A number of deeply rooted football myths cleverly exposed, while some are merely “myths” and others are underexposed

Hans Bolling
Dept. of History, Stockholm University

Kevin Moore
What You Think You Know About Football is Wrong: The Global Game’s Greatest Myths and Untruths
229 pages, hardcover.
London: Bloomsbury 2019
ISBN 978-1-4729-5566-1

Kevin Moore, a former director of the English Football Museum, has written a rather small and handy volume with the challenging title What you think you know about football is wrong: The global game’s greatest myths and untruths. The title of the book is mouth-watering for an historian, just think of Lauritz Weibull and how he cleaned out myth and fiction from Swedish history. But it is probably just as well to state right away that there are no parallels between Moore’s work and Weibull’s. It’s not a showdown with the history of football research to date, it’s not about research. But there should still be some new things to learn.

What Moore is doing is using more than 200 pages on “falsifying 50 of the biggest myths surrounding football”. There’s not much to object to in that, but Moore is so deeply rooted in the English soil that some of the “myths” he draws attention to are not even of peripheral interest to an international audience. The chosen layout gives a total of about four not too densely written pages to deal with each myth, which works quite well when myths such as that the ball did not cross the goal line in connection with England’s third goal in the World Cup final against West Germany in 1966, or that Alex Ferguson would be the most prominent coach in English football history, are to be cleared away.

The chosen approach also works when Moore, using quantitative data, tackles more general myths. It gives clear results even if the myths that are falsified should perhaps rather be attributed to general supporter worry, such as that there is nothing worse than leading 2–0, or that it would be a problem to score too early in a match. One of the myths that is being addressed quantitatively is “The home ground advantage is not as significant as we think – and its significance decreases”. How should the home ground advantage then be explained? After a more general discussion, Moore notes that according to a review of results in the English Premier League, the home ground advantage increased by 0.1 goals per 10,000 spectators. Moore puts forward the hypothesis that it is because committed home supporters influence the referees to give the home team advantages, that referees are simply influenced by the crowd pressure against the away team. At this point, a critical reader may wish for a discussion about the size of arenas and the economic conditions of teams. When the authorities in Italy banned audiences in 2007, it also turned out that the home ground advantage diminished; however, the selection of data is minimal. The question of whether and, if so, how, audiences affect football matches is today more relevant than ever, and due to the corona pandemic, it can be studied empirically to a greater extent than ever before. This has also been done by the CIES Football Observatory, which in mid-September presented a comparison for 63 leagues where at least 40 matches had been played since the football audiences were shut out of the arenas in the spring of 2020; the comparison period matches were played between January 1, 2015 and March 31, 2020. Before the close-down, home teams won 44.3 percent of the matches, a figure that dropped marginally to 42.2 percent. The share of home wins decreased in 41 of the 63 leagues. The largest decrease of the share of home wins is in the Greek top division, -15.1 percentage points, followed by the Austrian and German first leagues. At the opposite end is the Swiss first division, + 8.5 percentage points. The Swedish examples could support the thesis that audience involvement plays a role. In the top league Allsvenskan, which has a fairly large and enthusiastic audience, we have seen a decrease in the number of home wins by 9.1 percentage points from 44.4 to 35.3 percent, while the second tier Superettan whose stands are significantly more sparsely occupied shows an increase in the proportion of home victories without an audience, from 46.1 to 47.1 percent.

There is hardly any doubt that it is substandard arenas and greedy organizers that are behind most deaths in connection with football matches. Martin Alsiö, for example, has shown this,

However, Moore has not contented himself with tackling football myths but has also indulged in phenomena that are far less well-defined but have greater societal relevance, such as that hooliganism is or would have been a major problem in English football or that the World Cup would ever have been free from controversy. When these kinds of questions are addressed, the book becomes problematic. I think a merciful interpretation might be that Moore is engaging in anecdotal evidence. There is hardly any doubt that it is substandard arenas and greedy organizers that are behind most deaths in connection with football matches. Martin Alsiö, for example, has shown this, leaving no room for doubt, but that does not mean that football hooliganism has not been a real problem. There is no reason to reduce the problem by highlighting the media’s and authorities’ often exaggerated reactions to the senseless violence as the real problem. Moore also opposes calling hooliganism the English disease, citing the much worse deadly violence between football hooligans in Argentina. For someone with experiences of football stadiums since the 1970s, such a statement becomes incomprehensible. In fact, it would have been more interesting to review how the “English disease” went from describing rachitis, through poor economy with inflation, non-existent growth and weak balance of payments, to hooliganism in connection with sporting events.

It becomes downright offensive when Moore tries to downplay the corruption that raged within FIFA’s top management in the decades around the turn of the century 2000 and which became impossible for almost everyone to turn a blind eye to when its executive committee awarded countries that should never have been involved in World Cup organizing, by pointing out that there have always been attempts to influence the outcome of World Cup tournaments. Without in any way wanting to downplay Benito Mussolini’s or Jorge Videla’s crimes, they never took on the role of world football’s highest patron and guard; that they sought to influence results in World Cup tournaments for their own gain is just what is expected of them and has nothing to do with football. In this, as well as other contexts, Moore appears antiquated in his approach to the rulers of football.

What you think you know about football is wrong has not changed the way I look at football. In other words, it is not a book that lives up to its somewhat pretentious title. As far as I can understand, the book is primarily intended for a general football-interested audience who, while petty myths are highlighted and found to be incorrect, must be convinced that so-called “modern football” and those in power have not destroyed and corrupted the game to a greater extent than football’s previous stakeholders. Those who want to challenge their “prejudices” about football had better look elsewhere. However, the lack of more serious attempts to understand and explain, and the length of the chapters make it an excellent book to have in your jacket pocket and pick up when you’re waiting for the bus.

And for those who are curious, Brian Clough is the most prominent football coach in English football history.

Copyright © Hans Bolling 2020

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