Was football really better in the '90s? I long for it, but my students prove every generation is different

Ronaldo football 90s

The editor-in-chief of this esteemed organ, James Brown, recently sent me a box of FourFourTwo back issues in my capacity as a newly-minted secondary school teacher. Although the mags were quickly hoovered up by pupils, they left behind some posters included in the package. I couldn’t resist putting one up next to my desk.

It’s one of the most iconic images in football; arguably of all sport. Zinedine Zidane, with a grimace on his face, has just volleyed a Roberto Carlos cross in the 2002 Champions League Final. Zidane’s career was full of balletic grace and crucial goals, but this snapshot – the winner in Real Madrid’s famous 2-1 victory against Bayer Leverkusen – was arguably his defining moment. 

Zidane was one of a trio of footballers I grew up idolising; Alessandro Del Piero and Ronaldo being the others. Growing up in Leeds, David Batty and Alan Smith held an appeal, but the mystique was somewhat lacking. Madrid and Turin are a long way from Rothwell, and not just geographically.

Before the ability to stream with ease and have instant match updates, Europe’s elite seemed like larger-than-life talents who were glimpsed mainly on Champions League nights. Perhaps, now being back around adolescents for most of the day, I’m seeking to relive my own youth. I’m still trying in vain to perform a ‘Marseille roulette’, living those European nights vicariously by plastering Zidane’s face up in my classroom. 

Regardless of the reasons why I did it, the poster soon acted as a catalyst for some soul searching as I hurtle towards 30. To the generation I teach, Zidane is just a manager. A great one, they acknowledge, but a sideshow in a suit and tie.

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo dominate their conversations. They try to run like them and strike the ball like them. Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann or Eden Hazard get a look in now and then. They are all wonderful players of course, but they often cause me to wonder if football was better in the 1990s. Modern players appear glossier and more perfect. Supreme athletes with skills bolted on who seem infallible.   

Contrast that with Ronaldo, the original. The real Ronaldo. For half of his career he was overweight and his knees didn’t work correctly, yet he was redeemed and reborn countless times. He had an arc and a narrative that was satisfying to a 12-year-old.

Picture another hero of the '90s, Gabriel Batistuta. He was ragged and uncouth, rampaging across the pitch, but would then unleash a shot which was unstoppable from improbable distances. He was a fantasy footballer, adorned in the garish purple of Fiorentina with Nintendo splashed across the front. 

So, was football better in the '90s? At first, I was sure of it. It was wilder – or at least it seemed to be. Players seemed to drift in and out of prominence in the pre-digital, post-analogue '90s. Stars seemed rarer as a result of it, a contrast to the hegemony of Messi and Cristiano.

Think of someone like Mario Jardel. He seemed unstoppable for a brief period, then became incredibly easy to stop, before drifting into obscurity. Fernando Rendondo seems to have been largely forgotten in 2019 yet produced one of the most outrageous pieces of skill ever seen, against Manchester United, aped across playgrounds for what seemed like years after. 

But then I thought about what my dad and his mates used to tell me. They’d wax lyrical about Eddie Gray, cutting Burnley to ribbons on a boggy pitch. It seemed like monochrome football, but it was enough for them to get misty-eyed over a pint on a Saturday night. I could see it was a great goal by a great player, but it wasn’t Zidane vs Leverkusen.  

The past is a strange beast. It turns you into your dad and his mates, as I’ve quickly realised. Football, and sport, feeds off the new. The new manager, the new No.7, the new kit, the new stadium. Yet sport trades off nostalgia. That cup-winning manager, that No.7 with the perfect cross, that retro kit, that stadium where you first fell in love with the game.

Ultimately, we’ve all been that kid in the park, running up to take a free-kick like Messi, or falling over trying a Marseille roulette. One generation can never fully understand those that preceded them, and what players meant to them, or the players that will follow.

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