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Morality, Culture and the World Cup

John Simkin

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There is a long article in the Guardian about this topic this morning by D. J. Taylor. Here is an extract but highly recommend the full article here:


You probably saw it. One-all between France and Spain on Tuesday night, and suddenly Thierry Henry, ball bobbing slightly out of his reach, tries a sinuous dart through the Spanish defence. One defender steams across to intercept. Another, Carles Puyol, clatters in from the rear, making minor but not oppressive contact with the region slightly below Henry's left shoulder. What does our man do? Why, he collapses to the ground clutching - of all those parts of his anatomy brushed by the collision, the least affected by far - his head.

From the resulting free-kick France (inevitably) take the lead, adding another in the closing seconds. In a World Cup tournament already ablaze with accusations of gamesmanship - the repercussions of the Portugal-Holland game in which several players were clearly trying very hard to get their opponents sent off boom lingeringly on - the only consolation comes in the reaction of the ITV commentators. Clive Tyldesley and his stooge are scandalised by what they imagine to have been a deliberate dive. Henry, the cry goes up, should be ashamed of himself. And here, rising above the clotted turf of a German football field steals a scent that one had previously thought all but extinguished from the modern professional game - the Corinthian Spirit.

Paid huge sums to play a sport - something early Victorian footballers would have thought a contradiction in terms - today's Premiership heroes inhabit a curious professional environment. On the one hand winning is everything, and defeat an excuse for Sir Alex Ferguson to yell four-letter words into your ear in the post-match dressing-room showdown. On the other, ancient concepts of sportsmanship precariously adhere - the player who doesn't kick the ball into touch when someone goes down injured generally provokes outrage.

Meanwhile, above these ambiguities hangs the thought of a game that is, given its international focus, always going to transcend its original purpose. Even as a child of five watching the 1966 World Cup final, I was dimly aware that what was being played out on the Wembley turf was something more than a football match, that the second world war was being figuratively refought. My father, the same age then as I am now, had spent 1941-6 in the RAF: from his point of view it could well have been the Nazi High Command rather than Uwe Seeler and Franz Beckenbauer being sent back crestfallen to the dressing room.

My father's fist-waving dance of joy when Geoff Hurst's third goal went in seemed a reasonable reaction. Dad had had five years of his life taken away in the fight against fascism: no wonder he hated Germans, writhed with nervousness when my sister's pen-friend Barbel came to stay and regarded Bobby Charlton as Field Marshal Montgomery's spiritual heir. Plenty of other people have examined the beautiful game at international level and diagnosed an exercise in disguised nationalism. "Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play," George Orwell pronounced in 1945, having studied press accounts of the gutsy encounters between British clubs and the touring Moscow Dynamo. "It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting."

His Tribune essay, The Sporting Spirit, was one of the rare instances of Orwell's profound understanding of popular culture deserting him. To this public-school educated cricket-lover, professional football is not the pre-eminent working-class recreation of the age, or even - something of which Orwell usually approved - a means of working-class self-advancement, but merely the rather disgusting spectacle of "young men kicking each other". Neither does Orwell seem to have appreciated that the rise of soccer as a spectator sport in this country involved a complex assortment of social and moral influences, by far the most important of which was the amateur code of hard knocks and not kicking your opponent when he was down - a code to which, judging from some of his remarks about cricket, Orwell would have subscribed. Like the Battle of Waterloo, curiously enough, the 1966 World Cup final turns out to have been won on the playing fields of Eton.

In common with many another part of our national fabric, football was a working-class pursuit colonised by a middle-class establishment: what once had been a free-for-all chaos was now studiously authenticated by a vigilant bourgeoisie. The Football Association, founded in 1863 by a band of former public-schoolboys, was intended above all to provide this burgeoning national pastime with a rule book, a set of protocols and, above all, a moral attitude. Suitably enough, its first annual challenge cup competition, inaugurated a decade later, was secured by Wanderers, a famous old boys' side, with their 1-0 defeat of the Royal Engineers in front of a mere 3,000 spectators.

It took another decade for anyone beyond the catchment area of the southern public schools to breach this citadel, when Blackburn Olympic saw off the Old Etonians. The final of 1883 was a benchmark - the last final in which an amateur team of privately educated gentlemen defeated the tough bunches of cloggers from beyond the Trent who would dominate the game....

After all, if professional football were the licensed swindle that Orwell and plenty of other subsequent anatomists imagined it to be, it would be conducted in an openly cynical spirit: a professional foul would be applauded merely because it could be shown to have prevented a goal; a defender sent off for crippling an opponent would be cheered all the way to the dressing room. That football isn't - quite - reduced to these depths is a tribute to the forces that brought the modern game into being and, even now, are spiritually at large along its touchlines.

One can also see it in the footballer's autobiography, which, by and large, however eye-catching the revelations from boot-room or extramarital bed, is still largely concerned with the pursuit of abstract sporting glory. What, on the evidence of a book like Gazza: My Story is Paul Gascoigne really interested in? Fame? He can take it or leave it. Money? No, Paul can't remember either how much he earned or where it all went. Apart from paying a few localised dues - "buying nice houses for everyone in my family" - our man simply wants to play football.

Forty years after the spectacle of Ramsey's golden boys metaphorically seeing off the Luftwaffe, young Wayne, shaping up to face Portugal this afternoon is not, you imagine, looking forward to the indirect consolidation of his bank account but to an almost mythological vision of himself gladiatorially at large on the rolling turf. Searching for an insult to fling against members of the Manchester City team who, he believed, had let him down, Stuart Pearce recently declared that they lacked "moral courage".

Football remains both a romantic and - the two are necessarily connected - a moral activity. Even now, in a landscape of seven-figure salaries and cut-throat competition, in which muscular millionaires find it necessary to roll around on the ground in simulated agony every 10 minutes or so, the Corinthian Spirit precariously endures.

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