On Tuesday 12 September 2023, Scotland ‘welcomed’ England at Hampden Park in a friendly to celebrate the 150 years since they first played each other in what was also the first officially recognised international game. To mark the occasion, England players warmed-up wearing a special edition shirt of minimalist design and bearing the crest from that original game. This homage to the past, these relics of a time gone by, were taken off before the game as the England players entered the field with their modern, latest-hype designed, ‘official merchandise’ shirts on. They did however leave one relic on the pitch: Jude Bellingham.
England’s latest number 10 gave a performance whose rating came close to his shirt number. At only 20 years of age, Bellingham took command of the midfield and was England’s best player despite playing alongside Kane, Rashford and Foden. In his own half, Bellingham could be seen ruffling a few feathers with some hard tackles, incessant pressure and a choice word or two for the Scottish players. In the opposition’s half, Bellingham showed-up, it seemed, in all pockets of space available — like a whac-a-mole with better vision — playing an important role in the first goal, scoring the second and setting up the third.
Watching Bellingham on a football pitch emits the same phenomenological experience as seeing a classic car roar past you. The pull of a classic car is its anachronism; it doesn’t belong in the modern era and knows it. The historicism of the car jars with the modernity of its contemporaries, it creates a longing for (better?) days gone by.
Football as a product of its environment, reflects the characteristics that dominate our epoch. In a society dominated by late-capitalism and Cartesian rationalism, football at the elite level can often produce tactics and players that resemble one another. Football is not concerned with space and time but with sticking to a formula underlined by a process of raw-data crunching. Football games are often a poor or successful reiteration of the same basic principles: positionism, possession-football, and pressing. Football is about patterns and predictability is inherent to patterns. This need for predicability has played a leading role in the disappearance of the ‘classic’ number 10 role — a player that would be revered for his ability to create the unexpected, to change the game with one pass, one run, or one flick. Number 10s existed outside of order, outside of the predictable. In today’s…