After the shooting, the scoring


As he drove to Euro 2012 by camper van this week, FRANK McNALLYmused on the importance of football to the continent. Was it really responsible for half a century of peace? It hasn’t started any wars, at least

WHEN GEORGE ORWELL claimed that sport was “war, minus the shooting”, he was talking mainly about football, and he clearly didn’t mean it as a compliment. But, considering the timing of his comments, he could have been at least a little more generous. The quotation is from an essay written in late 1945, when anything that replicated the patterns of war, without the shooting, might have seemed like a step in the right direction.

The immediate cause of Orwell’s contempt, however, was a tour of Britain by the Dynamo Moscow football club. It had been used as a propaganda opportunity for the postwar Soviet Union, and as such it was a qualified triumph. Dynamo drew with Chelsea and Glasgow Rangers, but they thrashed Cardiff City 10-1 and won the key fixture 4-3 against an Arsenal side supplemented by several star ringers, including Stanley Matthews.

Orwell didn’t attend any of the games. What he read and heard about the on-field violence and off-field animosity was enough. The Glasgow match, he had been told, “was simply a free-for-all from the start”.

But it was the Arsenal game that carried the highest stakes, allowing the visitors to claim victory over a de facto all-England selection.

Later, as recriminations flew, they were said to have ended their tour prematurely to avoid playing an actual all-England team.

Unfortunately or not, Orwell didn’t live to see the new era of international football in Europe, of which that tour was a harbinger.

The huge postwar growth in air travel, an accidental product of the advances forced by war, made touring easier for the big clubs. Soon there were continent-wide club competitions. And in 1960 the first European Nations Cup was held. It was the founder of a line of quadrennial tournaments, the latest of which began last night in Warsaw.

It would be facile to suggest that half a century of European-nations football has been responsible for the peace most of the continent has enjoyed since. But the fact that none of the tournaments has started a war might be enough to overthrow Orwell’s argument. As for the European Championships’ positive effect on peacekeeping, it seems fair to place its influence on a scale somewhere between two other peace-promoting inventions of the 1950s: the Treaty of Rome and the Eurovision Song Contest.

STILL, IT MUST be conceded that, in the cold-war years, European-nations football took up where the Arsenal-Dynamo game left off. Fate decreed that the first qualifying match for the 1960 tournament would be between the Soviet Union and Hungary. And few games could have been as politically charged as that one: the first leg played in 1958, barely two years after the Hungarian uprising. An aggregate crowd of 180,000 watched the Soviets prevail again, but at least this time nobody died.

There were potentially fraught fixtures everywhere back then. The USSR’s quarter-final opponents should have been Franco’s Spain, which in Orwellian terms would have been a replay of the Spanish Civil War. In fairness to him, Orwell had fought in that war, motivated by opposition to Franco and Stalin alike, so he might have had a more nuanced understanding of the football match too.

But, in any case, it didn’t happen. The generalissimo refused to let his team travel to Russia and told the Russians they couldn’t come to Spain either. So the Soviets advanced on a walkover.

The 1960 tournament in France was a very slight affair compared with the one under way now. There were only four teams and four matches: two semi-finals, a final and a third-place play-off. Three of the competing countries were from the communist bloc, although there was an intriguing subplot to the championship decider: the Soviets beat Marshal Tito’s Yugoslavia, which had once been on Stalin’s to-do list but outlived him and remained, in 1960, stubbornly independent.

That subplot wasn’t entertaining enough for the French public, though.

Having seen their team – the sole representatives of western democracy – lose in the semis, they stayed away from the final, which attracted fewer than 18,000 spectators: a tenth of the combined audience for the USSR-Hungary match.

BY COMPARISON WITHthe early editions, the tournament for which Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland team qualified in 1988 was a marathon, with eight teams playing 15 matches. By 1996 in England that in turn was dwarfed when the current 16-country format was introduced. And there is still no let-up in the inflation rate. From 2016 the finals will expand to 24 teams, suggesting that there may come a time when fringe countries such as Ireland may reasonably expect to qualify every time.

That might diminish the sense of excitement that grips the nation on those still-rare occasions that we reach a major tournament. But maybe we don’t need to worry about such a prospect just yet.

After all, the inflation is at least partly justified by the growth in the number of European countries since 1988, most of it at the expense of the two communist behemoths that contested the original final. And although few of the new countries are major football powers, they have added to the complications of qualifying for Ireland, as the name Macedonia will always remind us.

Even as it embraces the newer countries, meanwhile, another measure of the success of European football is that its nation members are no longer even confined to Europe. The more hardline Irish fans will find this out the hard way in September, when the European qualifying groups for the next World Cup start.

Ireland’s first outing is away to Kazakhstan. So the likes of Davy Keogh (the man who says hello) will have to travel to Astana, which is nearer to Mongolia than to Ukraine. Kazakhstan used to be in the Asian qualifying group, and there was an undeniable logic to that arrangement. Then it applied successfully to join Uefa instead.

Even the famously inclusive Eurovision Song Contest draws the line (so far) at Azerbaijan.

ONE THING ABOUTmodern European football that would not surprise Orwell is the tendency of many travelling fan groups, including Ireland’s, to describe themselves in military terms. We used to be in Jackie’s Army. Now we’re in Trapattoni’s. Only the generals have changed.

In certain European states, such as Slovakia when Ireland played there during the qualifiers, they seem to take this description seriously. At any rate, their police forces still expect trouble when football fans of any shirt colour are in town.

But as we know, Irish supporters always come in peace. And to the extent that they ever even threaten disturbances, they come as a self-policing unit too. Any time an Irish supporter threatens to cause trouble abroad, others are quick to intervene, lest the sainted collective reputation be sullied. Then again, this is true now of even the English travelling support. And while we might justly praise ourselves for being among the best-behaved fan bases in Europe, civilisation has become fairly common among football supporters.

There are, on the other hand, limits to what even football can achieve: for example, economic recovery. Thus it’s probably not true that the combined effects of Euro 88 and the 1990 World Cup lifted Ireland out of the last recession. It just felt that way at the time.

The cautionary tale of sport’s limitations as an economic generator is Greece, which was not saved from impending disaster (part of it caused by the expense of hosting another big sporting tournament) when it won the European Championships in 2004.

Perhaps the only lesson Ireland can learn from Greece is a football one: that it’s possible to bore your way to the European title. That may be our game plan too over the next 10 days.

AMONG OTHER THINGS, the 2012 tournament will probably revive the quadrennial debate about whether Irish fans can bring themselves to cheer for their nearest European neighbours (the nearest neighbours that usually qualify, that is).

The unjustified hype surrounding England’s chances – a hype that Ireland passively inhales through the ubiquitous British media – is often cited as one of the reasons we can’t. As the phrase goes: “We’ll never hear the end of it if they win.”

There is no such excuse this time. Rarely if ever can an England team have gone to a major tournament with such little expectation, as a litany of injuries and suspensions and a late change of manager somehow succeeded, where decades of failure couldn’t, in restraining optimism.

The perennial underachievement of England’s footballers, funnily enough, may be one area in which Orwell got it right. Certainly, it’s an ironic vindication of the conclusion to his 1945 essay, in which he expressed the hope that Britain would not reciprocate the Dynamo tour by sending a team to the USSR. “If we must do so,” he reasoned, “then let us send a second-rate team which is sure to be beaten and cannot be claimed to represent Britain as a whole.”

Many English, and most Irish, fans would agree that the 2012 England team fits the Orwellian requirement. But few of the thousands flocking to Poland and Ukraine this weekend, and few of the millions watching on television, would echo his overall conclusion about the value of football: “There are quite enough real causes of trouble already, and we need not add to them by encouraging young men to kick each other on the shins amid the roars of infuriated spectators.”

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