Like anything that seeps into popular culture, football has plenty of its own myths and legends embedded in its history. And just like some of the popular myths in other areas like music and film, many of football’s tallest tales are taken by fans to be fact. This happens simply because they’ve been repeated so many times.
However, the truth is often a little different. It’s fun to imagine that some of football’s more common myths are true. However, in reality, many of them are cases of facts being bent out of shape, or in some instances, outright false.
Here are 10 classic football myths that can be debunked.
#1 Wayne Rooney broke Bobby Charlton’s England goal record by facing weaker opposition
Former Manchester United star and England captain Wayne Rooney made headlines back in September 2015, when his penalty in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Switzerland marked his 50th goal for the Three Lions. The strike made Rooney England’s all-time top goalscorer – breaking the record of 49 goals held by World Cup winner Bobby Charlton since 1970.
Despite Rooney’s achievement, a number of critics weren’t overly impressed. They claimed that the goals scored by the striker largely came in qualifying games against weaker opposition – or in meaningless friendly matches. They stressed Charlton’s were almost all scored against strong opposition in major tournaments.
That’s not exactly the case, though. Rooney certainly did score plenty of goals against weak opponents such as Kazakhstan, Belarus and San Marino. But he also scored against strong opponents such as Brazil and Argentina, and seven of his 49 goals came in major tournaments. And of his 53 international goals, 16 of them came in friendly games.
Charlton meanwhile actually scored fewer goals in major tournaments – five – while 22 of his 49 came in non-competitive games.
In conclusion, then, it’s fair to say that both men’s achievements in terms of scoring goals for England were equally impressive. And critics of Rooney are largely wrong when they claim that he snacked on weaker opponents in order to break Charlton’s record.
#2 India refused to enter the 1950 World Cup after being told they could not play barefoot
Despite a burgeoning domestic league and millions of fans following the game, the Indian national football team have yet to play in a FIFA World Cup. However, it is true that India were invited to play at the 1950 World Cup held in Brazil. This happened because the other teams in their qualifying group – Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines – all withdrew.
However, India also withdrew from the tournament following the draw for the group stage. And a popular myth of football suggests that the reason they pulled out was because FIFA had imposed a ban on playing barefoot. The Indian team had played barefoot two years prior at the 1948 Olympics.
In reality, that’s far from the truth. Firstly, while eight of India’s 11 players didn’t wear boots at the 1948 Olympics, the remaining three actually did wear them. And the reasons for their World Cup withdrawal in 1950 were far more complicated.
Firstly, their captain at the time – Sailen Manna – has stated that the team would often wear boots when it rained due to the softening of the ground, exposing the myth. And secondly, it’s been stated that the All India Football Federation (AIFF) did not take the World Cup seriously at the time. They prepared to focus on the Asian Games and the Olympics.
Finally, there was the issue of the team actually getting to Brazil – an arduous journey that would’ve simply cost too much money. This was the same reason given by Turkey for withdrawing from the tournament.
With all told, it’s clear that the reasons for India’s withdrawal clearly had nothing to do with their refusal to wear boots – debunking one of football’s most enduring myths.
#3 England’s loss to the USA in the 1950 World Cup was incorrectly reported
While India’s withdrawal from the 1950 World Cup spawned one of football’s classic myths, another one emerged after one of the tournament’s most famous games. The tournament in Brazil marked the World Cup debut for England. But it’s safe to say that the Three Lions’ campaign hardly went according to plan.
Walter Winterbottom’s side, which included legends such as Billy Wright, Tom Finney and Stan Mortensen, defeated Chile 2-0 in their first game. But they then suffered a shocking 1-0 loss to the USA, a side composed of part-time players. The result sent shockwaves through the game, and England’s subsequent loss to Spain sent them packing from the tournament at the first hurdle.
A huge upset like this was always going to head into the realm of legend. But a couple of myths have sprung up since, mainly around the way in which it was reported in England.
Suggestions have been made that English newspapers reported the result as 10-1 to England. They simply assumed that there was a typing error on the wire services when they were told it was 0-1 to the USA. Other claims have been made that the following day’s newspapers appeared with black edges in a riff on the order of service at a funeral.
In fact, neither claim is true. While the result was seen as an embarrassment to the English game, the newspapers reported on it in the same way they would’ve done for any game at the time. And another claim – that England never wore blue again after losing the match in the colour – is equally false. The Three Lions played in royal blue in a friendly match against Peru just nine years later.
#4 Pele’s incredible goal record was enabled by the fact that he played before the offside rule had been introduced
Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo has now scored an amazing 743 goals during his career, putting him fifth on the list of all-time goalscorers. 25 more goals would allow him to surpass the career total of Brazilian legend Pele. But according to a popular football myth, the Brazilian’s goals should come with a caveat.
The myth suggests that the only reason Pele was able to score so many goals was that during the period in which he played – from 1957 to 1977 – the offside rule largely hadn’t been introduced.
In reality, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. If anything, it could be suggested that the offside rule was actually more stringent in Pele’s playing career than it is today.
The offside rule was initially introduced way back in 1863 – stating that a player was offside unless at least three players of the opposing side were in front of him. This was changed in 1925. The amended law stated that a player would be offside unless at least two opponents – including the goalkeeper – were in front of him. And that rule wasn’t changed until 1990 when a player was deemed onside as long as they were level with the last man.
Pele played between 1957 and 1977. Not only would the offside rule have been in use during that period, but he would also have had to time his runs far better than players in the modern era. Else, being level with an opponent would’ve made him offside.
Incredibly then, it could actually be suggested that the Brazilian legend would’ve been more capable of adjusting to the ultra-stringent offside calls of the VAR system than his modern counterparts!
#5 Denis Law’s back-heel relegated Manchester United in 1974
Scottish striker Denis Law spent 11 years at Old Trafford and was known by their fans as ‘The King’ decades before Eric Cantona was given the nickname. He is one of Manchester United's biggest ever legends.
However, despite scoring 237 goals in 404 appearances for the Red Devils, a popular football myth also involves him being responsible for the club’s relegation to Division Two in 1973-74.
The story states that Law moved to Manchester City after being granted a free transfer in the summer of 1973. And the campaign that followed saw the Red Devils end up in a relegation battle. Coincidentally, the two Manchester clubs faced off in the penultimate game of the campaign. With just nine minutes remaining, Law scored with a back-heel to hand Manchester City a 1-0 win.
The myth goes on to claim that United were doomed to relegation because of the goal. And due to his love for the Red Devils, Law refused to celebrate and later walked off the pitch with his head down as he was substituted.
The truth, however, is a little different. Law did refuse to celebrate the goal and did trudge off the pitch with his head down, but that’s where the story should end.
In actuality, United would’ve been relegated whether Law had scored or not. On the same day, fellow strugglers Birmingham City defeated Norwich City. This meant that the Red Devils would not have been able to escape the drop even if they’d beaten their neighbours.
The season ended with United in 21st place – second-bottom – and five points from safety. And in a period when two points rather than three were given for a win, their survival by the time of the City game was always unlikely. Therefore, any idea that Law was responsible for their relegation should be put to rest.
#6 Lionel Messi was given steroids by Barcelona
Even his greatest doubters would probably concede at this stage that Barcelona’s Lionel Messi should be considered one of the greatest footballers of all time. However, at least a handful of those critics would probably aim another slight at the Argentine. There's been a suggestion that Barca’s team doctors used banned substances to help him in the early days of his career.
It’s a myth worth exploring because in this case, it’s at least partly true. Messi famously signed for La Blaugrana at the age of 13 – with a contract reportedly signed on a napkin. But fewer people would realise that the deal was actually predicated on Barca being willing to pay for Messi’s medical treatments.
The treatments involved injections of human growth hormone (HGH) in order to treat a condition known as GHD or more commonly, idiopathic short stature. The cost of this treatment was around $900 a month. This was the reason that Argentine clubs River Plate and Newell’s Old Boys passed on the future superstar.
It’s undisputed that the use of HGH is banned in all sports, but in Messi’s instance, there are a number of things that should be taken into account.
Firstly, GHD cannot only leave sufferers with a less-than-normal height, but it can also lead to a variety of other problems. These include poor vision, lower pituitary function, skin and teeth problems and a weaker immune system.
So this wasn’t a case of Messi’s doctors wanting him to add more muscle. In actuality, his medical treatment was important to give him an overall improvement in his quality of life. At the time he began the treatment, his height was just 4’2” – 14” shorter than his current 5’7”.
And secondly, Messi’s use of HGH was most likely discontinued when he reached his late teens – probably before he made his debut for Barcelona’s first team. And even if that were not the case, the Argentine would undoubtedly have been given a TUE (therapeutic use exemption) due to his medical needs.
Therefore, the idea that Messi was given banned substances by Barcelona in order to enhance his performances on the pitch should definitely be buried for good.
#7 Roy Keane’s tackle ended Alf-Inge Haaland’s career
Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane is renowned as one of the club’s all-time greats. The Irishman spent a total of 12 seasons at Old Trafford and won an impressive 17 trophies there, including seven Premier League titles. At times, however, his reputation could be slightly more unsavoury.
One incident that led to such a reputation came in April 2001. During the Manchester Derby, Keane was red-carded for a terrible lunging challenge on Manchester City defender Alf-Inge Haaland. He caught the Norwegian international’s right knee and caused him to crash to the ground.
The Irishman later found himself in hot water when he admitted in his 2002 autobiography that the tackle had been premeditated. Keane felt that Haaland had taunted him when he injured his cruciate ligament three seasons earlier and decided to take his revenge.
However, the popular myth around the incident states that Haaland was forced to retire due to injuries sustained from Keane’s tackle. That simply isn’t true. While the Norwegian did retire due to injury, he actually hung up his boots more than two years after the incident.
In reality, the Norwegian completed the match with United after Keane’s red card and played 68 minutes in City’s win over West Ham a week later. He also took part in an international match between the two games.
Furthermore, despite claiming that Keane’s tackle played a part in his retirement, it was actually a chronic injury to Haaland’s left knee that forced him out of the game. It is true that the defender didn’t finish a full match after the incident. But the bottom line is that Keane certainly wasn’t entirely to blame for his retirement as the myth suggests.
#8 Bobby Robson could’ve sent Dave Beasant on to win the 1990 World Cup semi-final penalty shootout
The 1990 World Cup semi-final between England and West Germany is one of the most commonly discussed matches in English football history. So it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that a popular football myth centres around it. The game famously went to a penalty shoot-out, with Bobby Robson’s Three Lions falling to defeat when Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed their spot-kicks.
West Germany, meanwhile, were able to score all four of their penalties. But could things have been different? One well-known myth claims that the answer is yes.
This myth suggests that Robson could’ve given his side more of a chance in the shoot-out had he replaced goalkeeper Peter Shilton for Chelsea’s Dave Beasant. The Blues shot-stopper had famously saved a penalty from John Aldridge in Wimbledon’s 1988 FA Cup final win over Liverpool.
The story rose back to prominence during the 2014 World Cup. The reason for this was Netherlands boss Louis van Gaal replacing keeper Jasper Cillessen with penalty expert Tim Krul prior to his side’s quarter-final shoot-out with Costa Rica.
Unfortunately, the myth couldn’t be more false. Beasant was part of England’s squad in the 1990 World Cup. But he actually went as the third-choice keeper, behind Shilton and Chris Woods. And unlike latter-day tournaments, 1990’s World Cup only allowed bosses to name five players on the bench, rather than the entirety of their 23-man squad.
For England’s semi-final against West Germany, Robson’s five substitutes were Steve Bull, Trevor Steven, Steve McMahon, Tony Dorigo and Woods. Beasant was not part of the matchday squad and thus could never have been involved in the game from the bench.
Could Robson have planned for a shoot-out and thus named Beasant? Perhaps. However, England had never been involved in a shoot-out prior to this one. Add to this that Shilton had actually only conceded one of the last three penalties he’d faced for the Three Lions, and you can conclude that a late change would’ve been unlikely anyway.
#9 Adnan Januzaj could’ve played for England
Winger Adnan Januzaj currently plies his trade for Spanish side Real Sociedad. But just a handful of seasons ago, he was viewed as the ‘next big thing’ at Manchester United. Emerging onto the scene in the ill-fated 2013-14 campaign at Old Trafford, many fans viewed the development of Januzaj as the lone positive point of David Moyes’ reign as Manchester United's boss.
The winger now plays at international level for Belgium. But due to his complicated family background, he could’ve chosen a number of countries to represent instead. According to one popular myth, one of those countries was England. It’s also been suggested that Januzaj himself turned down a call-up from Roy Hodgson in late 2013.
Unfortunately, that simply isn’t true. Januzaj was born in Brussels, making him eligible to play for Belgium. But his ancestry also meant that he could’ve represented Albania, Kosovo, Serbia, Turkey or Croatia.
What about England, though? Well, Hodgson did indeed suggest that his team were monitoring the winger in October 2013. However, he only stated that because he’d been with United for “a long time” (since 2011), he could potentially play for England down the line if he became naturalised. Moyes also appeared to back this opinion up.
However, despite the tabloids jumping all over the story and even suggesting Januzaj could star for the Three Lions at the 2014 World Cup, the move was never actually possible.
FIFA’s Home Nations agreement with England states that players must engage in a minimum of five years education before the age of 18 within the territory of the relevant football association before they become eligible for a call-up. National team eligibility is not offered through residency.
That meant that Januzaj would never have been able to be called up in 2013 anyway – meaning any tabloid hopes that he could star for Hodgson’s side in the 2014 World Cup were ludicrous.
#10 Liverpool bottled a 9-point lead in 2013-14
Prior to the suspension of the Premier League due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, it looked highly likely that Liverpool were about to win their first top-flight league title in 30 years. Jurgen Klopp’s Reds were 25 points ahead of their nearest rivals Manchester City with just nine games remaining. It seemed inconceivable that the Merseysiders would blow their lead.
However, a popular myth would tell you that Liverpool blew a huge lead at the top of the table just six seasons ago during the 2013-14 campaign. That myth suggests that Brendan Rodgers’ Reds were on course to win the title – nine points clear with three games to go. However, a late collapse that culminated in a 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace allowed Manchester City to take the crown instead.
Fascinatingly though, both suggestions aren’t exactly true. Firstly, while Liverpool did have a nine-point lead on Manchester City after they’d played 35 games, City had actually only played 33 games at that point. And given Manuel Pellegrini’s side also had a superior goal difference - +54 to +52 – the Reds were essentially not that far ahead.
That idea was quickly proven correct when City won their first game in hand, reducing Liverpool’s lead dramatically.
As for the 3-3 draw with Palace being the pivotal game, that’s simply not true either. The 27th April 2014 saw Liverpool infamously lose to Chelsea at Anfield in their 36th game of the campaign following Steven Gerrard’s notorious slip.
The same day saw City defeat Palace. And six days later, Pellegrini’s side leapfrogged Liverpool at the top of the table by beating Everton. They moved into the lead by virtue of their superior goal difference.
That Everton game, therefore, meant that the destination of the title was in City’s hands rather than Liverpool’s. And as they won both of their remaining matches – adding another six goals to their total in the process – even a win by Rodgers’ side over Palace wouldn’t have sent the title to Anfield.
Does Palace’s comeback in that 3-3 draw make for a dramatic story when it comes to Liverpool supposedly “bottling” their chance at the Premier League title? For sure. But it doesn’t make the idea of that result being pivotal anything more than a myth that can easily be debunked.