Carry on up the Corner Flag

R.W. Johnson

  • Ajax, the Dutch, the War: Football in Europe during the Second World War by Simon Kuper
    Orion, 244 pp, £14.99, January 2003, ISBN 0 7528 5149 7
  • Broken Dreams: Vanity, Greed and the Souring of British Football by Tom Bower
    Simon and Schuster, 342 pp, £17.99, February 2003, ISBN 0 7432 2079 X

Brought up Jewish and soccer-loving in the Netherlands, Simon Kuper has come to realise that he accepted too easily the myth of Dutch wartime heroism. The result is a long litany of hurt feelings, awkwardly transposed onto the world of soccer. He starts with a snapshot of interwar football, when international encounters were still few and English players enjoyed such unquestioned primacy that one German soccer writer referred to them as ‘a sort of Übermenschen’. ‘It was during the 1930s that football became politics,’ Kuper claims, though he provides few instances. His discussion of the period revolves around the photo of the English team giving the Hitler salute before their 1938 match against Germany in Berlin. Stanley Rous, the FA secretary, had decided this would be a good thing – after all, they had given the Fascist salute in Rome and that had gone down well. Kuper quotes extensively from the autobiographies of Stanley Matthews and the England captain, Eddie Hapgood, who insist that the team stoutly resisted the idea of giving the salute: Hapgood (so they say) even wagged his finger at the FA official who instructed them to salute and ‘told him what he could do with the Nazi salute, which involved putting it where the sun doesn’t shine’.

Kuper notes that their version of events is at variance with contemporary accounts. All the British press accounts mention the Hitler salute as having gone down well and there is no suggestion of team dissension. What Kuper fails to note is that both the Hapgood and Matthews autobiographies came out after the war and were doubtless ghosted by patriotic journalists responding to anti-German chauvinism. The idea of the deferential Hapgood daring to risk his captaincy and career by telling an FA superior to put the Nazi salute ‘where the sun doesn’t shine’ is pure ‘Carry on up the Corner Flag’.

Later, Kuper interviews the Preston North End winger Tom Finney about the Cup Final of 1941, when Preston beat Arsenal. Wasn’t it odd, he asks, to play the final in bombed-out London? ‘I wasn’t all that interested in the war when I was playing,’ Finney answers. ‘I was only 18. And the main concern was to go down and beat them . . . I wasn’t really all that interested . . . I mean, other than the fact that we wanted England to win the war.’ Finney’s vague indifference would have been far more typical than the political consciousness ghostwriters dimly tried to inject into the Hapgood and Matthews books. Soccer was a working-class game: the working class was poorly educated, generally leaving rotten schools at 14, and the soccer world was then parochial and semi-literate.

Kuper goes in search of Ajax as a ‘Jewish club’ simply because prewar Amsterdam had a large Jewish community. Ajax, he claims, was ‘the place’ where Jews and gentiles met. The fact that almost everyone he interviews, including many ‘half-Jews’, tells him that Ajax wasn’t a Jewish club doesn’t put him off at all. ‘I had begun my research,’ he tells us, ‘by trying to dig up the war history of Ajax, Feyenoord and the Dutch FA, but soon found that there was almost nothing there.’ When he tells an old Ajax official, Wim Schoevaart, that he is ‘writing a book about Ajax, the Jews and the war’ (an interesting contrast with the book’s actual title), Schoevaart ‘kindly’ responds that he is wasting his time, ‘because I would soon find out there wasn’t enough to say. Like every other Ajax official I spoke to, he instantly denied my suggestion that the club had ever had many Jewish members.’ Kuper believes his informants are in denial. Quoting Eichmann’s recollection of the ease of the Holocaust in the Netherlands, ‘The trains from Holland – it was a delight,’ he claims that among the villains who made it so were ‘several Ajax men’. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that Kuper seems to regard the Second World War as a contest mainly between Germans and Jews: all the other combatants have to be judged in the light of that primary clash. This is rather like descriptions of the Pacific War in which the fact that for its entire duration more than three quarters of the Japanese Army were deployed in China is mysteriously omitted.

What does seem to be the case is that a degree of identification between Ajax and the Jews entered the popular mind in the 1960s, when the club was bankrolled by a Jewish businessman, Maup Caransa, who refused to meet Kuper, and had a Jewish chairman, Jaap van Praag, whom he also didn’t meet. Indeed, Kuper could get only one Jew associated with the club, Salo Muller, the masseur, to talk to him. He attributes this collective refusal to wartime trauma, but maybe these men had advance warning of Kuper’s monomania, which stretches as far as depicting Ajax’s most famous player, Johann Cruyff, as a ‘Jewish patron saint’ (a whole chapter is devoted to telling us how popular Cruyff is in Israel). The identification of Ajax with Jewish money has resulted in anti-semitic chanting from rival Feyenoord fans. Inevitably, Kuper goes on about this and what it says about the state of the Netherlands today, though it is difficult to feel much surprise at news of football fans displaying ignorance or racist attitudes. In fact, blacks have always had far more to bear than Jews in this regard, but in any case, all Bill Shankly had to say on hearing that his Liverpool team faced Ajax in a European Cup game was: ‘Ajax? That’s a cleaning fluid,’ which is about the level of seriousness one expects.

One problem with Kuper’s book is that he is trying to write football history without, apparently, knowing very much other history. No one who has studied wartime Europe would be at all surprised to learn that collaboration was the norm. What else would one expect? Worse still, the new breed of soccer intellectuals, to which Kuper belongs, even seem to have a weak grasp of the game’s history, of how football fitted into the social structure and where it came from.

Soccer in its modern form is an urban game. It was also, initially, an English game. Prints survive of youths chasing footballs in Smithfield in the 12th century; not long afterwards, Shrove Tuesday ‘mob football’ began at Derby, the source of the modern game (hence the ‘local derby’), but such was the passion for it that, from Edward II on, English kings tried to ban it. Edward III, Richard II and Henry IV all passed edicts against it (it was getting in the way of archery and other martial pursuits). In 1457, James II of Scotland decreed that ‘fute-ball and golfe be utterly cryed down’, while Henry VIII made football a penal offence. Under Elizabeth I, the Grand Jury of Middlesex held that it was ‘an unlawful game, a great affray likely to result in homicides and serious accidents’, while the Puritans outlawed ‘football playing and other develishe pastimes’. This, in turn, led Charles II to patronise the game; in 1681 he attended a game between his servants and those of the Duke of Albemarle. It was, before all others, the great game of the common people, for many centuries surviving every attempt at its repression. It was also played in many forms with many local variants. In the Derby Shrove Tuesday version the mob would follow the ball wherever it got kicked, even into stables or houses, which is why windows throughout the town were boarded up. If this was how the English played, an appalled French visitor remarked, he dreaded to imagine what they might do when it came to fighting.

The modern game began with the founding of the FA in 1863 and revolved around urban football clubs, of which the first was Sheffield FC, founded in 1857. To begin with, the game was strictly amateur, but by 1885 professionalism was legalised. Codification of the rules had already begun: in 1875 the crossbar was introduced, in 1878 the referee’s whistle, in 1882 the two-handed throw-in; in 1888 the Football League was set up; 1891 saw the introduction of goal nets and penalty kicks, and 1902 the goal areas, penalty areas and penalty spot. In just one generation, the innumerable local variations had been organised into a single sport, and ‘the beautiful game’ began.

Professionalism, league football and codification all grew from the single fact of English and Scottish urbanisation: with the rise of economically competing cities the quintessential form of cultural competition was soccer. Cricket, with its strong support among the upper classes, could be amateur and county-based; soccer was a working-class game, and the only way workers could play in an organised fashion was as professionals. This meant there had to be large crowds to pay them, which meant urban clubs in working-class centres. For a while, amateur soccer flourished alongside the professional form in the Isthmian and Athenian Leagues, and later the Corinthian, Delphian, Spartan and Parthenon Leagues (you almost needed to have studied Greek to play), but from the start it was clear that professional football was where the real action was.

English domination of the game was based on the fact that England urbanised first. Manchester had become a city by 1853, followed by Liverpool in 1880, Leeds in 1893 and Birmingham in 1896. In 1800 there had been no towns in England outside London with a population of 100,000: by the time Victoria became Queen in 1837 there were five, and by 1891, 23. Between 1841 and 1891, the population of London increased from 1.88 million to 4.23 million. There was no remotely comparable city anywhere in Europe: Hippolyte Taine pointed out that London was more than twice the size of Paris and equal to ten Lyons or 12 Marseilles. (Glasgow, it should be said, was even more dominant in Scotland than London was in England.) Professional soccer required not just a few large towns, but leagues able to draw regular large crowds in 20, 40 and, ultimately, 92 large centres: only British towns and cities were able to supply them.

In many European countries the rivalry at the top is restricted to two clubs: Celtic and Rangers, Ajax and Feyenoord, Barcelona and Real Madrid. But because of the pattern of English urbanisation the competition extends beyond London, Manchester and Liverpool. Derby, Blackburn, Leeds, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest have quite recently been League Champions and so, to go a little further back, have Ipswich, Portsmouth, Burnley and Wolves. In 1861, at under 20,000, Middlesbrough’s population could not support a major club, but by 1881 it had 55,934 inhabitants and by 1901, 91,302. Middlesbrough FC followed this curve. It was founded in 1876, went professional in 1889 and was in Division I by 1902.

The football revolution had enormous social significance. Above all, it was more democratic than any other sport – it rose, pari passu, with the Reform Acts of 1867, 1884 and 1918. In rural England young working-class boys might rush after a muddy ball, but all the organised sports were under the control of their betters: they could watch their employers ride to hounds, shoot or play tennis; they could act as caddies while the bosses played golf. Even in 1900, the only way young working-class boys in Oxford could play cricket was by bowling or fielding all day, being paid sixpence for it, while young gentlemen enjoyed themselves hitting the ball all over the place – a division long replicated by gentleman batsmen (Cowdrey, May, Dexter) and working-class bowlers (Bedser, Trueman, Statham). Professional soccer changed all that: the spectators and their heroes on the pitch were alike proletarian. Upper-class amateurism could not dominate (or even long survive) a game which commanded the talents of almost the entire working class. Mass-based professional soccer was a joyful assertion, an emancipation.

But the rise and codification of mass soccer was also accompanied by a process of genteel socialisation, a taming of working-class raucousness. Soccer was in some sense a functional replacement for public executions, which had drawn vast working-class crowds and allowed the expression of the wildest passions. Indeed, the two things could even be conflated: the soccer tradition at Kingston-on-Thames was traced back to the occasion when the town’s inhabitants, having beheaded a marauding Danish general, kicked his head around in triumph. Conversely, the public hanging of John Platts outside Derby County Jail in April 1847 drew a crowd of twenty thousand – descendants of the ‘seething mob’ that played Shrove Tuesday football. When the FA was founded in 1863 it knew it was in direct competition for crowd support with public hangings, which ceased only after 1868. But the passions aroused by the game would, from then on, take an ever more routine and ritualised form.

Kuper is wrong, therefore, when he writes that ‘it was during the 1930s that football became politics’: soccer had been deeply political for centuries before that. But, of course, that politics was infused with religion (not Judaism but Catholicism and Protestantism: Celtic v. Rangers, Everton v. Liverpool) and, more diffusely, with class as well as with intra-city and regional rivalries. What is surprising, in retrospect, is that the greatest crowds in soccer history in the 1930s and 1940s coincided with the lowest soccer wages. My own father, snapped up by Liverpool after he had scored 120 goals in a season in the Lancashire Combination League, had to leave Anfield because he couldn’t live on what he was paid: the bus fares to and from the ground devoured a quarter of his weekly wage. But the postwar rise of Labour soon saw an echo in soccer. Unionisation, spearheaded by Jimmy Hill, produced dramatic results, and by the 1970s even university graduates such as Steve Heighway could choose football as a career because it paid so well. Inevitably, one ceased to hear of the gallant amateurs of Bishop Auckland and Corinthian Casuals: middle-class kids could now make a bundle by joining the working-class game. This paved the way for the current celebrity soccer soap opera which bears much the same relationship to the traditional game that, say, Coronation Street does to other areas of working-class life.

Large parts of Tom Bower’s book read like a charge sheet, and one has not got far into it before the conviction grows that most football managers and chairmen and all football agents belong behind bars. The trouble is that no one much cares: Nottingham Forest still has its Brian Clough Stand, while George Graham and Terry Venables remain in demand despite accusations of corruption. Modern soccer is summed up not by the idea of ‘the beautiful game’ but by a remark of Tommy Docherty’s:

Lots of times managers have to be cheats and conmen. People say we tell lies. Of course we tell lies. We are the biggest hypocrites. We cheat. In our business the morals are all different. The only way to survive is by cheating. And there’s no way that can be changed. That’s our life, that’s the law of our life.

(Lou Macari used to say that you could always tell when Tommy Docherty was lying – his mouth moved.) Even after admitting perjury in court Docherty was soon rehired as a manager. Similarly, Don Revie was made England manager despite the fact that there were many people who could attest to his habit of offering opposing teams bribes to lose games.

Bower details the ill-fated attempt by New Labour to clean up the game, which ended with the FA managing yet again to stave off the statutory regulation it so badly needs. How Blair could entrust such a task to Chris Smith and Tony Banks beggars belief: Kate Hoey, a far superior politician, merely got sacked for her pains, much to the delight of the FA. When Ken Richardson, the owner of Doncaster Rovers, was jailed in 1999 for conspiring to burn down his own stadium, the FA took no action, perhaps because it didn’t wish to draw attention to the fact that Richardson had been banned from horse-racing for 25 years in 1984.

The reality Bower should have faced but never does is that soccer is intrinsically corrupt just about everywhere. He mentions the appalling corruption of Italian, Spanish and Greek soccer; the Bernard Tapie case at Marseille showed that the French game is not very different; and we all know that Latin American soccer is in ruins as a result of corruption. The decision to award Africa the World Cup in 2010 glides over the fact that soccer there is disorganised and delinquent on almost every count. Docherty’s boast that there is ‘no way’ all this can be changed has to be taken a great deal more seriously than the Government has so far taken it. On the other hand, why would one expect the world’s most popular sport to solve the difficult problem of self-governance when small groups of unelected men handle enormous sums of money knowing they will be forgiven any amount of theft and chicanery if their teams win? We know that boxing and horse-racing are often mafia-run, and that cricket is thoroughly tainted, and there’s far more at stake in soccer than in these sports. Billions of pounds are involved, as is the reputation and image of the country itself. Thanks to Sky, football has become the country’s biggest and most popular cultural export. Cleaning up British soccer is possible, but only root and branch reform will succeed: this is a task not for a junior minister but for a real heavyweight.