(No) Danger Here – Frank McNally on how George Orwell got it badly wrong about football

An Irishman’s Diary

George Orwell: had no time for the idea that sporting rivalries could be a safe outlet for national self-expression. Photograph: AP

George Orwell: had no time for the idea that sporting rivalries could be a safe outlet for national self-expression. Photograph: AP

 

George Orwell did not get many things wrong, or badly wrong anyway. Allowing for details nobody could foresee years ahead, never mind decades, his instincts about what the world needed to worry about were usually right. But his 1945 essay about the dangers of international football, “The Sporting Spirit”, has not aged well. Three-quarters of a century later, it looks like an embarrassing own goal.

The immediate cause of the diatribe was a postwar tour of Britain by the Dynamo Moscow soccer club, pride of the USSR. They played several games, including one against an Arsenal side that the Soviets alleged were England in disguise.

And although Orwell didn’t attend the matches, he read enough about them to decide they illustrated everything that was wrong with “our nationalistic age”, while making an already bad situation “slightly worse”. Then he summed up in a famous phrase. International sport, football especially, was just “war minus the shooting”.

War minus the shooting might have been considered a step forward in November 1945. But Orwell had no time for the idea that sporting rivalries could be a safe outlet for national self-expression:

“I am always amazed when I hear people say that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield.”

On the contrary, he argued: “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of football matches between Jews and Arabs, Germans and Czechs, Indians and British, Russians and Poles, and Italians and Jugoslavs, each match to be watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 . . .”

Well, the Jews and Arabs will not be involved in the tournament that kicks off across Europe this weekend, nor will the Indians. But the rest of Orwell’s national identity parade will be represented, including the former “Jugoslavs” of Croatia and North Macedonia.

And yet, even if attendances were not restricted by a pandemic, this most elaborate European football championships yet would be unlikely to contribute much to international ill-will. If anything, the event should instead demonstrate how far the continent has come since 1945.

The past 76 years of relative peace, most of which Orwell didn’t live to see, was probably not the result of the ever-increasing number of cross-border football matches. The rise of a European Union, which he also foresaw, had more to do with that.

In an otherwise gloomy 1947 essay, Orwell suggested the world’s best hope was an exemplary emergence somewhere “on a large scale […] of a community where people are relatively free and happy and where the main motive in life is not the pursuit of money and power”. Only western Europe could pull this off, he thought.

How healthy the European project is now can be debated. But whatever its political problems, the imminent football festival is unlikely to increase them. On the contrary, having been a product of the continent’s mostly peaceful cooperation post-war, the tournament is now arguably its most perfect expression.

Even the hooliganism that, as recently as the 1990s, gave Orwell’s theories a new lease is now largely a thing of the past. As for violence on the pitch, that has reached an all-time low, declining in inverse proportion to the tendency of players to exaggerate it. Now, the tiniest fouls result in punishment, often after a lengthy consultation process that would warm the heart of an EU bureaucrat.

Orwell may have been indulging his underrated sense of humour in one of his 1945 arguments, when he wrote that the violence of football filled an emerging gap in urban life.

“In a rustic community a boy or a young man works off his surplus energy by […] various sports involving cruelty to animals, such as fishing, cock-fighting and ferreting for rats”. Joke or not, this is another area in which the future betrayed him. Cock-fighting and rat-baiting, certainly, are not the sporting powerhouses they once were, even in rural England.

But in one detail, at least, his essay has held up well. It wasn’t a prediction, more a recommendation. Arguing against a reciprocal tour of the Soviet Union, he said that if one were to happen, Britain should at least minimise the international tension by sending “a second-rate team which is sure to be beaten”.

This advice has been followed by English managers in every European Championships and all but one World Cup since and has greatly contributed to global goodwill. On the question of whether England can continue their exemplary record of incompetence in coming weeks, however, Orwell may not be alone in his pessimism.

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