Tony Collins

Tony Collins

Tony Collins is a professor of history at De Montfort University. His books include 'Sport in Capitalist Society' and 'The Oval World'.

Euro 2016: A Free Kick for Nationalism
Wednesday, 13 July 2016 13:37

Euro 2016: A Free Kick for Nationalism

Published in Sport

Tony Collins outlines the historical background to the recent European Cup debacle.

It’s summer. It’s an even-numbered year. So it must be time for another festival of media angst about the fortunes of the England national football team. After yet another failure in Euro 2016, the bi-annual handwringing over England’s lack of success in one of football’s major tournaments is again underway. And this year it is given added importance by the nostalgia generated by the fiftieth anniversary of England winning the World Cup in July 1966.

But whether it’s the overt nationalism of the ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ chants or the rose-coloured memories of Bobby Moore and Swinging London in 1966, the starting point for the debate about the England team is always the idea that England is not living up to its status as a global soccer power and that the ‘home of football’ has been eclipsed by lesser nations.

The discussion is not so much about the state of football as it is the state of English nationalism. But that should not be surprising, because when we look at its history, the story of the England football team has never been really about football. It has always been about English nationalism.

The England team began as a reflection of Victorian Britain’s rigid class structure. Until 1900 the captain of the England side was always a middle-class amateur (as it was in cricket until 1952) who generally only met his working-class professional team-mates on the day of the match.

Before the First World War the England team had little of today’s national prestige. Football was primarily club-focused, not least because the Football Association (FA) was disdainfully uninterested in football outside of Britain.

Totalitarian Football

It wasn’t until the inter-war years, when international sport became politically and diplomatically important, that the England football team acquired the national prominence so familiar today. And the FA and the England side had no qualms about lining up alongside Europe’s fascist regimes.

In 1935, England played Germany for the first time since Hitler had come to power. The FA egregiously chose to play the match at White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur, a club even then closely associated with London’s Jewish community.

Amid protests from the labour movement and Jewish organisations, the match went ahead despite the fact that a few weeks earlier the Nuremberg laws had deprived Jews of German citizenship and banned marriage and sex between ‘Aryans’ and Jews. Sport came before politics, insisted the FA hypocritically, despite its self-consciously political role.

Most notoriously, in May 1938 the England side gave the Nazi salute before their international against Germany in Berlin, barely two months after Hitler had marched into Austria. Although after World War Two it was claimed the team was reluctant to raise their arms in the Seig Heil salute, there was no evidence at the time - and a year later the team again gave a fascist salute before their 2-2 draw against Mussolini’s Italy in Milan’s San Siro stadium.


England team give Nazi salute in Berlin, 1938

1966 And All That

After the Second World War, the England team was enrolled on the side of the West in the Cold War. But this did not go to plan. In 1953 England hosted Olympic champions Hungary at Wembley. Far from demonstrating their supremacy, the team was destroyed 6-3. Anyone who thought that this was an aberration was sorely disabused in the return match six months later, when the Hungarians once again eviscerated England 7-1.

The mythology of English football sees the defeats to the Hungarians as the turning point that led to the sport reinventing itself and winning the World Cup in 1966. Yet that triumph was not all it seemed.

Uniquely England were allowed to play all their World Cup matches at Wembley, their ‘home’ stadium. They narrowly defeated Argentina in the quarter-final only after Angentine captain Antonio Rattin had been controversially sent off, and then had their semi-final against Portugal helpfully switched from Everton’s Goodison Park to Wembley. The final also saw a dubious Geoff Hurst goal allowed despite the ball not appearing to cross the goal line.

The fallout from the 1966 England-Argentina quarter-final continues to reverberate today, demonstrating to South Americans that ‘Perfidious Albion’ applied as much to English football as it did to British diplomacy. It was during the 1960s that the roots of many of the present controversies in FIFA can be found.

FIFA Hypocrisy

Stanley Rous, the Englishman who was FIFA president from 1961 to 1975, was a well-known supporter of football in apartheid South Africa, helping to readmit its soccer federation into FIFA in 1963 at a time when most sports were expelling apartheid sporting bodies. As African and Asian nations joined FIFA, the discredited record of Rous and his English supporters allowed Joao Havelange and later Sepp Blatter to take control of FIFA.

Indeed, the recent campaign against Blatter and FIFA corruption is strongly motivated by nationalist revenge on the part of the British football authorities, who are arguably no less prone to corruption than their Swiss counterparts.

Yet despite the constant complaints about the undemocratic nature of FIFA, it is actually British soccer that is the sole beneficiary of FIFA’s most undemocratic feature - the International Football Association Board, the sport’s rule-making body, which gives the four British nations a built-in veto over any rule changes.

The Main Enemy Plays at Home

Nationalist arrogance runs from top to bottom through English football, from the highest officials to the fascist hooligans at England matches. And with nationalism comes racism. Count the number of black British managers in the Premier League or listen to the vile anti-semitic chants directed against Tottenham Hotspur.

And male chauvinism and homophobia is woven into that culture. The Premier and Football Leagues have no women in coaching positions and not a single gay player feels comfortable to come out in soccer’s toxic, homophobic atmosphere.

Whether expressed as right-wing rage or appeals to a supposed ‘left-wing’ patriotism, support for the England football team is a major vehicle for English national chauvinism today. The enjoyment of football’s sublime artistry should not blind us to the fact that, to paraphrase the great German internationalist Karl Liebknecht, when it come to international soccer, the main enemy plays at home.
Monument in Pariser Platz, Berlin, 1936
Sunday, 14 February 2016 19:59

What's Happened to Sport?

Published in Sport

Professor Tony Collins starts a series of articles about the relationship between sport and capitalism with an introduction to the history of sport.

It’s been a rough year for sport. In the last few months we’ve seen match-fixing allegations in tennis, Russia banned from international athletics for alleged doping, and the implosion of FIFA over endemic corruption. That’s not to mention the billionaire takeover of football and the grip of satellite TV on the game.

So where did it all go wrong?

In reality, nothing has gone wrong – modern sport has always been about money. It emerged in the 1700s as part of the growing commercial leisure industry of Britain’s emerging capitalist economy. The first rules of boxing, horse-racing and cricket were drawn up in the eighteenth century explicitly to make gambling easier and more transparent. Even the MCC, that bastion of the gentleman amateur, included rules for gambling in its early rulebooks. Teams and athletes were effectively owned by their aristocratic ‘patrons’, many of whom owed their wealth to the slave trade.

Sport was an entertainment – and like every other aspect of life under capitalism, it was organised to facilitate profit.

The Peoples’ Game?

When football was transformed into a mass spectator sport in the late 1800s, it quickly became commercialised. Soccer may have been ‘the People’s Game’ in terms of popularity, but it was as much a plaything of businessmen as it is today.

There’s no better example than Manchester United. When Newton Heath F.C. went into liquidation in 1902, they were bought by J.H. Davies, owner of Manchester Breweries. Renamed Manchester United, the club became an appendage of Davies’ business. United’s seven-strong board consisted of Davies and six other employees of the brewery. In 1909 Davies provided the cash that allowed the club to move to Old Trafford. And just as the Glazer family today has leveraged the club for their own financial interests, so did Davies: an FA enquiry in 1910 discovered that he received £740 rent from the club for land it did not use.

The same story was repeated across football. Chelsea was created by the owners of Stamford Bridge as an attraction to bring crowds into what was becoming a white elephant stadium. Most clubs that weren’t created as openly commercial ventures were formed by churches as a way of bringing Christian morality to working-class youths, such as Aston Villa, or by employers seeking to foster corporate unity in opposition to trade unionism, such as West Ham. Football made for great entertainment – but it was a never a people’s game.

Amateurism, Class and Race

The idea that sport was originally free of money and played only for love is a myth that was invented by the Victorian middle classes. Books like ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ spread the gospel of Muscular Christianity across the British Empire, promoting the idea that sport was a moral force for good. This was how the idea of amateurism was invented, based on the belief that sport should be played without financial award.

But behind this lay naked class hatred. The first rules of the Amateur Athletic Club, the forerunner of the Amateur Athletic Association, explicitly stated that anyone who was ‘a mechanic, artisan or labourer’ could not be an amateur. In 1895 rugby split into two distinct sports – league and union – when rugby’s middle-class administrators refused to allow working-class players to be paid compensation when they had to take time off work to play. Until 1963, cricket even divided its players into middle-class amateur ‘Gentlemen’ and working-class professional ‘Players’.

As was made clear in militaristic poems like Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitae Lampada’ - with its refrain ‘Play up and play the game’ – this was the ideology of the British Empire. Sport, proclaimed the Yorkshire Post, the organ of the northern English industrial bourgeoisie, had ‘done so much to make the Anglo-Saxon race the best soldiers, sailors and colonists in the world’.

In 1911 the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill banned ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells from boxing against Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion. Between 1907 and 1948 no black boxer could fight for a British boxing title, thanks to a ‘colour bar’ introduced in response to Johnson’s success and the perceived threat he posed to white racial superiority.

The ‘level playing field’ that sport was supposed to provide for everyone regardless of background was never level – and some could not even play on it.

Sex and Drugs

This was doubly true for women. The famous sporting motto ‘Mens sana in corpore sana’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) referred not to the creation of intellectual minds in healthy bodies, but of morally pure minds, free from effeminacy and the temptations of adolescent sexuality.

Modern sport was above all male, and founded on a strictly policed gender division. Women were discouraged and sometimes actively excluded from taking part in sport. In 1921 the Football Association officially banned women soccer players from using its football pitches. Even when women were allowed to take part, ideas about supposed female ‘weakness’ meant the Olympics barred them from events like the marathon until 1984.

It was the belief that successful women athletes were less than feminine that led to so-called ‘sex testing’ in the 1960s. The tremendous success of Soviet bloc women athletes led to Western paranoia that they were not ‘real women’ and in 1966 sex-testing was introduced in athletics. But this had no basis in science and was merely a more brutal way of enforcing traditional gender norms. Today, sport’s governing bodies assign themselves the right to define an athlete’s gender, an act as arrogant as it is reactionary.

It was also the Cold War that brought hysteria over drugs into sport. Drugs of varying forms had long been used in sport – even Frank Buckley’s Wolverhampton Wanderers were taking monkey gland extracts in the 1940s – but the rise of Soviet and East European athletes from the 1950s saw the West take the offensive and accuse the Soviets of ‘cheating’ by using drugs. As the ethical force of amateurism declined in sport in the 1960s and 1970s, the moral arguments previously used against professionalism were re-focused on medical stimulants.

Paranoia about drugs now replaced fear of professionalism as the raison d’être for tight control over athletes. Thanks to anti-drug legislation in sport, professional athletes today live in a totalitarian world where their every move is monitored and their civil liberties stripped away. And where sport goes, so too does government.

The Future of Sport

Nothing has gone ‘wrong’ with sport. For almost 300 years it has been an essential part of the capitalist leisure industry. There was never a golden age when it was pure; and the attempts to purify it by introducing amateurism led to the systematic exclusion and persecution of all those who fell outside its middle-class norms. Today it is a plaything of the rich and an instrument of control – just as it has always been.

Yet it remains a uniquely compelling form of entertainment. It is unscripted melodrama that allows the participant and the spectator to experience great emotional peaks that are rare in everyday life. It offers opportunities for physical artistry and collective endeavour that can sometimes touch the essence of what it means to be human.

Its liberation lies not in appeals to a mythical past or a morality invented by apostles of the British Empire but in the creation of a society where capitalism no longer exists and in which the full range of sporting experience can be had by all members of society. Only under socialism, in a society free of economic necessity and shorn of stifling bourgeois morality, will sport truly become a level playing field.