THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

25 March ~ In WSC 9 (Aug/Sep 1987) Mike Ticher wondered about football's real place in society

In his rightly revered book, The Football Man (first published 1968), Arthur Hopcraft talks about the relationship between the North Korean team in the 1966 World Cup and the people who watched their games in Middlesbrough:

"In a matter of days a dark. slant-eyed footballer with a name like a nonsense rhyme can be adopted as a personal representative by a Middlesbrough labourer just because he is expressing hope and liberation through the one art the labourer fully understands. It often sounds unduly pompous and pious when men talk ceremonially about football's role as a bridge across national frontiers. But that is because the occasions of such statements are usually pompous, and so turn a decent truth into a banality."

The "decent truth" of football's bridge-building capacities is one which has undergone a severe battering since The Football Man was written. If you were now to ask any anglophobic European what it is that most inflames their hatred of the English (and I do mean the English, not the British), the chances are that football supporters would come considerably higher on the list than, say, Mrs Thatcher's attitude to the Common Agricultural Policy, and perhaps only on a par in some parts with our endearing habits as tourists.

However, Club 18-30 has yet to make major inroads into Luxembourg or Switzerland, for example, whereas English football and its followers have certainly done so. Nor have relations between England and Argentina been much improved by playing each other at football, or by the presence of Argentinian footballers in the Football League. However, that is not to say that times have changed so much that once football was a force for good and now it is a force for evil.

This was George Orwell in 1945: "Now that the brief visit of the [Moscow] Dynamos has come to an end; it is possible to say publicly what many people were saying privately before the Dynamos ever arrived. That is, that sport is an unfailing cause of ill-will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them worse than before." (Source: Shaw/Ball, The Book of Football Quotations)

Orwell was a terrible snob, for all his theoretical attachment to the working-class, but his slightly jaundiced outlook towards their source of entertainment should not hide the fact that there was a certain amount of truth in what he said.

However, he and Hopcraft both fall into the same trap, which is to assume that it is sport (in this case football) which is the active ingredient. It is the same attitude which says that Coventry winning the F.A. Cup has "done wonders for the whole city". (Twenty years of success doesn't seem to have done much for the welfare of the city of Liverpool.) Football is not so powerful that it can fundamentally influence events outside its own particular area of concern. However, it is powerful enough to have an irresistible hold on millions of people, and it provides a perfect stage for two opposing forces, whether ideological, nationalistic or religious to give vent to their antagonisms without actually going to war. No doubt Desmond Morris could spend a whole book telling us whether or not these two facts are connected, but either way, they combine to ensure that football, far from actively bringing people together or driving them apart, is instead the passive victim of those who would use it for their own ends.

A few examples: The Real Madrid team which won the first five European Cups is rightly remembered as perhaps the greatest club side of all time. What is not so frequently mentioned is the fact that their most influential supporter was none other than General Franco, who used his position to their advantage and made every effort to ensure their success at the expense of other regional teams, notably Barcelona. His motive, apart from presenting a positive image abroad of his loathsome regime, was to cement the power of Castillian Madrid in the new Spain and relegate to the periphery the independent-minded provinces, particularly Catalonia and the Basque region. The Catalans' defiance was forbidden in the streets, their language and culture repressed, so naturally they took their red-yellow-and-red flags to the one place where protest could (more or less) safely take place – the football stadium. This explains why today the Real-Barca match is so much more of a "Derby" than their respective games against Atletico Madrid and Espanol. Football was not in control, but rather it was used, by both parties.

Of course we don't have to go as far as Spain to find instances where football has been annexed for political ends over a long period of time – Celtic v Rangers is a classic case. The confrontational element which gives football its strongest appeal is also paradoxically its weakest spot, leaving it wide open to be hi-jacked by the two opposing traditions, in this case religious. Though that's not to say that football is always an unwilling host – it's good for business after all.

It's surely not untrue to say that the presence of two clubs identified with the different religions has, if anything, strengthened and prolonged the divisions between the Catholics and Protestants in Glasgow. It's not because the two clubs have taken such pains to stress their identity that football has failed to make a contribution to healing sectarian divisions, though of course it doesn't help. But their very existence is enough – given two such vital traditions and two football clubs, the result was inevitable.

Meanwhile, in Ireland, we have recently seen the bizarre situation of Derry City, from the North, playing in the Republic's League. If the bridge-building theory were correct, what better contribution could football make to a resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland than to stage regular matches between Derry and Linfield? Well, perhaps not...

Lastly, there is the "Bread-and-circuses" form of exploitation, popular for centuries and still going strong. It was once said (in the early part of the century) that if football crowds could be politicized, Britain would be socialist within a week (to which Foul memorably added that, given the nature of some of today's fans we'd be more likely to be Fascist in a fortnight). Times have certainly changed, but rulers of poorer countries at least, are still convinced by the same argument, that football is an admirable way to take people's minds off their empty stomachs - bread and circuses, but without the bread.

Hence Mexico and Argentina, like Chile before them, provide a World Cup for their people, in lieu of social justice. The fact that they often made the mistake of charging extortionate prices for the matches so that ordinary people never actually got to see them is beside the point. The same phenomenon has occurred regularly in Brazil, most notably in the 1970 World Cup, when the military regime did all in its power to identify itself with the success of the team, and used it to legitimize their brutal rule. (The sacking of the manager, Joao Saldanha, just before the tournament, is supposed to have been due to his "left-wing" views - see John Humphrey's article in the book Off the Ball). Football, once again, is the tool, not the craftsman.

So where does all this leave Pak Doo Ik and his cheerful band of "little men", happily absorbing all the warmth that Teesside had to offer in 1966? It can't be denied, from Hopcraft's description, that here football did indeed bring people together from the unlikeliest of different cultures. However, we can question' whether the reaction would have been the same if England had been involved in the matches, or if it had been Middlesbrough, needing one point for promotion against Pyongyang City. It's much easier for a neutral to be generous. The ideal of partisan, but still fair-minded support for your own team is one which never was, and certainly never can be, universal. Football crowds' emotions will inevitably continue to spill over into nationalism , sectarianism and violence. It's the nature of the game that these unpleasant forces find it easy to latch on to the passions which it arouses and pervert them to its own ends. If we are honest, we would probably admit that it makes some games that much more compelling.

It's about time we acknowledged football's relative helplessness and stopped talking about what it can or can't do in society. Much more interesting, and ultimately much more relevant, is what society tries to do, and all too often succeeds in doing, to football.

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