"Anti-football" is a style of football that relies only on passing and an extremely defensive, aggressive, physical, robust style of play of football where one team deploys their whole team, except the striker, behind the ball. In doing so, they try their best to stop the opposition from scoring, rather than trying to win the game themselves. It is also used to criticise the playing style of teams who prevent the game from moving on with actions such as: kicking the ball forward without trying to reach any players, intentionally diving and stopping the play for several minutes or kicking the ball away when a free-kick is awarded, to waste time (usually penalised with a yellow card if too flagrant).
On the other hand UEFA had a prize of fair play for teams of which is part the avoidance of anti-football. If players pass try to "unlock" the game, play offensively, take risks, do retain possession, etc. it increases their fair play note (along with avoidance of fouls, and respect shown by fans). The three best rated teams of Europe could be automatically qualified in Europa league and were (and still are) given a monetary prize.
History and usage
The phrase has been in use in English since at least 2001, where Gary Armstrong and Richard Giulianotti used the phrase in their book Fear and Loathing in World Football to describe the tactics of Argentine club Estudiantes de La Plata in the 1968 Copa Intercontinental, citing usage of the phrase in a 1968 editorial in the Argentine sports magazine El Gráfico.
In November 2006, Arsenal's Cesc Fàbregas characterised style of play in the English Premier League as "anti-football" in the week following a 1–0 defeat to West Ham United, saying, "Teams just defend, defend, and defend; they try to waste time. I call it 'anti-football,' but we have to accept this happens and break teams down." After a frustrating FA Cup tie against Blackburn Rovers in 2007, Fàbregas could be seen exchanging angry words with Rovers manager Mark Hughes. Hughes explained, "When we shook hands at the end, the young man asked me a question which I thought was disrespectful. He asked me if I had played for Barcelona and when I said yes, he shook his head as if in disbelief. Then he said, 'Well, that wasn't Barcelona football'." Fabregas eventually apologised to Hughes and Hughes accepted his apology. Fabregas told him he was frustrated because he wanted to win the match.
In their run to the 2008 UEFA Cup Final, Rangers manager Walter Smith deployed an ultra-defensive method which was dubbed "Watenaccio". Smith used a 4–1–4–1 variation which used centre-backs and centre-midfielders in wide positions and resulted in Rangers conceding only two goals en route to the final. The tactics brought criticism from opposition players such as Barcelona's Lionel Messi, who failed to score at Ibrox during a 0-0 draw and then went on to describe the tactics as "anti-football".
In 2010, Johan Cruyff applied the phrase "anti-football" to the style of play used by the Netherlands in the 2010 FIFA World Cup Final against champions and FIFA Fair Play Award winners Spain. The day after the final, Cruyff attacked the Oranje for renouncing the Netherlands' long-standing commitment to playing attacking and entertaining football: "They [the Netherlands] didn't want the ball. And regrettably, sadly, they played very dirty. So much so that they should have been down to nine immediately, then they made two [such] ugly and hard tackles that even I felt the damage. This ugly, vulgar, hard, hermetic, hardly eye-catching, hardly football style, yes it served the Dutch to unsettle Spain. If with this they got satisfaction, fine, but they ended up losing. They were playing anti-football." Other commentators had already described the Dutch style of play during the tournament—particularly in the semi-final and final—as "anti-football" prior to Cruyff's comment.
After being defeated 2–0, Vietnam manager Henrique Calisto used the phrase "anti-football" to refer to the tactic used against his team by surprise winner Philippines at the 2010 AFF Suzuki Cup group stage in Vietnam.
After Belgium was defeated by France in the semi-final of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Belgium goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois accused the French of being "an anti-football team", because "they head a corner and do nothing more than defend", despite the fact France had significantly more shots on goal while having less possession and that Belgium had committed significantly more fouls in the match.