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Is football still cool?

It was 1994, Oasis had just released their debut album and were quickly becoming one of the biggest bands in the world. They were wild, entertaining and something different. They were also football fans. While they didn’t agree on much, the Gallagher brothers always had Manchester City. They shared a common passion for their club and were unapologetic for it. The most popular band at the time were doing photoshoots wearing the Man City kit. Football and pop culture were intertwined. Football was cool.

There was someone else making a stir in Manchester at the same time. An arrogant French man was striding around the pitch with his collar up and his chest out, doing things England hadn’t seen before (not just the kung fu kick). A maverick, someone willing to try something new and inventive. An artist in his own right.

25 years later and football doesn’t seem to have the same attraction. You could point to any number of reasons. VAR ruling out goals because someone’s toe is offside. The 2022 World Cup happening in the middle of winter (in a country with a very questionable government to say the least). Soaring ticket prices at matches. No fans. The list goes on.

You could also point to how football has developed. The modern game is ultra-controlled with every detail methodologically planned out. That doesn’t leave much room for a player who could produce a moment of utter brilliance one moment but won’t track a run 30 yards back towards his own goal a couple minutes later. This is really evident when you look at how the traditional number 10 has disappeared. Nearly all of the top teams play without one now. When a team does use a playmaker, they are no longer given a free pass. They are expected to not only create but press like a lunatic as well, perfectly exemplified by Bruno Fernandes. The Man United talisman’s rise over the last year is in contrast to Mesut Ozil’s demise. The obvious caveat here is it is hard to know the full story regarding Ozil but it is clear, the number 10 is dying. Football is moving on and there’s no room for an Ozil, a Riquelme, a Ronaldinho or players of their ilk.

There is still some fighting this shift away from individualistic footballers. Such as Zlatan Ibrahimović. Love or hate his off-field alter ego “I am Zlatan” stuff, he is entertaining on the pitch. He might not press like you expect a modern player, he is liable to lash out and get sent off but he’s also capable of scoring a 35 yard bicycle kick. This is most likely why he clashed with Pep Guardiola while at Barca. Pep wants his players to play in a very specific manner and has no patience for someone not following his exact instructions. He would have probably preferred Zlatan to take that ball down and played a one-two with Martin Olsson. These moments of brilliance are becoming more and more rare. For example, Vincent Kompany smashing the ball from 30 yards out to win Man City the league in 2019.

All Pep and his team mates could think as he hits it is, he should pass it, recycle it. Managers are discouraging players from taking long distance shots because statistically, it is extremely unlikely to be worth your while. It’s going to be much harder to fall in love with a player who loves a 30 yard screamer because it’s happening much less.

This isn’t a slight on Pep Guardiola or trying to say “The game is gone”. In fact, it’s the opposite. We are arguably seeing some of the best quality football ever, teams all over the world are maxing out their potential. Every year the Champions League and the Premier League seems to be producing higher standards. However, as the game has progressed (and gotten better) the room for individuality has dropped. Academies around the world are producing footballers with extreme levels of physical and technical ability but they seem to be very similar. Players who do not fit the academy template are being pushed towards the fringes and becoming rarer.

Football has any number of problems but the loss of individuality is particularly worrying. Every team is expected to play a particular style and players have to conform to this. The room for self-expression, trying an ambitious flick, an outrageous pass is dwindling. However, this is what captivates people. It gets the people going. Trying something new and creative is what enchants so many people to football. It’s why players like Maradona, Cantona, Ronaldinho are so beloved. Nobody grows up wanting to be a Gary Neville but people want to be a Zlatan. Football is getting better but it is becoming less cool.

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