For all the lack of obvious success, not to mention intermittent violent cultural misunderstandings, England
in South America remains a courtly, understated kind of fascination, rooted to a degree in the historic spread of the sport across the globe in the early 20th century, when football was introduced to South America by Scottish and English rail and mine workers like a kind of irresistible sporting plague.England
From the early days of empire the British sent ...uns, then trade, then religion. When these began to wear a bit thin it sent football. Charles Miller left Southampton for Brazil in 1894 with a ball and a set of rules and went on to become one of the founding fathers of South American football. In 1907 Jock Hamilton became the first foreign trainer at a Brazilian club, returning enthused by the fast-evolving skills of the local players and noting: "Their combination play is really quite clever."
Brazil From these founding boom years to the dawning superpower era of the Brazilian-Argentinian axis after the second world war, the rise of South America has been an object of unusually generous long-distance fascination. "Latin America is football mad. They're mad about the game in a way our somewhat insular outlook would scarcely credit," the great Geoffrey Green wrote in Soccer: The World Game in 1953. The same year Charles Buchan described Brazil's fantastical training methods at the 1950 World Cup, the futuristic glory of "the dazzling Maracaña" and the wondrous moment he first saw "Rio's fabulous harbour", albeit in true Buchan style he also felt bound to recount how he was subsequently drugged, robbed, ripped off and struck down with dysentery.
And for all the recurrent Buchan-esue cultural trauma of England's South American history this remains a fond, even quietly lustful relationship of footballing second cousins, in which South America, and specifically Brazil, has in the past been fixed as a kind of footballing-cultural ideal, a place to be visited only recently and with a due sense of ritual awe. Here they come, the English: tall and tan and young and lovely – not to mention sunburnt, hay-fevered, food-poisoned and, above all, gripped with a dreamy kind of long-range fraternal fascination.
The wider history of English football is a story of shrinking back, of a sporting culture that is even now struggling manfully to comprehend, after all these years, the oddly insistent entity that is "abroad". But there are still pockets of warmth within these chilly waters, and for all the pantomime politics of successive engagements with Argentina, South America has never really felt like the footballing enemy.
Alf Ramsey may have been appalled in public by the behaviour of Argentina's players at Wembley in 1966 – and later too by Colombians and central Americans – but he had been hugely impressed in by Argentina's tactics and organisation in the defeat in Buenos Aires in 1964, while England's players still talk with reverence of the skill and physicality of Antonio Rattín's team.
Alf Ramsey Similarly the defeat by Brazil in Guadalajara in 1970 – Bobby Moore, Pelé and all that – has always been cast not so much as a defeat as a kind of coronational high, a shirt-swapping summit with these dreamy alien superiors.
Pelé Perhaps it is simply the sense of transatlantic otherness. Europe has always felt a little close, a little ordered, a little too scholarly and middle class in its superior refinements. But there is something comfortably distant about South America, a continent of brilliant but still recognisable street-football smarts – a bit like us, when we were still like us – married with a familiar ruggedness.
In South America even the light, the grass, the air feels intoxicatingly different, a place where English football has periodically lived out a desert island-ish vision of the footballing good life: tiny-shorted Moore lounging on Ipanema, John Barnes wowing the Maracanã, and the notion of Brazil and the slightly cliched Brazilian way – off the cuff, instinctive (never mind the three-month training camps and highfalutin modernism) – as a riposte to the stultifying long-ball theory of postwar England.
For all that, it has often been a painful affair on the pitch. England's record against allcomers in South America reads won 14, drawn eight lost 13, with two wins three losses and six draws against South American teams in south or central America since the 1970 World Cup. It is, of course, the defeats that have been most thrillingly salutary, none more so than the assorted horrors inflicted on Walter Winterbottom's team the last time Brazil hosted a World Cup in 1950. It is worth noting England were up among the favourites to win the 1950 World Cup, their first. Argentina had pulled out.Germany were still excluded after the war. France withdrew late on. Hungary were sequestered behind the iron curtain. And England's own steamship party contained Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Billy Wright, Stan Mortensen, Wilf Mannion, and a pre-modern No10 in Chelsea's Roy Bentley, naturally forced to play out of position with England as a straight-up central battering ram. With Winterbottom not only coaching the team, but also occasionally cooking the meals and doing the dishes, England played the USA in the favourable mountain air of Belo Horizonte where they stayed at the hospitable Morro Velho gold mine, staffed by 2,000 British workers.
Their lop-sided 1-0 defeat remains the greatest humiliation in English football history, given a final tickle along by the decisive loss to Spain in Rio. The next 20 years brought further trauma, from the 4-1 friendly trouncing by Peru in Lima in 1959, a defeat put down by many to the infamous "unlucky" royal blue kit, to the defeats by Hungary and a Garrincha-inspired Brazil in Chile in 1962. This was the tournament where England allowed a millionaire Australian businessman to join in training sessions, where they travelled to another continent without a doctor, and where Johnny Haynes did everything from free-kicks to throw-ins, and was duly marked out of the tournament.
England were back two years later for the famous 5-1 defeat by Brazil in Rio, accompanied on the newsreel footage by a brilliantly gurgling, chuckling, laughing commentary from Kenneth Wolstenholme, beside himself at such sublime footballing riches.
Then came the 1970 World Cup, staged in Mexico but in tone and texture and dominant force a decidedly South American affair. For England it was preceded by a genuinely disastrous continental tour during which Moore was accused of stealing a bracelet by the staff at the Green Fire Jewellery shop at the Tequendama hotel in Bogotá, and arrested twice before the charges eventually fizzled out in a fug of mystery and rumour. Stung by his experiences in Mexico the year before, Ramsey imported a tournament's worth of fish fingers and beefburgers, which Mexican customs officials incinerated on the quayside, plus also the team bus, which repeatedly blew up in the heat. A solid, serviceable England team, with no great flair but plenty of class in Bobby Charlton, Francis Lee, Terry Cooper and the rest – dubbed "a team of thieves and drunks" in the Mexican press – melted against West Germany in Guadalajara, Ramsey's reliance on overlapping full-backs a fatal flaw in the violent midday heat.
They were back in 1977 for a friendly in dictator-era Buenos Aires that saw Trevor Cherry punched in the mouth by Daniel Bertoni (and both men sent off). And then nine years later for Mexico 86, originally scheduled for Colombia but still a distinctly South American-tinged affair, with Diego Maradona by some distance the dominant personality. For Bobby Robson's team the World Cup was a familiar shemozzle, as England lost to a rabble of a Portugal team in Monterrey on a horrible pitch, should have gone out against Morocco three days later but smuggled out a 0-0 draw after Ray Wilkins was sent off, and then finally progressed to the quarter-finals via a 3-0 defeat of Paraguay. After three weeks of air-conditioned hotels, tactical revolts and days spent lounging by the pool beneath Sony Walkmans listening to Lionel Richie, England finally lost out to Maradona's malandro genius in a match that had scarcely seen an attack from either side before Maradona punched the opening goal into England's net early in the second half.
World Cup 2014
Guardian World Cup 2014 guide
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