The Global Game

Players from far and wide – from different continents, not just countries – have strutted their stuff in Garibaldi red on the City Ground’s evergreen turf, none more so than now. The current  Forest squad is collected from Ireland to the Ivory Coast, Nigeria to New Zealand, from South America’s Brazil and Argentina to Senegal and Sweden and more, and there are half a dozen players from England.

What has become the norm was not always so. Then again, football has changed beyond recognition, though not in essence. ‘There are two main objects in professional football: to put the ball into the other team’s net and to make people watch you do it,’ Arthur Hopcraft summed up neatly.

The start of the English Football League in 1888 had twelve teams from the north and midlands (including Notts County). Players were embedded in their community as well as their club. It was a time of very limited social and professional mobility. Players mixed with supporters, used the same public transport and frequented the same pubs. Still, within a decade, the first professional league in the world had attracted a handful of overseas signings, all speaking English and from countries with colonial ties. Walter Bowman (the first white player) moved from Canada to Accrington Stanley in 1892 and was followed the next year by Arthur Wharton (the first black player and from Ghana) who played for Preston North End.

World War One put a stop to the game and to player movement and hastened a ‘pull up the drawbridge’ mentality when peace came. By 1930, the FA, with the full support of the government of the day, went as far as to ban ‘Alien Professional Players’ from signing for English clubs. Compare that with the dramatic shift that had taken place in the game by the end of the 20th Century when Chelsea made history in 1999 against Southampton by fielding the first all-foreign XI team in the English League. What a contrast!

As nations began to rebuild themselves after World War Two, more overseas players made their way to clubs in England. There were refugees, soldiers, ex-Prisoners of War and, frankly, a shortage of home-grown talent, to meet the demands of a public hungry for entertainment and an escape from the likes of rationing. George Robledo from Chile, for example, became a popular figure, scoring a hat-trick for Barnsley on his debut in 1946 … against Forest! His goalscoring prowess then took him to Newcastle United where he became a favourite with players and supporters alike.

Being accepted amongst your peers, of course, was (and is) not a given and could be difficult for ‘foreigners’, particularly with any language barriers and in an island culture that still felt insular and isolated. (British FA clubs had withdrawn from Fifa at this time and England only entered the World Cup in 1950 – and realised how much the game had developed in South America and mainland Europe!) If adaptation to clubs was expected from players from abroad, the reciprocal response from team-mates was not. Dietmar Hamann, as late as 1998, astonishingly, could testify to that when Newcastle showed a different side of their character. At the club’s Christmas party, the gift from his colleagues was a copy of ‘Mein Kampf’. He soon moved to Liverpool where he received a warmer welcome.

And yet, decades before, one of his fellow countrymen endeared himself to the English game so successfully that he became the first overseas Player Of The Year in 1956. Deservedly so. In his speech on receiving the award he thanked supporters for ‘their many kindnesses to a German stranger in what was once an alien land’. Probably most famous for surviving the last quarter of that year’s FA Cup Final with what turned out to be a broken neck, Bert Trautmann’s name is likely to appear in any respected book or film on the history of the domestic game. Released as a POW in 1948, he decided to stay in the country where he’d been imprisoned and made his career as a goalkeeper at Manchester City for fifteen years.

For every resounding success there will be an abject failure. Heroics don’t always follow hype. Forest fans can readily come up with their own lists of ‘foreign-flops’. Was it ever thus, wherever a player is born? For some players, the star burns bright and then dims all too quickly. For overseas players, that simple arch of a story can hide some complex factors, particularly when they were still considered to be something of a novelty. How should clubs receive and support them?

Albert Johanneson arrived from South Africa to play for Leeds United. By 1965, he had become the first black player to appear in an FA Cup Final. My dad treated me to a midweek Forest home match against Leeds around that time and we watched him tease the Reds. His close control and turn of speed on the wing had us full of admiration. What we didn’t know, was that he struggled with fame and the pressures it brought. Loss of form came next, a move to York City and, despite a brief return to his homeland, Johanneson sank into alcoholism. He died, alone in his tower-block flat in Leeds, aged 53.

His experience is a reminder of what overseas players lose as well as gain. Uprooted from home at a young age brings its own challenges as well as increasingly rich monetary rewards. After the rush of players heading for England – starting, arguably, with Tottenham’s signing of Argentinian World Cup stars, Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa – clubs became more adept at dealing with their prize possessions from abroad. The same year, 1978, brought an influx of Dutch players to the domestic league, including Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen (who had a brief spell with Forest). It was a golden period for Bobby Robson and his Ipswich team. As he later said, ‘What I was doing was bringing two artists to the club’.

Forest have fondly remembered players from the Netherlands, too, through the 1980s and 90s. Bryan Roy sparkled intermittently and Johnny Metgod’s performances in midfield (‘What he lacked in hair, he made up for in flair’) had supporters drooling over his silky skills. And then there was Pierre van Hooijdonk!

Now, with so many from overseas on the domestic circuit, there’s no novelty in fielding players from afar. Individuals might – perhaps – be less likely to stand out. A consequence of that can have us supporters, and clubs, view players as no more than commodities. They will find themselves on the end of terrace wit – that’s part of the game – but some football fans will feel, inevitably, that there are players simply chasing the money. There’s no doubt, though, that the global transfer market has played to the Premiership’s pulling power and that the overall quality of the game in England has developed enormously. Players make sacrifices because they want to play the game to the highest level. Only time will tell as to whether any of the current Forest squad will truly embed themselves in the collective memory of fans and the club.

*Article provided by Stephen Parker (Nottingham Forest Correspondent).

*Main image @NFFC Forest’s Danilo & Murillo have adapted to life in Nottingham.

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