Legends Database

Matthew Le Tissier

Le God

South. Apps
South. Goals

Article written by Francesco Buffoli

In our culture, there exists a deep-rooted prejudice which, to be honest, has some basis: English football in the ’90s was far from ours (Serie A) in terms of individual skills, team play, coolness, international success, and Ballon d’Or awards.

The world had turned its spotlight on us after Spain 1982, because the real money was circulating in Serie A, and although England initially responded to our glamour with a shrug, as, after all, more trophies ended up in the realm of Her Majesty than in Italy (in 1984, we Italians bagged two, they many more), the tragedy at Heysel forever closed the triumphant season of the British and transformed the island into a great black hole of modern sport, a mysterious object, far from the media clamor surrounding the most beautiful championship in the world.

Meanwhile, thanks to the funds of a well-known entrepreneur from Brianza, we were beginning our days of glory, transforming ourselves by the end of the decade into an unparalleled superpower, as evidenced by the triumphant paths of many Italian teams in the European cups of 1990, perhaps the year in which the Italian championship absolutely reached its peak. The English retained a certain pride and were excellent at turning football into literary material – just think of Arsenal’s impossible success in 1989, made immortal by Nick Hornby, which ideally closes the most painful decade in the modern history of the United Kingdom – but the true superstars were almost all with us, also because it made little sense for the world’s top players to exile themselves in a championship that did not give them access to Europe and that paid them much less than the Italian clubs did

Sir Alex and his slow rise to the top of Europe were needed to redeem in our eyes not only the exiled football of the late ’80s, but also that of the first Premier League. However, this redemption remains, in its own way, weighed down by a shadow of doubt: the charm of those fields that appear out of nowhere, in the midst of anonymous residential neighborhoods, the incessant rain, the physical hardness often bordering on nastiness, comebacks and feats that seem to exist only in England, and even a fairly remarkable number of European successes, are not enough to completely erase the suspicion in the eyes of Italian fans that our championship was something else altogether. I repeat: this belief is not unfounded, because the count of champions and triumphs decidedly leans in our favor; for the English, the ’90s were the years of resurrection, while for us, they were the years of almost uncontested hegemony, a hegemony that, moreover, could have brought us several more successes.

Nevertheless, I am convinced that English football of the time, still quite far from the glamour of the Premier League of Arabs and Russians, had its own magical charm, a balance that has always represented its aesthetic key (only the Brazilian championship can compete in this regard), and that, above all, had allowed its large audience (the stands of the renovated English facilities were always, really always packed to the brim) to admire the feats of some unforgettable champions. One of them, and I finally come to the point, was (and is) Matthew Le Tissier, a living anomaly capable of earning the love even of those who preferred the search for quality over the roughness and classic British forcing

Matthew was an atypical Englishman from birth, as he was born on a Channel Island that fell under the dominion of the Crown due to some ancient decree dating back to the time of the Normans, but which was in fact populated by the French. Moreover, he was tall and big, like many British players, but in his case, the word ‘big’ also meant – to use an euphemism – not exactly in line with the dictatorship of competitiveness that dominated the football of the ’90s, the major legacy of Sacchi’s comet, and which was, in any case, an indispensable ingredient of British football since its inception: in England, you run and hit, there’s never a moment of respite, and who cares if the feet are not always very skilled and if tactics are a rare commodity, the always warm and loyal fans who turn even the smallest provincial stadium into a cauldron have more fun that way.

Le Tissier, even as a young man, had a beer belly and seemed little inclined to run for ninety minutes; he played at his own pace, much more similar to the rhythmic, smooth, and anti-modern style of South American football. Le Tissier was an Anglo-Frenchman who resembled Raí and Riquelme, Valderrama rather than the extraordinary all-rounders who have graced English football throughout its history (universals like Charlton, Lampard, Gerrard, Robson, and dozens of others, more or less ‘minor’, I think even of Perryman of Tottenham or Rocastle of Arsenal). In other words, he was in the wrong country and also the wrong era, and moreover, he played in a football that, outside the borders of the Kingdom, many still snubbed as ‘minor’, or in any case second-tier.

How is it possible then that he became not only one of the most celebrated and loved English players of the decade, but also the idol of a small but substantial group of admirers all over Europe and probably even the rest of the world?

In a Catalan TV channel, there was a half-hour program every Monday, where they showed the best goals of the Premier League. Le Tissier was always there, every week. He scored absurd goals. Even outrageous ones. I wondered: why does he stay at Southampton? He could play with anyone. At home, we were all obsessed with him

This is how Xavi Hernández succinctly summed up the admiration and belief shared by countless European kids, among whom, naturally, I was also included, waiting to see the goals of the English championship to admire the endless run and crystal-clear class of Ryan Giggs, the strokes of genius of Cantona, and perhaps, more than anything else, the magic of the giant from Guernsey, the slightly overweight attacking midfielder who seemed to have been dropped onto the field from a spacecraft from some remote season, something like 1961/962, and yet was capable of almost unparalleled magic even in the rich panorama of the time: there are players who come from the future and those who come from the past.
Both may have misjudged their era, but for those from the past, establishing themselves is much more complicated, because history has in some way already surpassed them: that’s why seeing Le God on the field was almost a surreal experience, Matthew was truly the son of an aesthetic that the world had already filed away, and yet, perhaps for this very reason, he was a wonderful and unpredictable player.

Not only that: wonderful and effective. Guiltily, I have not yet talked about the club team that elected him a God, Southampton, but I make amends immediately: Southampton, a small club from the south that occupies one of the backup positions in the history of British football, in the years when Le God inflamed the stands of The Dell with his anthology plays, lives the best seasons of its not very glorious history, even earning a seventh place at the end of the ’80s, a tenth place in 1995, then a twelfth place, and in any case regularly saving itself, without too much trouble, for thirteen seasons in a row.

The Dell stadium deserves a chapter of its own, as it was the ideal theater to witness the feats of the God; The Dell was located right in the middle of the city and was a relic of the Victorian era, having been built in the late 1800s: like Le Tissier, its theater of dreams was a survivor, an incomprehensible antique in the modern era, but for this very reason, it was so rich in charm, and it was beautiful that Matthew, in 2001, when he was practically a former player, took to the field to score, against the Arsenal of the future Invincibles, the last goal on the grass of his old stadium, a grass that resembled him so much.

As I was saying, despite everything, almost against its own logic, Le Tissier’s phlegmatic and relaxed football, that surreal experience, was also tremendously effective: Matthew plays as an atypical number ten and yet, being able to shoot from any position and with embarrassing ease, akin to the best Totti, on two occasions he exceeds twenty goals in a season, in several others he approaches twenty, and he is almost always in double figures; moreover, he invents dribbling, improbable croquetes and assists that defy the timing of the play by stopping it. Le Tissier invents strokes of genius while walking, as would another superb irregular talent like Antonio Cassano.

The dark chapter of his career, unfortunately, is England: also due to his limited physical resources, Matthew needs a team that plays for him, and this is not possible when you have the best players of your country by your side. This is why Le Tissier was rarely called up by the various national team coaches throughout the ’90s, and his last appearance in the Three Lions jersey coincides with the Azzurri’s victory at Wembley in 1997, marked by an inspired Zola and a Cannavaro already in mastiff mode: his performance, to be honest, is not bad, Matthew even comes close to scoring the equalizer, but the defeat blows the trumpets of those who see him only as a provincial star and condemns him to be definitively excluded from the national team. No matter, in any case, for those who have admired his sorcery during the ’90s: for him, exactly as for his adoring fans, Le Tissier will always be Le God, the provincial genius, one of the most beautiful and indecipherable anachronisms in the history of football.