The origins of football are sketchier than the origins of the universe itself. While some mathematicians believe the universe to be a football, for a vastly bigger population, football is the universe. Though the foot and the ball disease has been known to plague humans from the time humans got a kick out of hitting an object with foot, FIFA likes to believe that its origins lie in the Chinese game cuju. While one form of it was used as fitness training for the military, the other one was for entertainment in the more wealthy cities during the Han dynasty.
During the Tudor period of English history, as West set sail to conquer the new world, Richard Mulcaster, a student at Eton College and later headmaster at other English schools, got busy championing organized team football appealing that ‘football had positive educational value and it promoted health and strength.’ Therefore it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the “rules” of modern day football were laid out in English Public schools and made way to the 19th century when it got internationalized as part of the civilizing mission as Church and Industry recognized football’s value in disseminating religious and class ideas and its ability to deflect from possible revolutionary activity, forming teams and sponsored tournaments and leagues.
When we look back at the history of football we can see it either used as a weapon of mass distraction or as the weapon of the weak; either a tool at the hand of fascists or a weapon at the hand of revolutionaries, making the underdog story so unique, inspiring and politically significant.
The ‘games ethic’ concept –propagated by English missionaries – had a firm belief in sport as an instrument of imperial moral persuasion. Football was a ‘key weapon in the battle to win over local populations and to begin transforming them from their “uncivilized” and “heathen” state to one where they might be considered “civilized” and “Christian”‘.
There is enough evidence to show that what for the British was a civilizing mission soon became a ground for imagined communities to turn real. Football arenas not only exposed social and political identities but also became sites where political messages first got communicated and struggle with authorities got initiated.
From the early years of the nineteenth century, the British had attempted to portray the Indian male as effete, especially the educated Bengali middle classes which had nationalist tendencies resented by the British as the Bengalis had been at the centre of the revolt during the Mutiny of 1857.
It is not surprising, therefore, that when told that Bengalis were effeminate and football was a manly game, over a period of time the maidaan became the site where the sight of ‘puny’, barefooted, Bengali players matching heavily built and better-equipped Europeans soon took on the form of a cultural battle against foreign rulers.
It was the Mohun Bagan club that best symbolized the nationalist response to the injured ‘cultural self’ of Indians during this period. The dream to beat the ruling British at their own game became reality when Mohun Bagan comprising ten barefooted Indian players defeated the East Yorks team 2-1 in the historic final of 29 July 1911. It was a sporting history as the club beat European civil and military teams, one by one, to lift the coveted Indian Football Association (IFA) Shield.
Little did the British envisage that a club could bring about a national reawakening. It was also in the year 1911 that the British shifted the capital of the raj from Calcutta to Delhi. As Ramachandra Guha has noticed, ‘British adroitly and deliberately moved the seat of power from Bengal, away from its skilful footballers and its bomb-wielding nationalists. ‘
Meanwhile, even though Gandhi was not a football player, he had realized in it the revolutionary potential to forge political and social identities. In South Africa, M.K. Gandhi was among a group of people who founded the Transvaal Indian Football Association in 1896 ” a first organized football group in Africa that was not run by whites,” and helped establish three clubs in Durban, Pretoria and Johannesburg, all of which were named the Passive Resisters Soccer Club.
It is no coincidence that after the First World War, football became an area where resistance to British rule was manifested. If in India it was Mohun Bagan, then in Egypt that role of the nationalist uprising was taken by El-Ahly.
When El-Ahly sports club was founded in 1907 it was as a cover for political activists fighting against British colonial rule. Student unions formed a core of the anti-colonial struggle, but their unions needed premises where they could congregate and plan activities. For this purpose, El-Ahly, meaning ‘national’ in Arabic, was founded. The club came to embody the rebellion against colonization. It was again in 2011 that the club played a crucial role in ‘freeing’ Egypt, which we will cover later.
When the Egypt football team reached the semi-finals in the 1928 Olympic games, Egyptians viewed it as proof that they were as good as their rulers, and therefore equality on the pitch ought to be carried into all areas.
Football fans or fanatics are the equivalents of citizens and players express national identity through the symbolic action artefacts that the players construct through their movements on the field.
If football helped discover national identities and develop a style of football around ‘games ethic’, than in Europe the battle was not between the colonized and the colonialist, but between fascism and libertarianism or communism with a style of football that was more akin to the militaristic purpose of the game.
Today, national teams may not function as a representative of the national football culture, but as a more or less coherent symbolic artefact within the national football culture, therefore, one should look towards football club cultures for a dialect representation of national football culture instead of looking at national teams.
Fans often use metaphors of madness to describe the frenzy of football, and madness, as Foucault has shown us, is what lies just outside the boundary of civilization and control.
The writer Eduardo Galeano comments: ‘a style of play is a way of being that reveals the unique profile of each community and affirms its right to be different.’
So where does this style come from? From the history of course, and politics is at the heart of the history of football style as well.
Not just the country, throughout the game’s history, several teams have represented the working class and the poor, and have become symbols of struggles for justice and independence.
In London, ironworkers formed West Ham United and munitions workers at Arsenal, teams that are now owned by oligarchs but whose logos, bearing the tools of the trades, still testify to their proletarian origins.
Perhaps Liverpool is one club that captures the fight and the soaring heights of the proletariat in England better than some others. Bill Shankly took charge of Liverpool when they were in the Second Division and rebuilt the team into a major force in English and European football. Shankly, who during his 15 years at Liverpool’s helm led the Merseyside team to national and European glory, grew up in a Scottish mining village, an upbringing that influenced his identification as a socialist and lifelong support of workers’ rights, that which gives its character to the Liverpool club.
If on one hand, you see British Club history than on the other teams and clubs from Argentina, Croatia, Uruguay, Netherlands, are but a few examples, even Russian Spartak Moscow or ‘the people’s team’ all have teams that under dictatorships, that have represented people’s longing for freedom.
Compared to Britain and the Commonwealth, Europe too has a history of resistance but if for Britain it was the gentle civilizational mission of football then European dominance and the style of football that has resulted in emerges from the fascist roots of football in Europe.
In football, each team works together to try and occupy as much of the ‘territory’ of the other as it can, resulting in symbolic conquests over the ‘enemy’, dominating and regaling at its own superiority.
Dominance is a key aspect to understand, at the hands of the trifecta of fascism; Hitler, Mussolini and Franco, football was used as a weapon of mass distraction and as a propaganda tool making it extremely political, authoritative and ruthless but not without resistance.
The trifecta of Fascism; Mussolini, Hitler and Franco, understood dominance and played football and the citizens for their unholy purposes, is a telling example of how supremacy, dominance and victory at all costs make the game a site where ideological battles are fought.
Even a fascist dictator who controlled a nation’s economy, public services, police and army without hindrance needed football to advance his personal and political cause.
In Mussolini’s Italy, matches were fixed blatantly and referees corrupted. Bill Murray asserts, “Mussolini’s Fascist regime was the first to use sports as an integral part of the government.”
“It keeps the younger and naturally insurgent elements of the community from thinking too much about internal political conditions and lack of employment,” he said.
In a similar manner to the recent Qatari bid, Italy’s application to host the 1934 World Cup was driven largely by politics.
It was strongly alleged that Ivan Eklind, the referee appointed to take charge of Italy’s semi-final with Austria in the 1934 World Cup, was invited to an exclusive dinner by Mussolini on the eve of the game and, when a controversial winner saw Italy progress, the Austrians justifiably cried foul play. Up until 2011, till the Austrian player Josef Bican (1468 goals) died, he firmly held that the matches were fixed.
Given the inherent love for football in Italy, clubbed with the fascist construction of national identity at the hands of Mussolini, Italy saw several victories and to their credit, many were not fixed. But there was hardly any resistance to his efforts because the world hadn’t been exposed to propaganda football yet.
Taking a cue from Mussolini, Hitler wanted to show how the Nazi was a far supreme race and though not a fan of football took the game under his propagandist umbrella.
What Mussolini got Hitler didn’t. A run without resistance! At a time when even the English team was giving Nazi salute in front of a German audience, it took special courage to stand against that dangerous nationalism of ‘motherland’ that seems to be back in fashion.
An ‘Alliance Game’ between Germany and Austria was arranged in order to symbolize the soon to be united nation and the players were instructed to “settle” for a draw. In the first half, Matthias Sindelar toyed with his opponents but to show that the game was fixed chose to miss in front of the empty net. In the second half, he scored a goal and demonstrated Austrian superiority and then celebrated to wildly in front of a batch of furious Nazi top brass. Refusing to play in the newly united team he retired from football. A Gestapo report described him as a pro-Jewish social democrat and warned of his hostility towards the Nazis. Shortly afterwards, Sindelar was found dead in his apartment along with his partner Camilla Castagnola.
In the Iberian Peninsula, FC Barcelona and Athletic Bilbao have long been connected with Catalan and Basque national struggles. During Franco’s four-decade-long rule, Barca’s Camp Nou and Bilbao’s Estadio San Mame were among the few public places where opposition to the regime was expressed by displaying the banned national flags and speaking the forbidden languages.
In 1939, the end of the Spanish Civil War saw the Nationalist forces of General Francisco Franco take control of the country. After capturing Madrid on March 28th to end the War, El Generalísimo sought to unify the newly formed Spanish state. He frequently used policies of murder, torture and political pressure to suppress any anti-Nationalist sentiment.
He sought to disrupt the operations of Barcelona, a symbol of Catalonian pride while supporting Real Madrid, Barcelona’s archrival from the capital city.
Franco demanded that the name of the club be translated from the Catalan FC, Barcelona to its Spanish equivalent, Barcelona CF. Symbolically, such a change was a cultural indication that Catalan society was not to be tolerated by the new Spanish State.
The rivalry and the antagonism of Spanish dominance are still alive and kicking. You may recall how after Barcelona FC won the Champions League final in 2015, at full-time Gerard Pique planted a Catalan flag at the centre circle – before cutting down and wearing one of the goal nets, reasserting the right of the Catalan freedom. Two years later the Catalan asked for a referendum and were brutally crushed by the Spanish government.
Jimmy Burns in his book on Spanish football, La Rosa calls their (read Franco’s Spanish) style as La Furia, itself a redefinition promoted by the Spanish state’s propaganda machinery as one of the leading virtues of the ‘New Spain’. It was resurrected from the mythology of conquest and glory that belonged to the country’s imperial past, such as the recovery of Muslim Granada by the Catholic kings and the creation of Spanish America by the early conquistadores—conquering warriors.
From Franco onwards, football was to be played as if the ground was a battlefield and the players’ soldiers. What mattered was courage, sacrifice, and above all the physical annihilation of the opponent. Neither skill nor creativity, let alone fair play, was part of the armoury.
And that is the style of football embodied and celebrated in Fascist Franco’s club Real Madrid. And also in its captain Sergio Ramos. Today Real Madrid club, despite staking claims of being run by fans is actually commanded by a man called Florentino Pérez Rodríguez who has been in power for over 10 years. There is a lack of democracy and of transparency and the box he sits in is known as the Court of King Florentino. Florentino has been in power for nearly 10 years, and nobody has ever voted for him. Any setback, in Pérez’s eyes, could only be attributed to officials’ incompetence or to a dark conspiracy. Over the years he has mastered the art of creating official incompetence and dark conspiracies, which may or may not have ensured the successes.
The image has to be maintained at all costs.
One such example was the recent Champions League match against Liverpool and the rise of Mohammad Salah.
It has been reported that at least three Ultras were killed and hundreds were wounded on the Battle of 2 February 2011, also known as “the battle of the camel”. On that day, Ultras groups members protected the Tahrir Square from raids led by Mubarak supporters and formed a frontline ensuring that Mubarak supporters’ raids were nothing but a huge failure. On that day, Mubarak regime fell apart.
Egypt waited a long time to be back at the World Cup. The record seven-time African champions had to watch on the sidelines since last qualifying in 1990. Public memory of a nation works like private memory in that it remembers the moments of failure, success and especially injustice. Fans of football in Africa, Arab and to some extent England will not forget the refusal of Franco’s byproduct Ramos in letting go of Mo Salah’s arm in the 26th minute and ensuring the rising star to leave the game. Making sure that not only the victory belonged to Spain but also the hegemony of the title of the best footballer stays within Europe and that too within Spain.
Barcelona is not Spain or at least won’t be if it were given a ‘choice’. Catalan pride is as deeply enshrined within Barcelona as Egyptian pride is in Mohamad Salah. Real Madrid’s Captain, Sergio Ramos will not go down well in history as his image follows in league with his football master Franco’s. History of football is political and revolution and resistance are at the core of it. At a time when migration issues confound Europe and Spain has Catalan waiting to secede from it, it is no surprise that the history of Spain and history of Franco’s club Real Madrid are intertwined. They may have won a cup and saved the European dominance for now, but the times they are always a changing.
One can hear the declining Euro centricity in the murmurs of the Club World Cup. FIFA President Gianni Infantino told his top board recently that Japan’s SoftBank along with investors from China, Saudi Arabia, the US and the United Arab Emirates wanted to pay about $25 billion to buy an expanded version of FIFA’s Club World Cup as well as the rights to a proposed global league for national teams.
The democratization of football and its spread over the universe has given rise to bigger political ambitions, where nations who have been historically suppressed, are new or were colonized or simply traded their players have now started staking claim to their supremacy. Maybe it will be the end of fascist clubs, but that does not mean that the relationship between football and politics will end.
A goal is a revolutionary act, so onto the next revolution. For who knows what trickery, skill or magnificence is in store for us as we move closer to the World Cup, this time in another authoritative regime – Putin’s Russia.
– NAVED FAROOQUI
The Author is a Liverpool Fan and also the Editor for Kitaabchi.