Stanley Matthews, Blackpool’s quicksilver outside-right, has been capped for England no less than 33 times. Stan takes his training very seriously and soon discovered the cigarette which suited him best. “It wasn’t till I changed to Craven A,” he says, “that I learnt what smooth smoking meant.”

Craven’s ad, 1952

The problem with nicotine is not that it kills you, but that it makes you stronger. It’s the other stuff in cigarettes that you need to worry about. In no particular order and by no means limited to: tar, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzopyrene, a dash of cyanide, a trace of lead, a soupçon of polonium-210 (the substance that was used to murder Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006).

Nicotine, on the other hand, is relatively harmless, at least in the microscopic doses you find in most cigarettes. In fact, it could be considered something of a tonic. Once it has been inhaled, it reaches the brain in around 10 seconds. It quickens the pulse, shortens breath, raises the blood pressure: all the symptoms, in fact, that one would normally associate with the 90th minute of a tight match. It floods your circulation with glucose and blocks the release of the insulin that would soak it up. It improves reaction times and concentration. Once inside the brain, it overwhelms your synapses, stimulating its pleasure pathways and scattering endorphins throughout the body. Nicotine, for a few seconds at least, feels great.

It is hardly surprising, then, that long before phrases like “lung cancer”, “second-hand smoke” and “take those filthy death sticks outside” entered common vocabulary, footballers used to smoke all the time. Virtually everybody did. A survey carried out just after the Second World War estimated that 82% of British men and 40% of British women were regular smokers. A third of men smoked more than 100 cigarettes a week.

And why not? They were cheap (around 22p a packet), freely available (while the government introduced bread rationing in 1946, they refused to do the same for cigarettes) and good for you. In fact, when Gino Bartali, the winner of the Tour de France in 1938 and 1948, went to his doctor complaining of low blood pressure and a slow heart rate, he was prescribed three cigarettes a day. All doctors smoked too, by the way.

Cigarette companies, keen to make explicit the link between smoking and sporting success, used sportsmen as a central plank of their advertising strategy. In 1896, Marcus & Company produced the first set of football-themed cigarette cards, the first concerted attempt to link the rapidly-growing sport with smoking. Matthews’s endorsement of Craven A was something of a subterfuge — he was in fact a committed non-smoker. But two decades earlier, Dixie Dean appeared in adverts for Carreras Clubs with the slogan “the cigarette with a kick in them!” Dean would be paid around £50 a pop for such endorsements — big, big money to someone earning a mere £8 a week.

Of course, there were dissenting voices, and earlier than is popularly believed. In 1904, for instance, the Tottenham Hotspur captain JL Jones wrote, “I cannot find words strong enough to express my disapproval. The habit of smoking, once started, may lead to grave disasters.”

Some managers frowned upon the habit, too, most notably Herbert Chapman. Chapman would ask prospective signings whether they drank or smoked before signing them. Not even star players were immune from his wrath. David Jack, a notorious chain-smoker, was signed from Bolton in 1928 for a world record £10,890 fee and, soon after, failed to turn up for training. Chapman despatched the trainer Tom Whittaker to Jack’s house, where he was found sitting in his armchair with his feet on the mantelpiece, smoking a cigarette. Jack was hauled into Chapman’s office post haste.

Later, Bill Shankly and Brian Clough would famously disapprove of their own players smoking, even though the latter did himself smoke occasionally. But by and large, the practice was tolerated and at times even tacitly encouraged. During the 1950s, Newcastle United would pay their players a packet of 20 cigarettes every week, along with their wages and win bonus. Most of the squad didn’t smoke, so they would give theirs to a man who absolutely did: Jackie Milburn.

Here’s the thing about nicotine: once the body decides it likes it, it wants more and more of it. First the body submits, then it demands, making every cigarette less potent than the last. Once you try to give it up, the brain is flooded with exactly the opposite feelings to those nicotine used to produce: anxiety, depression, irritability, lethargy. Ulcers are common. Once nicotine has you in its grip, every cigarette is a grim, compulsive and ultimately futile attempt to feel a little less miserable for a little longer.

The Watford manager Gianfranco Zola told me about a former team-mate of his at Parma: “I probably shouldn’t say this, but there was a player who would smoke in between the first half and second half. No, actually he would vomit first — because of the stress, you see — and then he would smoke and then he would go out again. You see it’s less common today, but some players still do.”

According to one US study, 90% of smokers eventually return to tobacco in some form or another. Milburn was one of them. He was one of the game’s legendary smokers. Just before the 1951 FA Cup final, he slipped off for a fag and was, as he later wrote, “shocked to discover four of my teammates puffing away in the toilet. They told me they’d cadged them off fans beforehand.” After the 1955 final, he claimed that cigarettes had helped him to ignore the pain of an injured stomach muscle.

Milburn won 13 England caps and three FA Cups, all before the age of 33. In 1957, his fitness in decline, he moved to Linfield and never played top-class football again. How much more might he have achieved without his smoking habit? In the event, he only decided to give up cigarettes after he had retired from the game.

As Milburn’s son Jack wrote in the book Jackie Milburn: A Man Of Two Halves, “At just 33, he was beginning to feel like a much older man... He felt the need to change his way of life. He was suffering some fairly nasty withdrawal symptoms, both physical and mental, as he attempted to chuck the fags. He tried desperately to stick to his guns and resist temptation, but in reality dad felt quite lost without them, and when fag-less certainly became more of an introvert. He would last a few days and then buckle.”

These days, around a fifth of Britons smoke daily. Around a seventh of Swedes do and about a third of Greeks. But across the board, the picture is more or less uniform: though a significant number of young men in every part of the world still smoke, the number is declining. Smoking is becoming niche.

Search online for “footballers smoking” and you will find dozens of web pages and stories dedicated to compiling lists of transgressors. Just as drugs have inflected the history of popular music with a thrilling jeopardy, so too smoking and sport. Puffing on a cigarette when your livelihood depends on remaining at your physical peak requires a nonchalance, an indifference to consequence, perhaps a tinge of sexy self-destruction, that lends the concept of the smoking footballer a vaguely macabre fascination. The shrill initial reaction — how dare he? — quickly gives way to a grudging admiration: how does he? Where the smoking footballer was once a commonplace and then a pariah, now he possesses something of the giddy aura of the anti-hero.

Consider the list of genius footballers of current or recent vintage who have been known to smoke. Ronaldo. Zinédine Zidane. Roberto Carlos. Wayne Rooney. Alessandro Nesta. Gianluigi Buffon. Mesut Özil. Mario Balotelli. Fabio Coentrão. Dimitar Berbatov. Aaron Lennon. William Gallas. Fernando Torres. Dozens more that we know about. Probably hundreds that we don’t. Rui Costa only admitted to his habit in a newspaper interview after he retired: “Today, I can tell you: I always smoked. Never said I did, especially to not give a bad example to the young lads and future players. I know that it is not good for an athlete. It is a bad habit and I have decided, very soon, to stop.” That was in 2009. He’s still smoking.

Managers, coming from a different generation and with different responsibilities, have fewer scruples. Only in June, Marcello Lippi was pictured puffing on a cigar as he watched his Guangzhou side from the stands. Roberto di Matteo is another, saying in 2010 while at West Brom, “I’m trying to do it less and less. But it gives me five minutes to collect my thoughts after a match and my press officer can debrief me.” Slaven Bilić, Walter Mazzarri, Gianluca Vialli and Martin Jol are others. Roy Hodgson too, until his wife stopped him.

Part of the perverse glamour of smoking footballers is bound up in taboo. Watch the tabloid castigation that follows whenever a nameless flea with a long lens camera catches a player having a cheeky fag on holiday. Coentrão was hauled over hot coals for his moment of smoky ignominy outside a nightclub in March 2012. He claimed that the cigarette was “one isolated act” on his birthday. 

Özil, meanwhile, was snapped in the summer of 2011 having a smoke on a yacht. “It was because I lost a bet,” he said, perhaps the least convincing excuse any sportsman has ever produced in any situation. “I assure you: I do not smoke.” 

This is the thing about smoking, you see: everybody does it, yet nobody can admit it. In this age in which footballers are hyper-sensitive to criticism, a vice like smoking can be used as a conduit for criticism, held up as an example of indolence or fecklessness. It makes them less attractive in the transfer market and may violate the terms of their club’s medical insurance. So they smoke in secret, and then later pretend it was the only time they had ever touched one of these ‘cigarettes’ — is that how you pronounce it, guv? Any other explanation simply isn’t worth the hassle.

And yet while smoking still lends a man a certain sophistication in certain contexts, in others it takes on a dirty shame as distasteful and unwelcome as the chesty cough that follows. “I tried to smoke an ordinary cigarette once, but never liked it,” reads the autobiography of one prominent Premier League footballer. “I’ve never taken drugs of any sort, although like everyone else I knew who the dealers and druggies were on our estate.” Any ideas? Why, it’s Wayne Rooney, written before he was pictured urinating in an alleyway with a cigarette in his hand and before he tipped a hotel worked £200 for getting him a packet of Marlboro Lights during his well-publicised session with a Manchester prostitute in 2010.

Rooney’s smoking habit raises interesting questions about smoking and public image. Paying a prostitute for sex, clearly, is not cool. But what was even less cool, it seemed, was Rooney’s choice of cigarette. One commenter on the Guardian website wrote — with deathly seriousness — “As it was a packet of Marlboro Lights then that tells me that he is an image-smoker only and uses his nancy-boy fags as a percieved [sic] cool prop. If he’s blown 200 for a packet of Golden Virginia or 20 Lucky Strike I could have empathised, but blowing a half-decent wedge on 20 Marlboro Lights just to look the part, then that’s just ridiculous.” “Unsophisticated council flat rubbish,” weighed in another correspondent.

And here we come to a fundamental north-south divide in the way smoking is perceived. In the Journal of the National Cancer Institute in 2009, a group of epidemiologists led by the French scientist Gwenn Menvielle looked at the relationship between smoking and social class in a number of European countries. Until the 1970s, smoking was a largely classless activity. The rich were as likely to smoke as the poor. But as more information about the health risks of tobacco became known, the better-off slowly began to give up smoking. Now, in Britain, the disparity in smoking rates between the rich and the poor is startling. Around 15% of men in the highest social classes smoke, rising to around 45% in the lowest social classes, 70% amongst adults living on or below the poverty line, and about 90% for the homeless. Despite rising prices, cigarettes are now an emblem of deprivation.

This was a pattern repeated in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. But Menvielle’s team found something quite different in southern Europe. While working-class men are still more likely to smoke than the better-off, the disparity was much less pronounced. Amongst women, in fact, the trend was reversed. In Spain, Italy or Greece, women with a degree are more likely to smoke than those who never went to secondary school.

Which may go some way to explaining why we can look a picture of Gianluigi Buffon puffing away on a cigarette next to his bikini-clad wife and think, “That is cool.” And then look at a picture of Rooney doing the exactly the same thing and think, “That is not cool.” As Owen Jones demonstrates in his book Chavs, smoking is a trope that is often used to demonise the working class in Britain.

And yet cigarettes eat away at your respiratory system at exactly the same rate whether you live in Naples or Newcastle. After giving up cigarettes, Jackie Milburn would allow himself the occasional miniature cigar. Soon, though, they became more regular until he was smoking almost as many cigars each day as he once had cigarettes. In early 1988, he went to the doctor complaining of breathlessness and heavy coughing. He was struggling to climb the stairs and was so weak he would often spend the whole day in bed. In May, he filed his last ever match report for the News of the World, headlined “Newcastle’s Gascoigne Magic Has ‘Em Reeling”. In July, he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. On October 9, 40 years to the day after he made his debut for England, he died. He was 64. As well as many other things, this was not cool either.

Jimmy Greaves looks a little sad. He is sitting in one of the function rooms at Wembley Stadium at the launch of Royal Mail’s “Football Heroes” stamp collection. There are hundreds of journalists in the room, but none of them appear all that interested in talking to him. Instead, a scrum amasses around Denis Law, Bobby Charlton and Bryan Robson. A few hours earlier, you see, Sir Alex Ferguson announced his retirement and now the entire sprawling corpus of the English football press is scrabbling around for reaction.

Greaves has little to say about Sir Alex. But there is something I want to talk to him about. As well as being one of English football’s legendary goalscorers, Greaves is one of its legendary smokers. “About half of us used to smoke in that Tottenham dressing room,” he says. “Ronnie Henry did. Bill Brown smoked a pack a day. Maurice Norman. There was nothing wrong with it in those days.”

There is a reason I am so keen to canvass Greaves on this. Recently he gave up smoking following a series of health scares and he has now been off the fags for around four years. With the odd lapse here and there, obviously. As of 8 May 2013, it had been around seven weeks since his last cigarette.

Meanwhile, it had been over five months since mine. After around nine years of puffing away on a succession of increasingly unsatisfying Camel Lights, I finally gave them up at the end of December 2012. My last cigarette — and you always remember it — was outside Alexandra Palace after midnight after watching the semi-finals of the World Darts Championship with my friend Jack.

For me, the final straw was that NHS advert where a guy is standing out in his back yard smoking, and the cigarette gradually mutates into a malignant tumour before our very eyes. Partly it was grotesqueness of the image, but partly too the humiliation implicit in it. Someone at the Department of Health clearly decided it was necessary to pay a graphic design company to create an animation of a throbbing CGI tumour in order to get me to quit. Wow, I thought. They must really, really want me to quit. So I quit.

And it was fine, for the most part. I put on a little weight, as every time I felt like a fag I would have a snack instead. But eventually I got used to not smoking and began to tick off some of the benefits. I noticed my bank account swelling a little. I got more work done. I was even able to perfect the self-satisfied leer of superiority you give someone when they nip outside to indulge their habit in sub-zero temperatures. But all the while, there was a little nagging doubt in the back of my skull. And it was while researching this article that things came to a head.

Part of giving up smoking, you see, is making a little pact with yourself and convincing yourself at all times that you got the better side of the deal.

As a result of not smoking:

1) I will look less cool and get tetchy sometimes.

2) But that’s OK, because I’m now fitter and have more money.

And that works just fine, until you log on to Getty Images and see a picture of Berbatov or Özil or Socrates puffing away on a cigarette and looking like the coolest bastard in the world. In that instant, Berbatov is not only cooler than me, but is also fitter and has more money. So what was the point of giving up? I may never have the talent of the physique or the money of Berbatov, but at least I can emulate him in one crucial respect.

It is for this reason that seeing a prominent footballer smoking a cigarette, wilfully singeing their genius, is a more potent image than a thousand pictures of tumorous lungs. So I want to know if Greaves feels like all those years of smoking were worth it. More simply, I want to know whether I did the right thing.

“I enjoyed smoking,” he says. “The doctors were always telling me to cut it out and I finally did a few years ago. But I still have a sneaky one now and then. How old are you?”

The answer is twenty-seven. Greaves snorts.

“Oh, you’re still young,” he says with a note of disgust in his voice, as if I have been wasting his time all along. “You’ve got plenty of time yet. Go and get yourself some fags. I might come and join you.”

This article appeared on Episode Twenty One of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.