The Footballer As Soldier

A memorable passage from Simon Kuper’s excellent book, Ajax, The Dutch, The War: six in the evening of 6 August, the day the first atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, the BBC Home Service reported:

President Truman has announced a tremendous achievement by the Allied scientists. They have produced an atomic bomb. One has already been dropped on a Japanese Army base. It alone contains as much explosive power as two thousand of our great ten-tonners. The President has also foreshadowed the enormous peacetime value of harnessing atomic energy.

At home, it’s been a Bank Holiday of thunderstorms as well as sunshine; a record crowd at Lord’s has seen Australia make 265 for five wickets.

World wars were over for the century, but they had marked German and British football for ever. The last era of European warfare, which stretched back into the nineteenth century, had imbued both countries with the cult of the soldier: the brave, hardy, willing man who gives his body for the good of all.

In Britain, where most of the nation’s wars are still regarded fondly, this cult remains explicit. It infests the conservative male realm of football. The most despised figures in the English game are cowards and whingers: players who shy from a tackle, who won’t run until they drop, who dive. (..) Football matches have become Britain’s weekly enactment of military valour by proxy.


..the later England manager, Kevin Keegan, though from a younger generation, frequently described Stuart Pearce in soldierly terms (probably copied from the tabloid press). Ireland’s Lancastrian manager Mick McCarthy said in November 2001, after his team had held out against Iran in Tehran to qualify for the next year’s World Cup: ‘For me heroes are people who fight and die for their country in wars, but in a football sense these lads are true heroes.’

British fans express the same ethos when they call themselves ‘So-and-so’s blue-and-white-army’, while hooligans think of themselves as reenacting the Allied liberation of Europe in World War II.

In other words, in the general British male imagination, to be a soldier remains the ideal. The other great football nations have lost this warrior cult, or never had it in the first place.

Kuper goes on, and this is very interesting indeed –

A country’s style of play is often said to reflect enduring national characteristics, but in fact in can suddenly be created.. (..) 1933, the Germans seem to have played softer, slower and more skilful football than the French. According to the press of both countries, it was usually like that in those days. Then Germans were subjected to twelve years of rhetoric about war, valour, strength, and above all, Kampf, a word so central to the Nazi mind that Hitler used it in the title of his autobiography. (..) By 1938, when the German and Austrian teams had to be melded together, the soft, skilful German game of 1933 had vanished. Now the problem was that the Germans played a more aggressive, more kampferisch sort of football than the stylish Austrians. (..)..there was a long continuity in the era that had begun with Herberger in 1937 (ed.: Sepp Herberger was German national coach from 1937 until 1964). Generations of German footballers were raised in a style of play set under Hitler.

Perhaps they were – perhaps Kuper is right – but all I care about is what’s happening in the cricket.


1 Reply to “The Footballer As Soldier”

  1. I think Kuper is right that sporting virtues in England are particularly associated with military virtues, but it may be that military virtues themselves sprang out of other social virtues such as stoicism, honesty, community, courage and irony, none of which are exclusivly English of course, but which were disciplined in Britain into a highly successful military force.

    The Hungarian army has been a loser for five hundred years, so sporting metaphors are not military but to do with wit, solidarity, suppleness and resistance. The great fifties team – just as the powerful Romanian team under Ceausescu – were cultivated by the army but it was superior wit and original thinking that might just defeat the juggernauts.

    There is also a possible connection between societies united under pressure and sporting success as a valid form of defiance. The oppressed on song.

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