England’s Flawed Fantasista Heroes

England playmakers

England do produce creatives – it’s how they’ve been treated that’s the problem.

Football is a release in which the daily mundanities of life are invited to be forgotten for two-hourly lapses, as stories are shared, heroes anointed and dreams achieved. Football is one spectacle that may never receive accurate portrayal on the big screen. However, the tradition with English football has always been to value discipline, physicality and determination over skill, technique and flair. When football is known as the beautiful game, why is it that we prize the ugly aspects of it so highly?

In Italy, those in the Number 10 shirt who’re most often responsible for delivering the beautiful side of the game have commonly been referred to as the “fantasista” or playmaker. Upholders of the emblazoned number we aloft so high such as Gianfranco Zola, Diego Maradona, Francesco Totti and Roberto Baggio – amongst countless others – are revered in a world where defensive football is embedded within the national psyche.

Players who elevate themselves above such a rigid ethos are deemed priceless commodities who are to be celebrated, cherished and indulged. John Foot’s seminal work, Calcio, typifies the fantasisti – defined as “those with fantasy or imagination on the pitch.” Yet, in England, a player who does not continuously run for ninety minutes or throw themselves to the ground in order to win the ball, is seen as a player not to be indulged. A luxury.

The preference of endeavour over inspiration is inherent in the English DNA. There is a perception that England does not produce inspirational playmakers. This is false. The reality is often that the imagination of the fantasista is stifled during their development due to mistrust. Nevertheless, creatives such as Joe Cole, Paul Gascoigne, Glenn Hoddle, Matt Le Tissier and John Barnes are examples of narrators who refused to allow their imagination to perish.

Glenn Hoddle is revered throughout football; he is often described as the most naturally gifted player of his generation. Hoddle was a player of great elegance, and yet, he only achieved 53 caps for England. In context, Phil Neville and Emile Heskey have 59 and 62 respectively. Hoddle, however, unlike the aforementioned, was a noteworthy footballer.

Scoring, what would later become a trademark strike on his full debut for Spurs in 1976, Glenn Hoddle the fantasista had emerged. Though Tottenham were relegated in the 1976/77 season, the then manager Keith Burkinshaw had enough faith in the young Hoddle to construct a squad around his precocious talent. The England midfielder was the fulcrum around which the team revolved.

Tottenham Hotspur playmaker

During an interview that included a question about the emerging Number 10, Spurs captain Steve Perryman commented: “My job was easy – get on the ball and give it to Glenn.” In 1987 Hoddle announced that he would be leaving Tottenham for the Stade Louis II to pursue a career with AS Monaco. Overseas, the midfielder’s footballing style was adored by continental managers and supporters.

Alongside George Weah and Arsene Wenger, Hoddle inspired les Monégasques to the 1988 Ligue 1 championship, its first title in six seasons. Hoddle was voted Best Foreign Player in French football that season, his accomplishments matched only in England by his PFA Young Player of the Year award. Unfortunately, a severe knee injury curtailed the creative’s career at the pinnacle level and in November 1990, aged 33, he left Monaco by mutual consent having helped to improve the standing of English footballers in foreign countries.

However, in England, the standing of the fantasista was diminishing – if at all, ever truly revered. Hoddle, while a player, was the personification of his tactical ability as a manager, and in 1996 embodied the saviour of both England and of a player whose ability mirrored his. Paul Gascoigne – Gazza – epitomised the agenda of a Number 10, he was the playing reincarnation of Glenn Hoddle, and yet, Hoddle, then England manager, chose not to indulge, nurture, celebrate or rescue Gascoigne like Monaco and Wenger rescued him.

In the annals of football history, one particular literary archetype rises above the rest in terms of reverence: The flawed hero. F. Scott Fitzgerald – like Gascoigne – knew all too well the feeling of being idolised by others and yet personally tormented. The Great Gatsby novelist once said: “show me a hero and I’ll write you a tragedy.” Fitzgerald’s association of heroism with tragedy posits an interesting question: can a footballer ever become truly venerated as hero of the game unless he follows the blueprint of a flawed genius? Will England ever produce another Paul Gascoigne?

Statistically they have. England have already produced several players who have surpassed Gascoigne’s achievements. Both Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard occupied similar attacking roles, and have both achieved a list of honours that eclipse what Gascoigne won. The pair made over a century of appearances for England, unlike the Tyneside playmaker, while Lampard and Gerrard scored twice the number of goals he did for England.

Gazza Koeman Holland

And yet, there’s an inescapable sense that while memories of Lampard and Gerrard’s exploits will eventually begin to fade, Gazza will still be spoken about in superlatives usually reserved for the ilk of Diego Maradona. His status as an icon of English football was already confirmed by the tears he shed on the pitch of the Stadio delle Alpi in 1990 following the World Cup semi-final penalty shootout defeat to Germany, but his goal against Scotland served as a demonstration of the darker side of his legacy, the reason why now, almost 25 years later, we’re asked if English football will ever produce another of his ilk.

Gascoigne’s celebration has since had its jovial nature stripped and replaced with mournful foreshadowing of the alcoholism that was soon to curtain his career and take hold of his life. Nevertheless, his footballing prowess was undeniable, yet, like Hoddle, he experienced the requirement to venture overseas to Lazio in search of extra acclaim.

Such as Gascoigne, and Hoddle before him, the question remains, why does England seemingly struggle to indulge the creative? In accordance with this idea, Spurs’ Dele Alli looks equipped to toe the line alongside Hoddle, Gascoigne etc. Dele Alli is the homegrown hope of English football. By the age of 21 he has scored and assisted more goals than David Beckham, Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard at the same age combined. In June of this year the CIES Football Observatory deemed Alli to be worth £137 million.

Dele Alli personifies the hope of a nation. The hope of making this tactical position within England a success as a homegrown talent. It is time to push against nationalistic DNA and embrace the fantasista. If not, English football is in danger of not only losing these types of players to a more vastly cultured footballing environment, but losing these players forever.

You can catch Jack on Twitter @jack_connor96

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