouls, and probably worse of all, physically lashing out at opposing players to vent frustration at the game or the result (Such as stamping or dangerous tackles).

With that being said, players today undergo more scrutiny than ever before, as elucidated in the previous point. Their every move is put under the microscope, and they are openly criticised by pundits and fans alike. Under such inspection, it becomes extremely difficult for a player to perform on a weekly basis, especially the young ones. Moreover, it is extremely saddening to note that players have openly admitted to being on the receiving end of death threats from unknown people.

It is taking into account these factors that one may conclude that, despite the decreased physicality and players going to ground under the slightest bit of contact, it is just as difficult to perform these days as it was back then.

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Money & Youth One overwhelming negative that has crept, and in more recent times, leaped into the game is the growing influence of money. The rewards on offer these days for winning titles and finishing higher up the table are significantly lucrative. Especially in the premier league. According to several reports, Sunderland got more money for getting relegated from the PL last season than Real Madrid and Bayern Munich did for winning the La Liga and the Bundesliga respectively. Likewise, the rewards for finishing 4th show a measurable difference from the ones for finishing 5th, and similarly for other positions.

Let’s be practical here. Consider this scenario – A club aspiring to land a Europa League spot sees their first choice LB ruled out for upto 2 months, with the transfer window open. It comes quite obviously to us that the club would opt to invest some money on an already established player to aid them in their aspirations, than draft in someone from their youth setup to fill the same vacancy. And it would be hard to blame the club for taking this stance. It is this conundrum that has led to the exclusion of a majority of youth players from donning the jersey of the club they train for. They are repeatedly sent out on loan, often to lower division sides, and then subsequently sold for a modest to medium price. Of course, the same isn’t the case with all youth players, but it sadly has become the normality for most.

The huge inflow of money doesn’t help the case either. £35m used to be a hugely significant transfer fee 2 seasons ago, but that distinction has been long alleviated. Such prices seem to be the base fee for transfers nowadays, and that doesn’t help the case for the youth players either.

If a player A was sold to a rich club for £40m, it is highly likely that the price will hang over his head for a pretty significant time, and will be brought up every time said player makes an error, through no fault of his own. What’s more, with the new financial fair play regulations in place, the state of league football seems to have more or less been etched in stone – The likes of City, Chelsea and United competing for titles season after season, the likes of West Ham and Everton shuffling places between 7th and 15th, and the likes of West Brom sitting in and around the relegation places, purely owing to the fact that there are only a handful few who would take the option of investing their resources in a club where they won’t be allowed to spend them to attract top notch talent. It seems quite contradictory to say that money has ruined the game, and then to state that not allowing more money to be brought into the game is harming its competitive structure, but, alas, that’s the stage we have reached today.

It seems that football today has imbibed into it, several good and bad dynamics. Perhaps the near future holds the key to which road it will ultimately tread the path of.

Written by Ayush Verma.

Ayush Verma

20. Student at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Manchester City correspondent for 90MAAT

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