Englischer Fussball: a German View of Our Beautiful Game

As Bobby Moore walked up to collect the World Cup at Wembley in 1966, there was only one thought in his mind: would his dirty hands soil the Queen's white gloves? Raphael Honigstein cites this as an example of English football's preoccupation with dress, though it also illustrates English servility. There are many such lovely nuggets in Englischer Fussball. Nonetheless, the book is wrong. And one suspects that Honigstein knows it is.

Englischer Fussball starts with a foul. It is the early 1990s, and Honigstein, playing for University College London seconds, gets an opponent's "iron studs half an inch deep into my skin". He explains that, for the English, aggression is the "essence of the game". Their footballers are expected to "take it like a man" and to show a "stiff upper lip".

But all this is as outdated as stiff upper lips themselves. It is a slightly caricatured account of the attitudes that prevailed in English football in 1993, when an insular England still worshipped the manly heroes of the Second World War. Today the English game is as skilful and clever as anyone else's. Now, when a meaty defender lumps the ball blindly into the stands, he can expect boos (or even Continental whistles) rather than applause. But, Honigstein insists, "however much the game in Britain may have changed over the last ten years with the mass influx of foreign players and managers, the hardness gene in the DNA of English football has proved extremely resistant. The rough approach is still its defining characteristic."

He enjoys unearthing thicko English pundits who reject fancy European continentalism, but does not admit that they represent the extreme traditionalist wing. It's like using Ukip MEPs to speak for the nation.

The book frequently reads like the Guardian of the period. In smooth prose, it amusingly portrays the English as backward nationalists. Yet Honigstein is wrong to suggest that English fans revere their World Cup-winning manager Alf Ramsey uncritically, that they are "oblivious" to the sums "vanishing into the pockets of agents and managers as commissions or bungs", and that they long believed David Beckham to be a great footballer. In fact, Beckham has always been more popular in faraway countries where people can't understand what he says.

Honigstein argues that the English are obsessed with fashion because of their class system. Yet that doesn't explain the attitudes of the French or the Italians. The English drink a lot (unlike the Germans?) and, according to an Italian agent approvingly cited by Honigstein, England is "the most corrupt football country". More corrupt than Italy, whose historical leading club, Juventus, was finally punished in 2006 for long-standing and systematic match-fixing?

Although he does make some acute points, it is only unintentionally that Honigstein leaves the reader with a sense of the transformation of English football since his playing days at UCL. In 1990 English clubs, banned from European competition after the Heysel Stadium disaster, were readmitted. Then new laws enforced free movement of labour and capital within the European Union. Eurostar trains and budget airlines began to connect Britain to the Continent. Meanwhile, London filled up with interesting foreigners such as Honigstein, who helped bury the Little England that he mocks.

Simon Kuper is the co-author, with Stefan Szymanski, of "Why England Lose" (HarperSport, £15.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 October 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Barack W Bush