T he idea of the ‘Beautiful Game’ as a microcosm of politics seems rather fanciful and self-important but one stark example as to why we shouldn’t dismiss the notion entirely…. is the recent rise of the Women’s game. Would it have had any chance of thriving had it not been for the ‘Feminist’ political movement and the subsequent influence women have gone on to have in all spheres of life? Without Emmeline Pankhurst, there would have been no Marta.
Consider also the similarities between recent responses of the British Government and the governing bodies of English Football in respect of the Coronavirus pandemic.. with focus being first and foremost on economic preservation rather than the safety of human beings.
Through the course of this article we will seek to discuss not just the ‘ripple’ effects that politics has had on football but also the parallels between certain political ideologies and football philosophies; we will look in particular at fascism, socialism and capitalism (liberalism).
Whilst Julian Fellowes new miniseries “The English Game” takes liberties in its depiction of the early days of the game in England, it does a stellar job of highlighting how football was at first a game for ‘Gentlemen’. Football was originally formalised by the likes of elite public schools Rugby, Eton, Harrow and amalgamated into the Cambridge Rules. The thought of opening the game up for the masses would be seen as hurting the prestige of the game.
This mirrors the journey of active suffrage in the United Kingdom, which underwent significant change during the industrial revolution. As late as 1884, 40% of adult males and 100% of adult females did not possess the right to vote. In fact it took the onset of World War One for the Home Secretary to remind his fellow parliamentarians that the sacrifice of those men and women should render questions about gender, class and qualification redundant thus paving the way to universal suffrage which was established in 1928.
From the outset of the game’s global growth, fascism has enjoyed a perversely strong influence over the game. The aggressive, partisan nature of the game through all levels of the sport is unique and fosters a siege mentality. Tactically and philosophically, it is not obvious as to what parallels can be drawn but rigid, physical and cynical anti-fútbol centred on ‘dehumanising’ the opposition would probably be the best place to start.
Benito Mussolini was particularly keen to use the 1934 World Cup as an overt means of promoting fascism - fighting off accusations of bribery, corruption to secure a first trophy for the Italians. Four years later, the Italian’s triumphed again amidst even further furore with their ‘Roman Salutes’ and All-Black attire intimidating the opposition. In the final versus Hungary, the triumphant Italians were presented with a fascist Gold Medal by Il Duce himself during a 15-minute reception in the Palazzo Venezia in Rome.
The Italian National Team was seemingly the perfect fascist propaganda machine but under the surface, the 1934 Team was built around the ‘Oriundi’ talents of the likes of Luis Monti and Raimundo Orsi - South American immigrants deemed ‘native’ as they were pivotal to furthering the national cause. Post-World War Two, when the Italians began to struggle to reassert their influence on the big stag... blame was the laid at the feet of the new generation of ‘Oriundi’ who were suddenly deemed to be opportunistic foreigners lacking the requisite passion and love for their nation. Sound familiar?
In Spain, General Franco’s fascist regime has been attributed to the early success of Real Madrid. The regime proved particularly influential in respect of the disputed Alfredo Di Stefano transfer, where Armando Calero, former president of the Spanish Football Federation and linked to Franco, acted as mediator. His decision was to give Real Madrid and Barcelona alternate seasons in which Di Stefano could play for them. This led to Barcelona rejecting Di Stefano altogether and handing him on a plate to Madrid – a decision they would live to regret.
How much influence Franco had over Real Madrid is debatable but opposition to the regime was most vociferous and unpoliced in the football stadiums of Basque and Catalonia. Rather unfortunately, Franco’s legacy counter-intuitively manifests itself in the philosophy of Athletic Bilbao whereby the club will only sign players who were born in the Basque Country, or who learned their football skills at a Basque club.
This form of Basque ‘Nationalism’ was indeed present pre-Franco, but there is no doubt Franco’s regime was key in its long-term establishment. Whilst this policy was understandable during Franco’s reign it is now deemed archaic and discriminatory; Bilbao were the last club in La Liga to have never fielded a black player and Blanchard Moussayou, whose promising career was curtailed by injury, stated his belief that it was 'twice as hard' for a black player to succeed there.
Tactically, it is difficult to describe a team as having a ‘fascist’ style of play but if we are to broadly use the criteria alluded to in the introductory paragraph, teams that come to mind are Italian football sides such as Inter during the 60’s, Juventus of the 80’s and closer to home, Leeds United of the 1970’s. Sides which treated football like war, sought to demonise the opposition – not holding back from dirty play and followed by legions of ‘Ultras’… who sing from the hymn sheet of racial prejudice and nationalist sentiment.
Off the pitch, it is hard to avoid the connection between fascism and levels of hooliganism. With emerging populist right-wing governments seemingly dominating the political landscape so too have we seen the re-emergence of racist chanting at football stadiums and an increasing climate of violence.
Communism, in its purest form, may have proved itself redundant as a functioning political ideology but the extreme sacrifice of the individual’s wants and needs, regardless of their ability level, for the greater good of the community has rendered it incredibly effective in the football arena. The most beautiful football teams of all time have been built on communist foundations, including the Magic Magyars and the Total Footballing Dutch Team of the 1970’s.
Tactically these very centralised regimes expected all players to be able to play in any position, press as a collective and to pass and move, trusting in each other’s ability rather than focus on serving the needs of a gifted individual. Paradoxically, just like the communist political regimes ended up having notable cult figures who in effect became dictators so did Puskas and Cruyff defy the principle of ‘All animals being equal’.
The most successful teams in British football, the likes of Liverpool and Celtic were built on socialist principles. In some ways these sides were more true to ‘communist’ principles than the Hungarians or the Dutch in the sense that they were genuinely built on a togetherness and didn’t revolve around the talents of an all-time level genius (no disrespect intended to Jimmy Johnstone or Dalglish who were key components of their respective sides).
However what differentiated these sides was the fact that everyone did their own particular job to the best of their ability, with each job afforded the same level of importance. Player’s weren’t seen as faceless entities serving a greater cause, but each player was respected, allowed to master their trade and by bringing the best out of all of them as a collective, the greater good was still achieved.
Since the eighties, the United Kingdom like many economies following the lead of the United States endorsed a policy of equal opportunity for all, calling for deregulation of the national economy and the extension of marketplace ideas to many domains of life, including education, healthcare and sport.
A process that was designed to reward merit and punish inefficiency, pushed the ‘greed is good’ mantra and magnified inequalities, bringing about unprecedented levels of globalisation to the extent to which clubs are struggling to field any local players and failing to connect with local fanbases. Sports such as cricket are completely absent from free-to-air television and football is increasingly following this path.
The creation of the Premier League and the Champions League would not have been possible without this ideological revolution which caught fire in the preceding decade. Both were borne out of a desire to make football uniformly “consumable” to people across continents by making it more marketable – with the idea that the best should face the best and receive all the financial spoils accordingly.
In the Premier League, money would only be divided between the clubs active in that division whilst in the previous arrangement it was shared between all Football League clubs across all divisions. A classic case of neoliberalism emerging triumphant against socialism.
The Champions League was the brainchild of Silvio Berlusconi who sought new income streams for AC Milan and satellite television station Canale5. The key to profitability was overhauling the European Cup. Berlusconi had been horrified when the champions of Italy and Spain, Napoli and Real Madrid, met in the first round of the 1987/88 competition.
Having the European Cup as straight knockout competition was exciting, but it made no commercial sense. Berlusconi wanted more games for the big teams from Europe’s biggest leagues and the best way to guarantee this was a league format, without knockout rounds, to guarantee a steady income.
Just like the Premier League, the obsession for profit paved the way for the creation of super-clubs were able to exponentially distance themselves from the other clubs in their own domestic league. Such is their insatiable lust for even greater revenues, there has even been talk of a breakaway European Super League in which access would be cut off to a select few - so much for greater competitiveness and opportunity for all.
Tactically, Liberalism and Socialism have gone head to head from the very start of the professional game. The Scottish teams promoted a more collective game based on pass and move, whilst the Liberal game favoured by the elites favoured more of a running game. Jimmy Hogan was an Englishman who was greatly influenced by his Scottish teammates and set about spreading the gospel of the passing game across the continent.
Whilst teams underpinned by socialist principles were and are heavily ‘coached’ and play in a very collective, structured way - teams such as Real Madrid and Manchester United have historically been built on more liberal tactical principles and have been no less successful. There is a reason why the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo has gravitated towards these clubs rather than a Barcelona or a Liverpool. Furthermore, on the international stage, it could be said that Brazil have also thrived using a ‘liberal’ philosophy founded upon allowing everyone the artistic licence to express their football ability as they see fit.
What these teams have done so successfully is celebrate and harness the power of the individual, sell the power of achievement and create the sense that football is entertaining theatre and spectacle of an incomparable scale. It is also interesting to note that these team’s greatest successes tended to come during periods of unprecedented economic growth… the mid to late 1950’s, the 1960’s and the 1990’s to early 2000’s.
In conclusion, there are very stark parallels between football and politics. Football by its very nature is a political beast, more so than any other sport. Why? Well it is the ‘people’s game’ and it is a truly global sport, one which is accessible to all ages, sizes, classes, cultures and races.
This in combination with its open-minded, rapidly evolving nature and sheer depth of tactical and philosophical range means it absorbs more ideas from the world around us compared to a Basketball, Cricket, Rugby or Tennis.
Most of the leading teams in the sport incorporate a variety of political philosophies into their footballing ideologies and practices but at times throughout history, just as we see in the political arena, teams which symbolise an extreme variant of a particular philosophy. This can lead to ugly football and ugly behaviour, but it can also at times create football of breathtaking beauty. The 'Beautiful Game' without the influence of politics would be a poorer sport for it.
Raees aka ‘Pythag’ is the Founder and Creative Director of Pythagoras in Boots. He was a football coach at West Bromwich Albion and is a lifelong Manchester United fan and an all-round sports obsessive.