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Mickaël Correia - Football is a fully fledged social fact

The independent journalist Mickaël Correia on his new book called A Popular History of Football, a subversive and political telling of more than a century of the Beautiful Game.

Translated Sunday 25 March 2018, by Daniel Horlor

In A Popular History of Football, Mickaël Correia narrates an alternative and political tale of the world’s most popular sport. Throwing the image of global, corporate football a dummy, the author tells of how the sport has been a tool of protest and emancipation for more than a century, covering all four corners of the globe.

This book seems like a strong tackle against the cliches surrounding football and those who consider it the “opium of the masses”.

MC - During the seventies, the radical sociologist Jean-Marie Brohme was the most prominent voice of a libertarian theory which condescendingly explained that the working classes played football (American soccer) because they found in it echoes of the division of labour from the factory. Of course this isn’t true; working class people play football because they enjoy it. Looking more broadly, there’s also the stereotypes of the weak, parochial football fan who likes to fight and the unintelligent player earning millions. However these cliches are being eroded by numerous academic studies, debates on the social and political role of sport, and also a press which promotes the culture of football. Football is a folk culture and a fully fledged social fact

You say that “football was invented by captains of industry as a method of controlling workers and turning them away from social struggles

MC - In the 19th century, football was codified by English public schools as a way to instill traditional English values of competitive spirit, manliness and respect for authority into the youth of the middle class. These young lions then went on to teach football to their workers in order to keep them busy and transmit those values. This would backfire on them however. From 1874 onward, workers gained the right not to work on Saturday afternoons. Coming as most of them did from rural areas, and having moved to the cities for work, the workers needed to re-create social benchmarks. With their Saturday afternoons now free, workers could go to the local stadium as one might go to the pub. Supporting one’s team (which represented one’s factory) gave them a sense of pride and belonging which developed class consciousness, which was in turn the catalyst for the social struggles of the end of the 19th and start of the 20th centuries.

The paradox is that professionalism, one of the first milestones in the monetisation of football, was an idea that sprang from the workers…

MC - Exactly. For a small fee, the bosses would “employ” their workers - but the workers needed to spend more and more time training with the introduction of the FA Cup in 1871 and the Football League in 1880. In 1907, a union was born in Manchester, and working footballers went on strike to be considered as full employees with a salary, health benefits and the right to unionise. The Football Association was scared, as Manchester United was already one of the best team. This divide between amateurism and professionalism would continue all the way through to the 1930s. The aristocrats, owners of the teams, and the ruling federations were adamant that the game should remain amateur, and that being paid was somehow dirty. They also defended the importance of fair play, which was in effect descended from the laws of chivalry, which placed individual honour above all else. By contrast, the workers defended popular ethics which encompassed rivalry and solidarity. The act of passing the ball symbolised coöperation among workers.

Football supporters play a role in society: during the 2011 Arab Spring, the Ultras of Ahlawy were at the heart of the Egyptian Revolution

MC - The culture of the Ultra was born in 1970s Italy among extreme left wing independent groups. It’s a form of radical support for a team characterised by a staunch independence from the views of the club’s management, financial independence, anonymity and a capacity to get a stadium fired up. Through these practices, the Ultras were one of the essential elements of the Arab Spring. Firstly, they were able to escape the stranglehold of the Mubarak regime and display banners criticising him in the stadiums. This would be repeated in Tunisia, and again in Taksim Square in Turkey in 2013. When the 2011 Tahrir Square protests erupted in Egypt, Ultras were calling on the population to join in. Although regularly suppressed, they were the only ones who fought back and showed others how to defend themselves. Their humorous and mocking songs gave fuel to the popular uprising and provided anti-regime slogans.

In the chapter on dictators, the account of the Anschlussspiel (unification match) on 3rd April 1938 in Vienna is extraordinary…

MC - At the time, the Austrian Dream Team (Wunderteam) was one of the best in Europe. Their star striker Matthias Sindelar (originally from Moravia in the Czech Republic) was known as the Paper Man due to his fragility. The match had a pre-agreed outcome of 0-0 for propaganda purposes, with Sindelar playing for the last time in the Austrian shirt before the Dream Team would be absorbed into the far weaker German side. The Austrians were forbidden to score, but were so superior to the Germans that the match quickly descended into farce. In the 78th minute, Sindelar scored and provocatively celebrated his goal in front of the watching Nazi dignitaries. Shortly afterwards, Karl Sesta, of Polish roots and nicknamed Fat Man, doubled the score. In other words, two non-Aryan players in less than perfect physical condition had broken the propaganda machine. Sindelar had just signed his own death warrant but he was so popular that the authorities tried to use him in the combined Reich team. Each request was turned down by Sindelar, due to either injuries or his advancing age. As his partner was Jewish, the couple were registered as Jewish sympathisers by the Gestapo, and were found dead in their apartment on 23rd January 1939, having died from Carbon Monoxide inhalation. Fifteen thousand people accompanied Sindelar’s coffin through the streets of Vienna.

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