World Cup reminiscences: an interview with Brian Glanville

Brian Glanville.jpg

Ahead of next summer's showpiece tournament in Russia, James Smith caught up with legendary football journalist Brian Glanville about the latest edition of his authoritative guide to the World Cup: The Story of the World Cup. Here's what one of football's most celebrated voices thinks of the state of the game today, the likely outcome for England in Russia, and what his beloved Arsenal can do to resurrect their fortunes in the Premier League.

Glory:

The Story of the World Cup covers the tournament from its conception right up to the present day. What do you think are the biggest changes the game has seen in that time? 

Brian:

"Well, they’ve been absolutely enormous haven’t they? There’s been a tremendous development of football in South America – well, the first tournament was in South America in deference to the Uruguayans, who’d won the Olympic tournament twice with what was really a professional team. Tactics have changed enormously. Huge sums of money have gone into the game and transformed footballers into, in many cases, multi-millionaires. There’s a tremendous emphasis now on tactics and conditioning. It’s a completely different and radically diverse world from what it was in 1930, when there was a very small entry into it. And of course the British teams didn’t come in until after the Second World War."

G:

Russia 2018. Are you looking forward to it? Will the tournament be a success? And what do you think of England’s chances?

B:

"I think England will give a decent account of themselves, but they’re in a very difficult group. The Belgians are potentially one of the best teams in that competition – with two magnificent forwards in De Bruyne and Hazard – and I feel we’re very much second best there. But we should be able to come into some kind of play-off. I think it’s a very decent English team and there are a lot of talented players, but I’m not very convinced by the manager. He doesn’t inspire me at all and I can’t remotely see them winning."

G:

I think any progression beyond the group stages would be a success, but it's indicative of the state of English football that i'd think that. We used to moan about Sven-Goran Eriksson, but looking back we were more successful then.

B:

"Oh, he was disastrous and the present manager is just mediocre. I don’t think he’s going to inspire them at all. Roy Hodgson should have had the job in ’94 when he’d done so well with Switzerland and brushed Italy aside in the qualifiers and went to the States and did reasonably well. He’s still a good manager, but I think he was promoted to the England job much too late."

G:

One team that are going to be noticeable by their absence in Russia are Italy – a place where you’ve spent much of your life. What do you think of the Azzurri’s failure to qualify for the tournament?

B:

"It’s quite extraordinary. It’s the first time since ’58, when the Northern Irish knocked them out in a sensational way. It’s very, very hard to know. They still have a lot of very talented players, but I think Conte was a great loss to them as a manager with his dynamism and drive, and it surprises me that they didn’t get through. I think they probably deserved a place though."

G:

It almost doesn’t feel like a World Cup without them.

B:

"Well no, it doesn’t. When they were last knocked out by the galant Northern Irish in ’58 it took two bites of the cherry in Belfast, because the first time the Hungarian referee was fog bound and didn’t arrive so it was played as a friendly, and when they met again the Irish knocked Italy out. It was sensational. It was Danny Blanchflower and Jimmy McIlroy’s team, but of course by the time it came to the ’58 finals we’d had the horrific Munich air crash and Jackie Blanchflower, who was a very important centre-half in that team, never played again and Danny had to moderate his game and play deeper than usual."

G:

What do you think Italy need to do to return to the major tournaments?

B:

"It’s very hard to say because they’re still producing talented players. They need a dynamic manager and I don’t think they've got one at the moment and that would help them a good deal. It’s just the luck of the draw in a sense, though. Italy at the moment isn’t a dominant team. You can’t lose a player like Pirlo, with his wonderful distribution from deep midfield and not feel the negative results of it. Goodness knows, England never remotely learned how to cope with his superlative passing and there’s nobody doing that now. To a certain extent it does come down to individual players and he was a particularly significant and influential one."

G:

In your years as a football journalist is there one moment that stands out for you?

B:

"Well, inevitably England winning the World Cup. That was marvellous. Funnily enough I was reporting on it for the Sunday Times and I got a hero letter from the editor, but what nobody noticed was that there was a mistake in my report and – a good many of other peoples'! We didn’t have any monitors then to refer to in the press box at Wembley, and when Germany got their equaliser – when Emmerich stroked the ball into the mix in the England penalty area from the left – it really looked as if somebody, Schnellinger in particular, had handled." 

"I worked on the official World Cup film so I did a lot of the editing and I wrote the commentary for Goal, and time and again I was reminded that what actually happened was that the ball hit Schnellinger in the back painfully, and as a consequence in reaction to that pain his hands went behind him to the spot where he’d been hit. Of course it was a legitimate goal except that the foul from which it emerged should probably have been given against Germany rather than for them, because the foul was probably on Jack Charlton. So all I can say is as I never got any complaints about it, that either nobody read my piece or that everybody was so euphoric about England winning that they didn’t blinking well care!"

G:

What do you think was special about the England team of ’66?

B:

"Alf Ramsey. I remember Nobby Stiles at the time saying, ‘You did it Alf – we’d have been nothing without you’. Although as a passionate England fan I’m very pleased that we won it I quite honestly don’t think we’d have won it anywhere else. But he galvanised that team and did the most superb job with them. They’d do anything for him. Eventually his career ran out, as people’s careers do, and he was kept on arguably a couple of years after he’d passed his meridian. In the European Championships in ‘72 he very badly misjudged his tactics playing in the quarter final against Germany and Netzer ran absolutely wild. In the return game he completely lost, in cockney language, his bottle and put out a team of kickers, of hard men, and they made absolutely no attempt to win the game – let alone by a sufficient margin to overcome the two-goal deficit that they would have had to, and Netzer came off the field saying, ‘the whole England team have autographed my leg’!"

G:

Throughout your career you’ve been a vocal critic of what you see as the negative forces in football, and the World Cup in particular has been very problematic in the 21st century. Do you think the game’s in danger of becoming indelibly tarnished as a result?

B:

"Well, I think this is going to be the last decent World Cup. Of course the Russians bought it, but then Germany bought it and South Africa bought it. Everybody buys it. England had no hope of buying it when it looked as if they were in a position to stage it. Morally and practically they should have had it and they got two votes and one of them was their own. It was doomed from the start. There was too much money flying around and we weren't paying it. I think FIFA have, for years and years and years, been a profoundly tarnished organisation. That a man like Havelange, who is a monumental crook, should stay there from ’74 to ’98 tells you everything you need to know about international football, and I’m afraid it says quite a lot about our own Associations – who went along with his presidency on the whole."

G:

After Russia we’ve got Qatar ’22 of course.

B:

"It’s just nauseating and ludicrous and they should never have had it at all of course as they bought it as well, but so does everybody now. I don’t have to tell you all the things that go against playing there. European countries have now gone along, having been promised this, that and the other, with allowing it to be played in winter which will upset all the major European countries who’ll have their league and cup programmes upset."

G:

Do you think fans and even players should consider a boycott?

B:

"Nobody’s going to boycott. The Associations should do, but they’re so passive and it’s going to be a fiasco. I mean after this World Cup I’ll largely lose interest in it. I’ll compile a final chapter for the book on the upcoming World Cup, but after that I don’t think it’s worth doing."

G:

Ultimately, it comes down to money, doesn’t it? People aren’t going to want to disrupt their careers, and that’s a shame.

B:

"Well, I think the World Cup has been corrupt and it’s been bought by several different countries. I’d like to see FIFA dissolved. It has a wretched president now. He hasn’t been accused or indicted for corruption at the moment, but he wants to bloat the World Cup finals into 40-odd teams which seems perfectly insane to me, so I think this will be the last decent World Cup we’re ever going to see. In an ideal world the British Associations would withdraw from FIFA and it would collapse. It’s a den of thieves anyway. But I don’t think it’s going to happen and from my own point of view I think I shall simply withdraw my interest in it."

G:

On a domestic front, what are your views on the state of your beloved Arsenal?

B:

"They should have sacked Wenger four years ago. He’s obviously shot his bolt and run the course. Obviously I have a particular interest in Arsenal. I began my attachment to football as an Arsenal fan and I wrote the official Arsenal book on the club's history, but I ceased to be a fan in my early 20’s as I feel one shouldn't be. They've brought a lot of new people in and I don’t think Wenger’s very happy about it, but they’ve let too much slide for too long. They have a Chief Executive who I think has not done a good job but now seems to be calling the shots and Wenger still has another year left after this season. Is he going to go at the end of what’s turning out to be a less and less proficuous and successful season? I don’t know, but they’ve lost Sanchez, who’s their finest player. Ozil may go as well, and unless they sell him before the end of the season he’s going to go for nothing and it seems problematic that he’s going to stay."

"They desperately need a new and more dynamic manager. All sorts of other positions around him are being created and filled, but it’s not enough. I think Wenger initially did a superb job at Arsenal but he’s been there a very long time, and the last three or four years I think have been highly negative."

G:

Who would you like to see replace him?

B:

"Possibly a manager from abroad. Its difficult to think of anybody who’d be free but they need a new dynamism. A new broom if you like, and until they get that they’re going to go on stagnating."

G:

Can you tell us about the amateur side you ran, Chelsea Casuals?

B:

"Well, it was extraordinary. It started off as a game against the King’s College dining club in the magnificent College building in Cambridge. We called ourselves Chelsea Choppers that day and we won about 5-1, and it was a sort of rout in the park. We used to have two teams, no referee, and it got pretty rough at times playing in Hyde Park every Sunday morning. Nobody thought we were going to last more than about six weeks and we lasted over 40 years! We had some excellent players over the years. John Moynihan was the co-founder with myself, and we had all sorts of players from the Royal College of Art as a result – players who’d been on the books of northern clubs.The best of them was Harry Clarke who played five games in the First Division for Sunderland, and we became very profitably involved with the London School of Economics and they brought a lot of big lads from the North, and so in a very short time we turned into a very capable side with a big fixture list – which included big clubs like Old Etonians."

G:

Do you wish the team had continued, or are you happy that it drew to a close?

B:

"Eventually there was a sort of coup by the younger players, and they amalgamated with another club and I ceased to be interested. I played on far too long and I was a mediocre player. My two sons are very good players, though, and one played pro in Italy when he was 17. We did have a lot of outstanding players at times though. It was an extraordinary club."

G:

Finally, I wanted to ask about your career outside journalism – you’ve written novels, short stories, and plays, as well as maintaining an incredibly productive career in sports journalism. What’s your favourite medium to work in, and what makes you want to keep coming back for more?

B:

"I ceased writing fiction quite a long time ago, but I’ve written an enormous number of novels and an infinity of short stories. I have got one collection of short stories still in print called ‘The Man Behind The Goal’, but I’ve written all the fiction I ever intend to. Disappointingly I came very late to theatre, and I wrote a play call ‘A Visit To The Villa’ which was due to go on at the West End and eventually was done on BBC World Radio with John Gielgud as the lead, but I was rather frustrated it was always just about to happen on the stage and never quite did. I was fortunate to get a good reception for the short stories and for quite a few of the novels, but I’m not writing any more fiction now. Those days are gone, but there were a lot of them. These days I'm still reporting on games for the Sunday Times and writing for World Soccer."
 

The latest edition of Brian Glanville's companion to the World Cup – The Story of The World Cup – is published by Faber and Faber, and is available to buy now.