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.