The word ‘myth’ comes from the Greek ‘mythos’ which has a range of meanings—word, saying, story, fiction—and is defined as a “symbolic narrative, usually of unknown origin and at least partly traditional, that ostensibly relates actual events (of gods or superhuman beings) and that is especially associated with religious belief.” However, because there is very rarely proof, or at least an adequate amount of it, the word “myth” has also come to be associated with something that isn’t real or, at best, a misconception.
But there is no doubt, through the long ages, of the human allure for this form of story—and what better representation of this phenomena in the modern world than the arena of football with its larger-than-life icons and legendary moments as collective memory and worship?
“Football isn’t a game, nor a sport; it’s a religion”—Diego Maradona
Religion it may be, but it is also one of the most subjective of sports, turning on the finest of margins, subject to “controversial” decisions that are debated even decades after with the same amount of fervour. In fact, is there anything, apart from it being religion, that you can get football fans to agree on?
Association football is only just over 150 years old, but its collective mythology is already vast and rich. It is this mythology that Dr. Kevin Moore challenges in his 2019 book What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong. In the times of extremes that we seem to be living through–the almost obsessive need for objective, indisputable truth on one hand and alternative facts and fake news on the other, with VAR and its well-meaning muddle somewhere in between–many of the 50 chapters in this short, easy and enjoyable read come as welcome additions.
As the founding director of the National Football Museum, a key player at the International Football Institute, and a member of the editorial board of Soccer and Society, the world’s leading academic journal for football, among other impressive credentials, the author possesses enough knowledge and academic authority to write something like this. He states in the foreword his intention of setting out to be as objective as he possibly could—”peeling back the fiction to get as close as we can to the truth” through meticulous research—while asserting that this was, of course, a culmination of his interpretation of the available data.
He succeeds in this endeavour more often than not; my personal favourites being the arguments which lend themselves to a more objective truth, or at least a high factual convergence–the ball did cross the line in the 1966 World Cup final, FIFA does not make the rules and never has, it will not be too hot to play football in Qatar, the Germans do not always win on penalties—than the instances which demand a more subjective opinion to build a case, such as who can be crowned as the greatest manager of the game in England (hint: it isn’t Sir Alex) or why Wembley isn’t a world-class stadium and why England will never win the World Cup again.
Given his background, it comes as no surprise that the book leans towards facts of the game in the United Kingdom, but there are plenty of international tidbits to satisfy all fans, allegiance notwithstanding, and some of these are hidden gems you stumble upon on the way to the argument he’s laying down and are not directly relevant to the larger discussion of myth-busting.
For example, one of my personal favourite chapters was about the historical involvement of disabled players in the game—with the notable mentions of Arsenal’s Cliff Bastin and the famed Uruguayan star Hector Castro. Bastin, Arsenal’s highest goalscorer until overtaken by Ian Wright in 1997 (he and Thierry Henry remain the only two who have scored more for the club than Bastin), was hearing-impaired and thus excused from military service at the onset of World War II. Instead, he served as an air raid precaution (ARP) warden, stationed on top of, none other than, Highbury stadium!
Whereas Castro, El Manco (sometimes El Divino Manco for “the one-armed God”) because of the freak self-inflicted accident at age 13 that amputated his right forearm, won a gold medal for Uruguay at the 1928 Olympic Games, scoring in the quarterfinals versus Germany, before going on to score the winning goal for his country in the first World Cup Final in 1930.
Unlike other myth-busting books like Soccernomics, Moore takes the correct decision to not overly burden the explanation with charts and complicated mathematics or statistics but instead chooses a more informal tone where he equips the reader with the necessary knowledge regarding the myth, uses relevant data to disprove it, and gives you enough information to check up on his sources (accompanied by an extensive bibliography and reference section at the back of the book).
Take the argument that it will be too hot to play football at the 2022 World Cup. Moore shows data that previous WCs have been held in higher temperatures than the air-conditioned stadiums in Qatar where temperatures shouldn’t exceed 28 degree celsius (82 degree fahrenheit). Similarly, he presents still photographs, media recordings, and other material that prove the shot did cross the line for the controversial third goal in the England versus Germany match in 1966. It’s down to limited technology back then with restricted camera views for live television.
Another favourite debunking is of the “there is no lead more dangerous than 2-0” claim. Using half-time and full-time scores of all matches in the top English division since 1888, Moore shows how in 90% of the sample, the leading team wins the match, and goes on to also show how it isn’t really a game of two halves when you consider patterns.
The product is an engaging look at some of the game’s most preconceived and accepted-as-historical-fact occurrences and myths. Did you know that Cambridge and not Sheffield is home to the world’s oldest football club or that it wasn’t the English who first took football to Brazil but the Germans?
Football is nothing without passion, with all its irrational, often tribal intensity. It is nothing without its legions of fanatical supporters who carry their love of the sport beyond the stadiums and from in front of their television sets. And a big part of being a fan is collecting and then jealously, vigilantly guarding victories, losses, imagined and real hurts and slights, perceived injustices by referees or opposition players and managers. We all know how statistics can be used to prove any point and aren’t as objective as you would think plain numbers are. We also know that something can be repeated often enough for it to be accepted as the objective truth even though it is not. Imagine then to be proved beyond doubt that some of the “facts” that you’ve believed in as gospel for years might not be true. As Moore says in the foreword, having had some of his own original notions proven wrong, he can attest to it being painful, and maybe even a case where our brains scramble to justify the discrepancy between the presented information and the belief we’ve long held.
Perception, while we’re experiencing an event as well as how we will remember it, is uniquely subjective, rooted in and born out of our personal experiences, leading to inherent biases and positions, which in turn affect future interpretations and events. Add to this the laws of a frustratingly and wonderfully subjective beautiful game where it’s nigh impossible to want or get every element in black and white, and you have football. The maddening, exhilarating game we can never really shake and will continue to have disagreements about until the end of time. What You Think You Know About Football, with its focus on objective truth within this subjective milieu, is a useful reference manual to help us better understand not just the game, but ourselves.