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.

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