Another Day in Paradise.

🔙OTD, 7/4/2001. The St Mirren Adventure!! 🍀

A Celtic win and they become league champions. Rare in those day and myself and Ultan are told we have a golden ticket each but …

A 4am ticket mixup at the bus. A huge row with the organizer. Told “a mistake was made. I’ve no ticket for you. Go on home.” Heartbroken and, yes, tears got shed as the bus heads off.

4:30am, crying a little on the porch and Ultan certainly not slagging, a taxi flies up the driveway. Orders the two of us to get in as “another bus” will take us but we have to catch up with it!!

Whizzing out the dual carriage way, get on the bus but told “I’ll help yous but keep this quiet now, d’ya hear me?” 🤫 Get to the ferry port, hiding under the seats during security inspection.

Bus breaks down. Typical. Sneak on another and hide again. 😩 Get to Glasgow, but still no ticket. Ultan says “we’ve done well to get this far. Anything else now is a bonus.”

Ten minutes to kickoff. Stadium in sight. Given two unused ticket stubs found in the glove compartment from a game played three months earlier and told “try your luck with them. I can do no more for yous now!”

Noise of the stadium gets louder. Race through the wasteland, puddles and rubble as a shortcut. Nowadays it’s where the Emirates Arena stands but it looked a lot different 20 years ago.

Getting a footie over the high, gang graffitied wall from a group of fairly rowdy – but sound – local lads. Buckfast and all. 😜 🍷

“Y’iv nae ticket, man? Dinny worry. Stick wi us and we’ll git yiz in, Ken?”

Get to the turnstile. Distract the collector as much as possible and hand in the fake ticket stub upside down. Ultan does the same and … we’re in Paradise!! Quick high fives of thanks to the gang lads who helped us at the wall. 😂

Tommy Johnson’s bundled effort goes in and, despite a scrappy game, Celtic do win the title at the final whistle. A real rarity back then and the celebrations got underway and, by hook or by crook, we got there. Even if we’d to stand at the back as we’d no seats. 😀

After all the excitement was done, I did meet the ticket organizer in a Glasgow hotel later that day. Yes, we did exchange a few words, he was livid that I’d snuck on the boat but, I must say, we did bury the hatchet a few weeks later, to be fair. 👍🏻

I’ve been to much better games at Celtic Park since that one but St Mirren, 2001, will always be the one with most (fairly avoidable) drama 😂 Ultan moved away and I’ve not seen him in years but I think we’ll always have that day to give us something to chat about. 🍀👍🏻

Getting back home on the ferry that night didn’t have a quarter of the drama. Thank God! 😂👍🏻

INT’L FOOTBALL Part 5: Hungary Peek Through the Iron Curtain.

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021.

The early 1950s are remembered for two transcending moments in the course of football history.

Firstly, England – who had abandoned their self-inflicted policy of isolationism – had agreed to participate in the World Cup for the very first time in 1950.

Despite the high hopes and belief that were the still the best team in the world, the competition was an unmitigated disaster for them.

Having suffered an unexpected 0-1 defeat to the hands of the United States, many around the world saw this a symbolic victory.

To the English, however, it was nothing short of an aberration and they were on their way home after just a single match. It seemed the game they had given to the world was going against them, but with two-time World Cup winners, Italy, also in disarray at the time, the stage was set for a new football force to reawaken.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Europe was effectively divided in two.

Democratic states on the west with Communist ones to the east; separated by what became known as ‘the Eastern Blockade’ or ‘the Iron Curtain.’ And from that, returning to the fray and looking better than ever, came Hungary.

“The ball should be moved early, preferably on first contact. To run with it is often only to waste valuable attacking time.”

In the 1920s, the city of Budapest had embraced football and had reached the World Cup Final in 1938. With the majority of their homeland in rubble and ashes after World War II, few would have expected them to set the football world alight soon after such mass conflict.

Forged from the military side Honvéd, this created the backbone of the national team. ‘The Aranycsapat’ (‘The Golden Team’) was formed. Inevitably, the sides from Western Europe looked on at them with great suspicion. Not only were they a Communist country, but they were soldiers to boot.

They first began to make their mark on the global stage at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. The amateaur ethos of the games meant that teams from the west could not send their professional players. Nevertheless, Hungary’s run to the gold medal – culminating in a victory over Yugoslavia in the Final – had impressed many. Particularly for the refreshing and innovative brand of football they were playing.

It was one of sixteen gold medals the Hungarians won at the Olympics that summer; third only in the final table to the United States and the Soviet Union. An impressive feat for a country of just nine million. As they returned home as heroes, politicians were quick to pounce on their success.

By 1953, the Nep Stadium (‘The Peoples’ Stadium’) was officially opened to great fanfare and spectacle. A government-back initiative which was portrayed as an achievement of the people. Largely because many of the athletes from the previous year’s Olympic games helped with the construction of this new stadium.

National pride was at an all-time and there were notable strides being made on the club front too as Ferenc Puskas’s Hovénd side were making huge inroads on the domestic and European scene.

In November 1953, the British public took an profound interest when Hungary came to play at Wembley. England, who hadn’t lost a home international on the ground to a ‘foreign nation’ in 81 years looked as though their record was under severe threat.

As early as the first minute, England fell behind when Nándor Hideguti found the net. It got the ball rolling for a 6-3 win for the Hungarians. It was just the goals that drew talking points. It was the creativity and innovative manner in which Gusztáv Sebbes’ side had used the ball and controlled the game.

Many still believe that the way they played changed the way in which the game was to be played forever more. In 1967, Celtic would become the first ever non-Latin side to win the European Cup.

A side who also played with flourish and flair and in his now archived interviews, their manager, Jock Stein, regularly cited the Hungarian teams as inspiration for how his own teams played.

The Magyars.

It could be argued that Hungary had created the Genesis of what was to become known as ‘total football’ and in 1954, six months after their exhibition at Wembley, they were off to the World Cup in Switzerland.

It had been sixteen long years since the tournament had been played in Europe. They had reached the Final of that one, but now they were looking to go one better.

Sepp Herbeger was in charge of the new West Germany side. The country was in tatters after the war in so many ways: physically, economically and emotionally. Football hadn’t even returned to action in the country until 1948; three years after peace and victory had been declared by the Allied Forces.

Despite some strong progress being made on the club scene by VFB Stuttgart, many felt that this new-look and reduced German national team had little hope of success when they set off for the World Cup in ’54.

Regardless of such speculation, West Germany and Hungary would meet at the Final in the city of Bern.

Although the Hungarians had gathered huge respect and admiration for their style of play, rumblings still went around that a team from behind the Iron Curtain, so to speak, may not be allowed to win. After all, as we’ve seen in the previous articles in this series, politics often held sway over the tournament.

On a rain-soaked and damaged pitch, Hungary’s ability to use their passing game was under threat.

That didn’t deter the players too much as they raced into a 2-0 lead after just eight minutes. West Germany would claw a goal back quickly through Max Morlock but the debate has rang out ever since that there was a foul on the Hungarian goalkeeper as the cross came in from the flanks.

By the 18th minute, it was 2-2 and despite dominating the rest of the game after this setback, Hungary would lose out to late winner, scored just six minutes from the end. They would become widely-regarded as ‘the greatest team to never win the World Cup’ for many years to come.

Some of their most faithful followers still hold a belief that they were, as alluded to earlier, simply not allowed to win it.

The Legacy of the ‘Arancyspacat.

For the West Germans, there was a sense of national euphoria that had not been seen the decade that led to the start of the war. It seemed as though they, as a new democratic state, were being welcomed back into the cultural mainstream and this success laid the foundations for great successes to come in the future.

Hungary, on the other hand, took their defeat with gracious sportsmanship and returned back to their country, once again, as heroes.

Domestically, problems lay in wait for them. In 1963, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Uprising, the country came under severe and brutal repercussions from the Soviet forces. This forced a number of their best and most intelligent players to seek homage with clubs in the west. Mostly in Europe, but some also in the Americas.

The transfer of Puskas to Real Madrid is arguably the most well-known move during this period of exodus.

Alongside the irrepressible talents of Alfredo DiStefano, he would help guide the famous club from the Spanish capital to five European Cups in succession between 1956 and 1960. Their eye-catching playing style was closely observed and then emulated overtime.

Emulated in many places the world over.

Conclusion.

As we come to the end of this particular series of articles based around the theme of the international game and its undertones of political influence, yes, it’s fair to suggest that to some people, football became much more than ‘just a game.’

We’ve seen, through a variety of source material, that the ‘Beautiful Game’ can be manipulated and tailored to suit ideologies and agendas. Important aspects of footballing history to know, but there’s something else that we should always bear in mind too.

The game of football is, above anything else, popular for the simple reason that it’s fun.

It bridges class divides and brings endless to joy millions across the globe. It allows people to display their talents and their on the field and their emotions and identity on the terraces. It creates aspiring role models and heroes – with a few villains thrown in too for good measure – and be you a fan of the game itself or not, there’s no denying the allure it has to so many people in this world of ours.

@JohnnyFoley1984

INT’L FOOTBALL Part 4: Franco, the Soviets and the Rise of the ‘El Classico.’

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021. 

One country who had been a notable absentee from the 1938 World Cup were Spain.

As the country was preoccupied by the Civil War – fought between Republicans and Royalists – the nation was crumbling, but in the aftermath of the Second World War, their Fascist dictator, Francisco Franco, also realised the manipulative power of football.

What had made his tyrannical victory on the domestic front successful was the fact that he was aided by Benito Mussolini’s troops and the German Luftwaffe.

This was decisive intervention against the rebel cause in 1939, but with Spain opting for neutrality during the war and with the fall of both Hitler and Mussolini, Franco had become somewhat isolated.

“Spain has no foolish dreams!”

In the post-war era, Spain had become secluded territory and the animosity of the Catalan people – predominantly based in Barcelona – was preparing itself to resurface. 

Like his (now-deceased) fellow Fascist leaders, Franco had no particular interest in football. Knowing how much it could gather support for his regime however, he adapted the Real Madrid club as a symbol for his autonomous and oppressive rule.

The people of Barcelona still lived under mass persecution. They were banned from using their own language, from waving Catalan flags and with the sights of bullet-holes still adorning the walls of their churches and cathedrals, reminders of Facist massacres were still all too visible for them.

In 1936, Barca’s club president – Josep Sunyol – had been dragged from his car and murdered by Franco’s troops and, perhaps naturally, the citizens of Catalonia gravitated to the Camp Nou stadium in support of their team.

Thus, their ‘Mes Que En Club’ (‘More Than A Club’) mentality was given its rise.

Despite the fierce opposition to his power, Franco still believed that football could be utilised as a means of useful diversion and distraction.

He began to arrange club fixtures that he could broadcast through the advent of television and anytime a degree of social unrest was afoot, a match would come on the screens to tempt peoples’ focus away.

Even though Franco kept a firm hold on the goings-on at Real Madrid, it’s fair to suggest that this didn’t bring any form of immediate success to the club. 

Between 1939 and 1954, they didn’t win a single league championship and perhaps more disparagingly, they had to watch Barcelona lift five titles during that time.

It was time to redress the balance and the opportunity came along when both Real Madrid and Barcelona joined in a race to sign Argentinian star, Alfredo DiStefano. 

“The Blonde Arrow”, as he was known, had a superb goal-scoring record with his club in Colombia at the time; scoring 267 in 292 games. 

Initially, it was Barca who approached him and it looked as though a deal was about to be brokered. The move was, some might say, commandeered by Real Madrid who swooped in and stole his signature away at the eleventh hour. 

It was to be revealed years later that Franco’s troops had abducted the new Barcelona president, Marti Carreto, from a hotel and threatened his textile industry – where he had amassed his fortune – with very heavy tax inspections.

If he left DiStefano to move to Madrid, then he was in the clear.

It’s also believed that Real Madrid, possibly in a bid to quell any further unrest, offered Barcelona an olive branch. They stated that DiStefano could play alternate seasons for each side, but as an act of defiance against the regime, Barcelona refused the offer; irregardless of how talented the player actually was. 

Alfredo DiStefano joined Real Madrid and in his first game against Barcelona at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium, he scored four goals against the club he came so close to signing for.

To his credit, DiStefano spoke about the bureaucracy that went on behind his signing in a 2003 interview with the BBC. Speaking then as Honorary President of Real Madrid and having only recently signed David Beckham, he told:

“I never played for Franco. I never played for a political system. I only played for the people. I thought I was joining Barcelona and then I wasn’t.”

Real Madrid’s recruitment of his profound talents was to transform the club. Between 1956 and 1960, they won no less than five European Cups in a row. Their success, on the field, had promoted a glamorous and endearing image of Spain to the world. Something which Franco would have been most pleased with. 

“Masonry and Communism … the two evils which must be dispelled from this land.”

Despite being accepted into NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation), Spain was still very much a secluded nation in western Europe. It was holding firm to the ideologies of fascism, long after the Allies had ended the reigns of Mussolini and Hitler. 

Franco though, was very aware of how football could shape perspective.

He set about making Real Madrid an international brand. By bringing in players such as Ferenc Puskas, it gave the club a reputation for giving a new lease of life to players who had previously suffered under Communist rule in the east.  

This courted him a degree of favour with the United States and for as much as Franco disliked Catalonians, he despised the communist leanings of the Soviet Union even more. This would come to a head – not once but twice – on the international stage during the 1960s.

The Soviets had sympathised with and supported the Catalan rebellion during the Civil War years and when the two nations met at the 1960 European Championships – perhaps anxious about the possibility of a defeat to an enemy nation – Franco withdrew Spain from the match. 

Four years later, Spain and the Soviets would cross paths again. This time in the Euro ‘64 Final. With Spain being the host nation, Franco was advised that withdrawing the team again would cause national embarrassment; particularly as this was the Final.

Spain won the game 2-1 and, as it later emerged, the players had been told in no uncertain circumstances that it wasn’t just a team they were playing against. They were told that they were fighting as soldiers against the evils of communism.

“Tot el camp. És un clam.’ 

In 1975, following 36 years of power, Franco died. His body is buried in the outskirts of Madrid – the Cementerio Municipal El Pardo (‘The Valley of the Fallen’). 

A man-made reserve built by the very people he oppressed and killed. It’s believed that his final words were “I am accountable now only to God and to History.” 

Those who congregated at the Camp Nou just four weeks later had other ideas. 

On 28th December, Barcelona took on Real Madrid in a stadium that was still reverberating amid the celebrations of Franco’s death.

Barcelona, equipped with Dutch superstar Johan Cruyff, enjoyed the raptors of a 2-1 win over their great rivals and it is estimated that, in defiance of Spanish law, somewhere in the region of 700 Catalan flags were smuggled into the ground and waved proudly that night.

An emotion which still resonates heavily with the supporters to this day. Although, it must be said, that it’s certainly not the case that Real Madrid fans should ever be tagged or generalised as fascist sympathisers.

For even Barcelona club historian, Joan Barau wrote, when discussing Real’s record 11-1 win over Barca in 1943:

“The memory of the Civil War was still fresh in everyone’s memory. It was not their fault that they fell under a military dictatorship, so it’s never a result that they tend to boast about.”

After all, the Real Madrid club had been thriving for almost four decades before Franco suddenly took an convenient interest in them.

The era of fascism controlling football may have been over, but that’s not to say that politics in general had ever stopped in its bid to manipulate the game. 

For, as we will see in our next article, the role of communism and its difficulties with democracy would forge an important reality for a highly-skilled and evolutionary Hungarian side during the Cold War.

A side, who many still believe to this day, helped change the face of how club football was to be played in Britain forever more.

INT’L FOOTBALL Part 3: Nazism versus ‘The Paper Man.’

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in March, 2021. 

Italy’s success at the 1934 World Cup had not gone unnoticed by the Nazis.

Benito Mussolini had shown how a spectacle such as this could be used for great political advantage and with the 1936 Olympics set to be held in Berlin, it should come as no surprise that Adolf Hitler sought to portray German superiority on such a grand stage.

There was just one problem when it came to football. The German national team, in the 1930s, weren’t particularly good.

In 1931, they had played their neighbours Austria twice and been on the receiving end of a 6-0 and a 5-0 hammering. Unlike the Germans, the Austrian ‘Wonder-Team’, as they were known, were highly admired and revered for their style of play. Something which surely goaded ‘Der Fuhrer’, even if he was an Austrian native himself.

On the political front, 1933 saw Germany withdraw from the League of Nations. In essence, Hitler was showing his resistance to democracy, but rather than be seen as an aggressor, he used the power of football to convey a sporting and friendly side of the national character. 

In December 1935, despite some anti-fascist demonstrations outside the ground at White Hart Lane, England beat Germany 3-0 in a challenge match, but the game itself was merely a charade for what was lurking underneath the surface. 

Reports from the match – including some wrinkly old film footage – consistently refer to the German players being somewhat overly-sporting in their behaviour. Regularly shaking hands with their opposition, never being drawn into a foul and smiles all round in what the press hailed as “a most sporting match.”

All done, under Nazi orders and instruction to shed the country in a positive light, as it  was discovered later. 

“The Triumph of the Will.” 

The Berlin Games in 1936 provided an ample opportunity for an exhibition of Nazism. The opening ceremony was made to look as a beautiful spectacle while the ‘Triumph of the Will’ film by Leni Riefenstahl raised the hearts and hopes of the nation. Over the course of the next few weeks, no country won more medals than the host nation.

These games will inevitably be remembered for the enchanting success story of American athlete, Jesse Owens, throwing out the script to win the medals he did, but in keeping with football, Hitler was to observe another moment which undoubtedly dismayed him greatly. 

Generally speaking, most historians tend to agree that when Hitler was invited along to attend Germany’s match with Norway, he was assured of a victory. Something that would no doubt please him after Owens’ successes.

Norway, however, didn’t tow the line. Despite being perceived as a ‘lesser nation’, they ran out comfortable winners over their German counterparts. Perhaps what perplexed the Nazis even more is that Austria – a fellow German-speaking nation – were going from strength to strength and they had one player who caught their eye in particular.

“The Paper-Man.”

Matthias Sindelar, known to his adoring fans as “the Paper-man”, was seen by many as the greatest centre-forward in the world at that time. His talents on the field inspired works of poetry and, long before footballers became celebrities, he starred in a feature film. In 2001, he was proclaimed as ‘Austria’s Greatest Sportsman of the 20th Century.’

As we saw in the previous article in this series, he was mainly denied a place in the 1934 World Cup Final due to coercive refereeing that favoured the Italians. Nevertheless, his reputation grew stronger, but when he caught the attention of the Nazis, his mercurial talents would be blighted and exploited beyond belief.

In March of 1938, the Anschluss was complete. The Nazis had effectively annexed the Austrain state, forcibly usurped any political autonomy it once held and brought it into the realm of the new, and ever-growing, German sphere of influence.

As a proud Austrian nationalist – even if Czech by birth – Sindelar despised Nazism. Part of which had stemmed from ‘Aryan Only Policy’ when invading troops forced Jewish employees and officials at his club, Austria Vienna, out of their jobs during the period of occupation.

The Austrian national team would soon become no more than a memory as it had to amalgamate with Germany, but while some reluctantly accepted the fate of their nation, Sindelar remained headstrong and used football as an act of defiance. 

During the same year, Austria were scheduled to face Germany in what was essentially a ‘farewell game’ before the amalgamation of the two teams officially took place. 

It’s widely believed that the plan was for the Germans to win the game. A way of showing their superiority in a symbolic manner and historical references do cite that at half-time, with the score at 0-0, the Austrian players were told to follow suit with this plan. 

Refusing to collaborate, Sindelar scored early in the second-half to give the Austrians the lead. He then assisted a second goal and during the celebrations, he visibly taunted the Nazi hierarchy in the VIP section of the crowd. They were not amused. Within a year, Sindelar would pay dearly for his act of defiance. 

In a BBC interview, his friend and former clubmate, Egon Ulrich recalled the night of 23rd January, 1939. 

“We were playing cards and gambling in the coffee shop. There was plenty of drink taken. Some Nazi soldiers came in and invited themselves to join in the game. They were teasing Sindi all through the evening and, when he finally called it a night, that was the last I ever saw of him.”

Sindelar was found dead the following morning. It’s perceived that the apartment he was sleeping in that night with his girlfriend, was leaking gas fumes and the inhalation suffocated him. His biographer, Wolfgang Marderthaner, believes it may have been a suicide brought on by the shattering of his spirit in the aftermath of the Anschluss. 

Either way, be them directly or indirectly responsible, the Nazis shouldered the blame.

An inquest into his death was carried out, but the reports of which were later ‘mislaid.’ 

As a symbol for Austrian patriotism, dispute and speculation still ring out about the actual cause of his death. Perhaps to keep order, the Nazi administration did allow for a state funeral to take place where some 15,000 Austrians bravely bade farewell to their fallen hero.

“Peace In Our Time?” 

The famous words echoed by British Prime Minister, Nevile Chamberlain, when he held aloft the letter proclaiming that he and Adolf Hitler had signed a peace agreement. 

At the time, Chamberlain was held up as a hero. A man who would spare a return to conflict just a generation after the Great War. It was to be a false-dawn.

As part of the policy of appeasement towards Germany, England sent a team to Berlin to take them on in a game billed as another friendly between two peaceful nations. Many felt that the English should’ve refused to play the game, but in keeping with the goodwill measures set out by the government, they simply had to play it.

The game itself is remembered for the iconic and somewhat startling image of the England team lining up and giving the Nazi salute. What’s more surprising is that Hitler wasn’t even present. Against their wishes, the players did raise the right arm. Something which many of them deeply regretted for a very long time.

On the political front, the two countries signed the Munich Treaty. Effectively, this meant that the British would not interfere with the ideals it of German expansion.

In the quest for ‘lebensraum’ (living space) and having already acquired the Austrian state, Hitler was now free to invade the state of Czechoslovakia and thus, add to his growing territory.

Shortly after, attention soon turned to the 1938 World Cup in France. An opportunity for the Nazi regime to banish the memories of previous defeats on the football field.

When Hitler rallied support for the new and improved German side – with its acquisition of Austrian and Czech talents – and declared that “Sixty million Germans will play in Paris!”, it became a chilling precursor to the Nazi invasion of France just two years later.

In the tournament itself, however, underlying cracks within the team began to show. In a first round replay against Switzerland, all looked rosy as Germany – now with its five Austrians – led 2-0 at the break. 

As the game wore on into the second half, it became evidently more clear that there were deep internal divisions within the camp. Austrians would not pass to Germans and Germans would not pass to Austrians. Switzerland duly pounced on this lack of cohesion and turned the game on its head. They won 4-2 in the end.

Another embarrassing failure for Adolf Hitler on the footballing front.

Even with Germany’s disappointment, Mussolini’s fascist movement was still gaining support through footballing success. They had won – albeit in a contrived manner – the previous World Cup and this time around, they were showing real promise again.

Symbolically, in Italy’s second round meeting with host nation France, Mussolini ordered that – in the face of a hostile home crowd – the Italy team would abandon their traditional colours of blue and white. Instead, just as the foot-soldiers of the Fascist takeover had done, the footballers adorned the Blackshirts.

They would defeat the French 2-1 on their own soil and would then later go on to beat Hungary in the final. It seemed as though Fascism was still the powerhouse but there was one country which was noticeably quiet during this era, but they were soon to be awoken as a political and footballing force.

That country being Spain, who we will look at in more detail in our next article in the series.

INT’L FOOTBALL Part 2: Mussolini and the 1934 World Cup.

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021. 

As of October 8th, 1922, Italy had as good as fallen under the rule of a fascist dictatorship.

In the aftermath of the First World War, the Italian people had lost faith in their monarchy as well as democracy and power was seized by the opportunistic thinking of Benito ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini.

Under his reign, authority was to go unquestioned, any political opposition was crushed and promises were made to screaming crowds that, under him, the Italian state would soon revive the glory days of the Roman Empire.

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While Mussolini considered which foreign lands to plunder and conquer, he first sought to ensure that loyalty and obedience to his rule remained strong back at home.

And there was no better way to harness the support of the people other than by giving them something to celebrate. Football.

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A game he wasn’t all that particularly fond of himself, despite adapting his Youth Movement to the ranks at SS Lazio, but that was irrelevant. As a former journalist and editor with the Avanti, he knew how significant a role propaganda could play in shaping public opinion.

“We become strong. I feel, when we have no friends upon whom to lean, or to look to for moral guidance.”

‘Opportunity’ is undoubtedly a key word when one looks back at Mussolini’s tenure.

He had seized upon the unrest and frustrations of the people when he marched them in their thousands towards Rome in 1922; even if he himself allegedly arrived by other more comfortable means.

Initially, while holding the title of Prime Minister, he had grasped the chance to convert the system of governance to suit his own ends by introducing the Acrebo Law.

The political act that, essentially, granted him supreme rule.

Intimidation and brutality on opposing factions was a useful method here and when Italy got to host the 1934 World Cup, this was a means by which he could consolidate his popularity among the masses.

Benito Mussolini’s vision of Italian prowess – physically strong, muscular and attractive – was mitigated by his own propaganda. Akin to that of the physique on the statues of Olympians and heroic Roman figures throughout the country.

After all, he himself was not adverse to the notion of taking his shirt off whenever the cameras showed up.

Whether it be pretending to be helping the workers laying the railway tracks (to help the trains run on time) or trotting about on horseback, Mussolini missed no opportunities to bare the torso and give the onlooking public something to talk about.

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In addition to that, the 1934 tournament was a perfect chance to showcase Italy to the world. Its developments, under fascist rule of course, of infrastructure, commerce and general economic recovery. To show that it could not only host and organise a world cup, but that it could also organise the victory of one too.

Looking back through the archives, it seems that even FIFA had backed down from having any real involvement in the running of this particular tournament.

In his biographical notes, then chairman Jules Remit makes no reference to so many important changes made to the competition that year; not even the imposition of the ‘Coppa Del Duce.’ An accolade that would also be hoisted by the eventual champions.

Mussolini had allowed himself to create his own special trophy of that bore the aforementioned title.

It was a bizarre and overtly-large cup (symbolically about seven times bigger than the actual World Cup) and going by the inscription on it, it’s clear which country he felt should go on and win it.

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“Silence is the only answer you should give to the fools…”

Having home advantage wasn’t enough. Favourable refereeing now had to be courted by whatever means necessary. With Vittorio Pozzo as manager, Italy adapted a hard-hitting and niggling approach to their game-plan.

It’s widely believed that Pozzo – who had spent time learning the game while living in England – had no qualms about physicality. Being under the pressure that he was from above however, he might well have had to turn a blind eye to some of the nastier aspects of the way his team went about their business on the field.

Overlooking the Italians opening game against the United States where they enjoyed a come 7-1 win, it was the games against Spain that truly began to rouse suspicion. After the initial drawn game, the replay was overshadowed by a series of contentious decisions – all of which favoured Italy – and the host nation progressed to the next round thanks to a debacle of a 2-1 win.

It became common knowledge that Mussolini had taken up the authority to select the referees and officials he wanted for each match and the plan was working. The Italian supporters were in too much elation to be bothered about questionable fair play and sportsmanlike conduct. After all, they had a World Cup semi-final to look forward to.

The night before Italy’s semi-final meeting with Austria, allegations still persist to this day that Benito Mussolini sat down to dinner with Swedish referee Ivan Ecklind. No doubt the plan was to discuss ‘tactics’ for the upcoming match. Whether the referee was bribed or bullied, we might never know for sure. Either way, it seems as though the man who was supposed to be the one in charge of the game, agreed to something.

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Despite what the native Italian press had said, the Austrians would have been staunch favourites to win this particular game. Their footballing style was renowned for its class and prestige. They were the second country after Britain to go full-on professional and they had Mattias Sindelar – arguably the world’s best centre-forward – leading the line in attack. 

In a 1998 interview with the BBC, Austrian player Josef Bican, openly discussed his tarnished memories of that game. He claimed he and his teammates all knew something was awry with some of the decisions that were going on. Perhaps most vividly, he recalled how he was trying to find a team-mate with a pass only for the referee to intervene and head the ball back to the Italians.

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Torrential rain over Milan had caused the pitch to water-log and quagmires appeared on the surface. No one seemed interested in tending the puddles. Any hopes Austria had of applying their passing game to good effect was under threat and with the referee seemingly doing all in his power to stop them, they bowed out in a single goal defeat. A goal which many still believe was both offside and a blatant foul on their goalkeeper. 

As Italy prepared for the final in Rome a few days later, it’s possible that Mussolini and the world were starting to see how the realms of fascism could be put into active practice. Unlike religion and historical events of old, there could be no dispute about their impending success.

In essence, there could be no interpretation or lie about Italy’s win because the world would see it for themselves. That’s what Mussolini capitalised upon. Portraying an inarguable ‘truth’ to the world that his national side were the greatest. Even if it was a distorted and artificially crafted truth.

“Fascism … believes neither in the possibility nor the utility of perpetual peace.”

Retrospectively speaking, there seems to be an allure of fascination with packed stadiums when it comes to fascist dictators. We’ll see more of that in our next article when we hone in on Adolf Hitler and Francisco Franco. They too seemed to be rapt withal to the image of addressing mass crowds and, after all, what fills a stadium better than anything else?

Football, of course. 

On the day of the final, as Italy prepared for their date with destiny against Czechoslovakia, an interesting meeting took place shortly before the kick-off. A meeting which shattered the Czechs’ dreams of causing an upset on the day; before a ball had even been kicked.

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Ivan Ecklind, the controversial Swedish referee from the semi-final, was not only selected again to adjudicate this showpiece game, but when he and he alone, was called to the VIP box to meet with Mussolini, the Czechoslovakian players had their suspicions of underhanded coercion confirmed. As author of ‘The Chronicle of Czech Football’. Miloslov Jensik, told: 

“If anyone was going to be invited, it would usually be the two captains, possibly [along with] the referee … but when our players learned that it was only the referee, it was the confirmation of their darkest fears because they knew what had happened in the semi-final with Austria.” 

The Czechs knew they’d have to face an aggressive team, a hostile home crowd and now a referee who would do all in their combined power to ensure an Italian victory. Throughout the game, the exuberance and recklessness of Italy’s tackling went unpunished and they would eventually win the game 2-1.

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As throngs of supporters of the Azure flooded the pitch in celebration, the significance of an Italian victory in (of all places) Rome was not lost on anybody. It wasn’t just the fans, who had already been whipped up in a fever of turbulent nationalism for over a decade, who rejoiced. Inwardly, a feeling of quaint satisfaction also fell on the dim and devilish smile of one man in particular. Benito Mussolini.

Waving at the crowd in his white military attire, Mussolini knew only too well that fascism had become the religion of the lay people and, with Italy being crowned world champions just twelve years after the seizure of power, a true liturgy was born through sport. Even if the means to that success were fiendish and built on ulterior motives.

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A sporting event twisted and moulded to suit the political ends of people who would use their power for great and terrible evil.

And just like what happened amid the unstable political climate of 1930’s Europe, the incorporation of fascism to football would not remain purely Italian. Soon after, the ideologies would again unravel. Maybe even on a more lasting and wider-scale than before. This when such ideas, as we’ll see in Part Three, crept into the mindsets of those holding power in Germany and Spain.

To Be Continued …

INT’L FOOTBALL Part 1: Football in the Age of Empires.

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley in March, 2021. 

“Sport and Politics should never be mixed” and while that’s a statement with great noble intentions and morality within its sentiment, there’s no denying that the two invariably have.

Within the last century alone, we’ve seen how the political ideals held by those who hold power over the people have utilised ‘The People’s Game’ to suit their agenda.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the early stages of international football and it took a prominent role, not just in Britain, but also across the European continent between the years of 1872 right up to the end of the inter-war period. Looking at how and why the game many of us know and love so well took the course that it did. 

A time which would witness the game moving from the pastime of factory workers and small villages across the United Kingdom to when it caught the attention of facist dictators who were plotting continental and global domination for what they perceived to be the ‘Master Race.’

‘Auch, did ye aye?’ 

Historians generally agree that the first officially recognised match between two international sides took place in Glasgow on St Andrew’s Day (30 November) 1872 between Scotland and England. 

One could be forgiven for assuming the two neighbouring teams, ruled by the same Empire, adapted a similar approach in the way they played. In fact, the complete opposite is true.

Players from England used a methodology that was focused almost entirely on a dribbling-based game. Imagine, if you will, the way you rugby is played, but with the ball on the ground.

One man running towards the goal and if he should be dispossessed, he’d be hopeful that a comrade might retrieve the ball and take up where he left off.

The Scottish approach was very different. Always an inventive nation, they were the initiators of a passing-game. Something which many would have assumed had always been part and parcel of the game – but no. Scots’ players looking to share possession by moving the ball around was most baffling to their English counterparts.

The game ended at the Partick Cricket Grounds with a 0-0 scoreline but with regard to separate nations playing the same game – but with very different ideas and motives – this particular match was perhaps an omen for some things to come.

‘We’re English and the English are the best at everything!’ 

It is true that the English were responsible for bringing the game to so many parts of the globe, but for the purposes of this article, the focus will stay on Europe for now.

The Corinthians, largely based in London, were the Harlem Globetrotters of their day. Going on tours and entertaining crowds and showing off this new game which their country had invented.

Adorning their white kits – a legacy carried on by Real Madrid in their honour – they brought joy and spectacle to the steadily growing towns and cities they visited and there were three cities in particular where they caught the imagination of the people tremendously well.

Prague, Budapest and Vienna. 

Three cities which were once under the common rule of the Hapsburg Empire – but were now establishing their own respective identities and cultures under the Austro-Hungarian rule – they all ran along (or close to) the River Danube which made boat travel for the travelling Crusaders much easier.

Following the end to hostilities after The Great War, Europe would have a very different complexion from 1919 onwards as new national borders were drawn up and new countries were born.

One of which was Czechoslovakia and, as some wrinkly old footage shows, they gathered huge attendances at their club games right from the off.

In Budapest, it seemed that political groups were already using the game to support their own ideologies. Much of the support for MTK Budapest came from the Jewish community. On the other hand, Ferencvaros, were the team who held sway with the migrant German population who had lived there.

Similarly in Vienna, the Social Democrats urged their predominantly working-class followers to get behind FK Wien. Their claim was that this was the club of the common man. Differentiating themselves from Rapid Vienna, who were tagged as being the side for the bourgeois members of the high-class society. 

The post-World War I attitude in Britain, particularly in England, was that of ‘Splendid Isolation.’ They felt they’d no need to involve themselves in matters concerning Europe anymore; be it as allies or enemies.

As for football, reports suggest that many Britons felt that it was always going to be ‘their game.’ 

After all, it had been codified in the public schools such as Eton and Harrow and, after some early bannings by previous monarchies led by Charles I and James (I of England and VI of Scotland), the game of football had become not only legal, but also a healthy and a respectable leisurely pastime for people to play or watch. 

Even the clergy hailed it as ‘Muscular Christianity’ and a way of keeping men away from the temptations that too many ales in the public houses might have brought on.

It’s unclear exactly when they started to realise that the game was becoming more than just a passing phase or a fad to those who played it on the European mainland.

Some suggestions do indicate, however, that when Austria became the next country to adopt full-on professionalism and then walloped Scotland 5-0 in 1929, alarm bells began truly ringing.

‘Mambo Italiano.’

Despite some internal divisions at club level, European national sides began to forge and also in the 1920s, there would be a re-assemblement of the Mitropa Cup between the clubs of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Italy.

After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this, in a way, gave us an early glimpse of a European club competition long before 1955. Essentially, it was an earlier forerunner for the European Cup / Champions League.

This is where one man in particular had an importance that can not be understanded; that being Vittorio Pozzo.

Born in Turin in 1886, a keen football supporter who had come to know about the game from his days as a student in Manchester and when he attended the 1913 FA Cup Final between Aston Villa and Sunderland where over 121,000 attended. 

Pozzo is believed to have been hugely interested in the tactical side of the game and during his time in England, where physicality between competing sides was a key component, he’d become impressed all the more. More about that later! 

His expertise, knowledge and love of football were innocent traits but they could be exploited by a young, rising and domineering figure within Italian society. 

One who would lead the overthrowing of a King, who’d stand on balconies alongside Adolf Hitler, who made promises to frantic crowds that he would restore national pride, crush all opposition and revive the spirit of the ‘Glory Days of the Roman Empire.’

Benito ‘Il Duce’ Mussolini had banished deomcratic procedures in Italy under his supreme and unquestionable rule. The Blackshirts brought intimidation and violence to anyone who spoke ill of his authority and, being a former journalist himself, Mussolini was well aware about how public favour could be won over.

Propaganda articles in the Avanti newspaper proclaiming that the trains now run on time is one thing, but it seems that Mussolini sought more. Something that could really capture the spirit, imagination and fervour of the people. In some ways, the timing couldn’t be better, especially with this new tournament starting up in 1930 – the World Cup.

To Be Continued ….

‘The Prince of Goalkeepers’; John Thomson.

Originally published in September 2020; Redrafted in March, 2021 by Jonathan Foley.

Still regarded by many as the best goalkeeper in Britain during the two decades which separated the world wars, relatively little is known about Celtic and Scotland’s John Thomson.

The date of September 5th marks the anniversary of the tragic passing of this young man during a Rangers vs Celtic game in 1931. One who so many once hailed as ‘The Prince of Goalkeepers.’

By the time Thomson reached the tender age of 21, he was already a fully-fledged starter in goals for both the Celtic and Scotland teams. Sadly, he’d not live to go any further. 

During that aforementioned Old Firm match at Ibrox, he gallantly rushed out of his goal to thwart a move that put Sam English in on goal for the home side. 

As Thomson dived at the attacker’s feet, English’s knee innocently collided with the goalkeeper’s head and the blow was severe enough to put him into an immediate state of unconsciousness. 

His head nestled in the ground, his arm raised aloft and static above him. A most harrowing image, even today, when seeing the flickering archive footage which has survived all this time.

The urgency of the matter was not lost on English who, despite limping from the clash, forewent concern from himself and immediately rushed to Thomson’s aid. 

David Mickeljohn – the Rangers captain – called for calm amongst the many thousands on the terraces who were initially booing and jeering.

Realising the seriousness of the situation themselves, the crowd quit their taunts and immediately fell into a hushed and most respectful silence. 

Thomson was stretchered from the field and was rushed to the Western Infirmary. 

Rangers manager William Struth feared the worst and arranged for the club to send a car to Cardenden – some 55 miles away – to collect the boy’s parents from Fife.

He passed away at 9:25pm and the mass congregation of some 100,000 people who attended his funeral – many of whom arrived on foot from Glasgow – was testament to the stature to which he carried himself. 

And yet, while many recall how he passed, not as many know how he lived. 

Background and Upbringing:

Born in 1909, Thomson spent the bulk of his early life carrying out work in the dank and claustrophobic surroundings of the coalmines. 

Despite his relatively slender physique and small-sized hands, his job of locking trailers together as they moved along the rails, is said to have given him a natural sense of agility, timing and positioning. Ideal goalkeeper attributes. 

His appearances in youth football on the Scottish east coast caught the attention of then Celtic manager, Willie Maley, who approached and signed the boy for a fee of just ten pounds. 

Even with his Evangelical Protestant upbringing, Thomson was delighted to sign for Celtic. Miner strikes were common and professional football offered a more steady and stable income. 

The only true opponent to his decision to swap the pits for football was his mother, who feared that football was too dangerous. In retrospect, her words could be deemed as a haunting prophecy. 

During his career, Rangers were dominant in the league title honours, yet Thomson helped Celtic to two Scottish Cups and three Glasgow Cups. 

At international level, he initially played for a Scotland League XI side. Despite a resounding victory for an England XI at White Hart Lane, Thomson was applauded off the field by both sets of fans.

At Scotland senior level, he earned four caps. He put in a series of wonderful displays and became known for his ability to clutch crosses from the air and for his bravery when rushing out of his goal. 

Behaviour that certainly wasn’t all that common at the time and in his four proper appearances for his country, he conceded just a single goal in those matches.

Perhaps an element of foreshadowing knocked on his door when he picked up a series of injuries in one game.

During a challenge, he lost two teeth, broke his jaw and several ribs. His mother’s pleas rang louder than ever before but he was unperturbed.

He recovered to be back in goal quickly and set his sights on marriage after becoming engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Margaret Findlay. A wedding that nobody would ever see.

Sam English, only 23 himself, openly wept at his funeral and his genuineness was seen by everyone. Thomson’s family openly forgave him and successfully pushed for an exoneration; clearing him of any wrongdoing. 

English, a native of County Antrim originally, left Scotland soon after. Even a prolific goal scoring record at Liverpool couldn’t redeem his spirit and humour anymore. 

He retired young with the feeling that football had become what he called “a joyless sport.” He passed away himself in 1967, aged 58. He remains well thought of by all. 

John Thomson joined the game as a boy, but sadly, left it as one too. He will always be remembered amongst the Celtic support and, hopefully, by the wider football community as a whole.

@johnnyfoley1984

1992: FOOTBALL’S ‘RE-BIRTH?’

Originally penned by Jonathan Foley, March 2021.

“Football wasn’t invented in 1992, ya know?” 

There’s an expression we’ve all heard at some point during a debate between fans down through the years. And while, of course, it’s true, let’s take a look at why that particular year is so significant in terms of football history.

First up, maybe it’s all too easy to say that it was the era when the Premier League was initiated and Sky Sports grabbed a firm hold on the broadcasting rights that changed everything. Certainly that was part of it, but in truth, there was a wider European, global and consumer-based cultural context on the go at the time which also played as key factors.

#1: ‘Taking Down the Iron Curtain.’

As a continent, Europe underwent a massive transformation – largely aided by the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – and thus, greater freedoms and better relationships between nations and states was within grasp. 

The breakup of the Soviet Union and the decimation of communist regimes had many feeling that a new structure to the European Cup was required. 

With the notable exception of the former Yugoslavia, Europe fell into relative peace and harmony. Something which would’ve been unforeseen just five decades earlier. 

Let’s wind the clocks to 1991; the final year of ‘Old Football.’ Red Star Belgrade were the European champions, domestic league matches all kicked off at the same time on the same day, most teams were limited to just two foreigners and Vanilla Ice was telling us all to ‘stop, collaborate and listen.’ 

By the time the summer of ‘92 came around, Denmark became the victors of the European Championship, despite not having actually qualified, and a meeting between German businessman, Klaus Hemple and British composer, Tony Britten at the tournament, would change everything.

Hemple was in the early stages of revamping Europe’s premier club competition and was well away with his plans to introduce group stages and seeding for all the participating sides. 

This meant that teams were guaranteed a minimum of six games; replacing the old two-legged knockout round that saw Napoli and Real Madrid both having early exits in 1987 and 1989 respectively. Hemple’s new format promised more games, but it also pleased UEFA as they’d have final say on the advertising rights and on a standard kick-off time – midweek, 7:45pm GMT. 

The corporate hoardings around the pitches and in the stands would be standardised, but to make the new competition seem more lucrative, Britten’s composition of the theme music gave the tournament an air of sophistication … even if it was a total rip-off of Handel’s classic anthem of ‘Zadok the Priest.’ The listeners of Classic FM seemed to approve, however, as they saw it as rekindling an old gem with a more modern spin. 

Prime-time viewing delighted the endorsing companies like Amstel Bier, MasterCard and Continental Tyres to name but a few and, after some deliberation and debate, the name of the ‘UEFA Champions’ League’ was born. Early footage broadcasts by ITV do show poor Ian St. John and Bob Wilson occasionally stumbling over the name of this new competition. 

#2: ‘And It’s Live!’ 

Back in England, things had plummeted to an all-time low. Sponsorship deals were often modest at best while crowd trouble and hooliganism was still synonymous with the game. The better players were plying their trades in Italy and Spain and even some of the best British players (Gary Lineker, Mark Hughes, Ian Rush and Paul Gascoigne) were all playing abroad. 

The year of 1992 was also the year in which the old First Division would morph into becoming the newly-formed FA Premier League and when Australian media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, recognised its potential, football as we know it would change forever. 

The BSkyB Corporation took inspiration from American television in how they covered matches. 

Customers who’d availed of the Sky Sports coverage were there to be entertained and educated in a manner which reselmed how the networks across the Atlantic Ocean did theirs. Matches on a Sunday became the [Ford Escort] ‘Super Sunday’ and ‘Monday Night Football’ entered the lexicon of the everyday fan on the street. 

The radical changes in how the game was broadcast was evident right from the start. The “Whole New Ball Game” would hold five hours of screen time on a Sunday with ex-players in suits and ties using tactics boards and graphics to discuss their thoughts on a given topic. Even the Monday night games at Crystal Palace and Coventry City had pre-match cheerleaders.

Football became trendier than ever and it seemed as though, in the top-flight anyway, that the days of rioting crowds on rickety caged-terraces of the 1980s, had been banished from sight. 

The arrivals of Eric Cantona and Denis Bergkamp brought some early flair to the league and by the time Chelsea landed a series of Serie A players in the summer of 1996, the facelift was well underway. The backbone of Arsenal’s double-winning team in 1998 was dominated by a flurry of French internationals who went on to win the World Cup in their own country that summer. 

#3: ‘So We’re All Agreed?’ 

Jumping briefly back to 1992 again, there was another important political development which helped shape all this. The signing of the Maastricht’ Treaty in Brussels essentially afforded the freedoms that all European Union member states now enjoy: the ability to live and work in any other country within that jurisdiction that they chose to.

This agreement had paved the way for an influx of foreign players to come in and light up the Premier League as they were free of the restrictions that had often impeded them from doing so. The development of the Bosman Ruling in 1995 then made it possible for players to leave on free transfers once their contracts had ended. A matter of profound implications. 

On the other hand, football had also become pop-culture. The old days of ‘Roy and the Rovers’ comic-strips were replaced with fancy computer games (some where you played as a team and some where you even played along as the manager). Televised dramas like ‘Dream Team’ hit our screens and, for a brief period anyway, the Premier League even had it’s on breakfast cereal … which was minging, by the way! 

Players dated pop-stars and drove sports cars, David Beckham’s haircuts made front page news and, to this day, Liverpool’s decision to wear white suits to the FA Cup Final in 1996 still probably gets more coverage than anything from the actual match that was played that day.   

All in all, it showed that it wasn’t just the Sky ‘takeover’ of the Premier League in 1992 that changed the game – some might say for better and some might of the more traditionalists might tend to disagree – but in an overall sense, it was also down to the changes in Europe’s political structure and how we all became part of a mass consumer culture. 

The year of 1992 was not the year in which football was invented, but it was certainly a year in which it saw it undergo a massive rebirth.

@JohnnyFoley1984

IS FOOTBALL (REALLY) FINISHED?

Originally penned in March 2021.

Football has undergone a plethora of changes in recent times. So much so that the game sometimes feels unrecognizable from what it was 25 years ago.

Some changes have been forced upon the game by the powers that be – some for better, some not so – and some have been brought to bear on ‘The Beautiful Game’ by the players, managers, pundits and even the supporters themselves.

“The Game’s Gone” has become a popular catchphrase amongst all such parties mentioned. While much of that sentiment derives from the frustrations over VAR and harsher penalization of supposed foul play, let’s take a look at some other factors that might be just as responsible.

Back in 1992, when Sky Sports may as well have claimed that they’d invented the wheel with their “whole new ball game” bragging, the main rule change of that period was the introduction of the back pass rule.

#1: ‘Can’t Pick It Up!’

Taking a look back at the first weeks of the inaugural Premier League season is interesting. It will provide enough evidence to show that goalkeepers were certainly finding it hard to break the habits of a lifetime.

A series of bundled goals and comical errors ensued and it led to a public decry that the game was being ruined. Utterly ruined! One notable protester was a certain Andy Gray.

His frustrations rang out most memorably during his co-commentary from the gantry of the Charity Shield at Wembley.

Leeds United ‘keeper John Lukic was given a tame enough pass, when all of a sudden, the fear of being charged down by an opposing forward became all too real!

It seemed the only option for him to take was to just hoof it out of play which he duly did: “Is that [rule] making the game any better? … I don’t think so!” bemoaned the Scotsman.

#2: ‘He’s Getting How Much?’

Moving slightly onwards into the mid-nineties, it could be argued that society at large started to become more aware, and often disgruntled, by the amount of money that was being thrown around on club transfers and player wages. 

Between the summers of 1995 and 1996, moves like those of Denis Bergkamp to Arsenal (£7.5m), Stan Collymore to Liverpool (£8.5m) and Alan Shearer to Newcastle (£15m) alone made both front and back-page news headlines (Shearer’s especially).

When reports of how much they’d be earning a week were eked out by the press, the wider-public would surely have been throwing their eyes to the heavens in exasperation.

“What?? That amount of money every week to kick a pig’s bladder around! Well, I’ve never!” was one I can definitely recall.

#3: ‘The ‘FAmous’ Cup?’

For generations, the FA Cup was something of an institution and a staple in the football calendar.

Regardless of who you supported, watching the cup final at Wembley every May was as routine and as annual as Christmas. The teams leaving the hotels that morning, being filmed on the buses to the ground; it was all part an exciting build up.

Sadly though, it’s lost its charm in modern times.

Most higher-end teams tend to put less emphasis on the importance of cup success in preference of a more financially-rewarding league finish.

Part of which is understandable but it begs the question. As kids, whoever dreamt of finishing fourth in the table instead of scoring the winning goal in a cup final?

Some have claimed that this was brought on the FA by themselves however.

In the 1999-2000 season, it’s said that they encouraged Manchester United to withdraw from it to go and compete in the experimental 8-team FIFA World Club Champions tournament.

Allegedly this was all a part of a plan to help England’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup.

#4: ‘Put Your Clothes Back On!’ 

A little further on into the new millennium and, in the eyes of the law-makers, there was a new enemy in town. The curse of ‘over-celebrating!’ and it had to be promptly stomped out.

Initially by booking players who removed their shirts during a celebration and later by doing likewise for players who left the field of play; even if they were merely scaling the advertising hoardings.

Now, after seeing how frightful hairy Ryan Giggs’s torso was after he scored against Arsenal at Villa Park in 1999, this may not have been the worst rule that ever came in. Still though, it basically eclipsed the possibility of anyone ever reigniting the Fabrizio Ravenelli celebration, forever more.

Although some players will rebel against the system and do it anyway, one couldn’t help but feel slightly aggrieved for Chelsea’s Arjen Robben in 2006.

A late winner in a pulsating fixture at Sunderland saw him dismissed for ‘over celebrating’ with his own fans, even though no item of clothing was removed in the process.

The rule which stated “players must avoid such excessive displays of joy” had been violated and breached.

#5: ‘Goals: The Original Soundtrack.’ 

Personally speaking, I can’t say I’m overly-opposed to music being pumped through the ground’s sound-system. It’s certainly wasn’t the worst idea that ever was.

Mainly because I hold fond memories of joining in with the chants at Celtic Park when the DJ pressed play on ‘The Magnificent Seven’ every time Henrik Larsson scored. The same goes for the rehash of the Stone Roses classic for ‘I Wanna Be Edouard.’

And I’ve no doubt that the likes of Middlesbrough fans feel something similar. Especially when the samba-like saxophone beats of ‘Reach Out’ blare out in the stadium when the Teesiders finally get around to hitting the net.

Mind you, Tottenham may be taking theirs a tad too far. Even this year, during a time when stadiums are empty, someone decided it was a good idea to play a 20-year old dance track (‘Sandstorm’ by Darude) before a VAR check on the goal is even complete.

So one has to wonder what the thinking was behind that one.

#6: ‘Hold Me Close, Don’t Let Me Go.’ 

Seeing the teams line up in the tunnel is always part of the anticipation just before kick-off.

It adds a sense of realism to the affair, but over the last maybe seven / eight years or so, one can’t help but feel that the excessive hugging and friendliness between supposed rival players is a bit of a momentum killer.

It’s a sentiment that’s certainly shared by Roy Keane in his punditry, but as a player, his spat with Patrik Viera in the tunnel at Highbury in 2005, makes him true to his word on this occasion.

Now I have to say here, that I quietly enjoy seeing international colleagues or former teammates share a pat on the back. Goalies too who seem to have their own unspoken bond.

Although an instance like third was comically ridiculed by Jamie Vardy when Kasper Schmiechel and Pierre-Emile Hoijberg had their lovely moment spoiled with a teasing “Oooh Danish friends!” just before a Leicester took to the field alongside Southampton back in 2017.

#7: ‘Make Mine a Half and Half.’ 

The growing trend of half and half scarves at domestic league matches has got worrying to say the least.

A quick online search suggests that the two biggest names Ed who are most guilty of this heinous act are the Manchester clubs. Others may disagree, but sure hey, if it’s on the internet, then it’s gotta be true, right? (Ahem!)

Half and half scarves of teams competing in a European match seem to be somewhat exempt from this rule, but seeing them in the stalls outside the grounds of teams who are facing even their crosstown rivals just feels like a quick cash grab.

In fairness though, the clubs themselves can’t really be blamed for this one. After all, these items are almost always unofficial merchandise and we all know how it’s not that cheap to attend these games anymore. Maybe it’s just a new fad of consumer culture to purchase a memento of that particular game.

Fair enough, maybe.

#8: ‘Ask Not What Your Country Can Do…’ 

Perhaps because our multi-channeled and high-resolution television sets have us all so spoiled nowadays; ones that enable us to watch top-flight football from clubs all across Europe and the world at the touch of a button. Yet one can’t help feel a touch sad when we see how so many fans now see international breaks as a hindrance.

A youngster lining out for his country hasn’t really remained as a landmark moment down through the years.

In the contemporary era, a player togging out for his country creates more a sense of apprehension or dread amid the fans who basically offer prayers so that he won’t get injured.

And yet, when the big summer tournaments come round (be it for the Euros, the World Cup or the Copa Americainternational football suddenly becomes cool again.

Call me Old Fashioned, but I’d still take watching the best eleven Brazilian players take on the best eleven German players any day of the week over West Brom vs Brighton. 

#9: ‘Computer Says No!’ 

There’s not a chance we could come this far and not discuss the way the game has spiralled since the introduction to VAR in 2019.

I think it’s fair to say how we, as fans, all feel a tad bewildered by how cruel it is in ruling players offside and how, even with all the fancy electric geometry Stockley Park can perform, what exactly constitutes a handball is more confusing thanever.

Some might argue that it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for.’

For years, there were cries and moans that technology should become a prominent feature of the game (“look at how rugby does it!” one would say) and now that it’s here, the golden wish has become a nightmare.

The hierarchy claimed it would quell any arguments over decisions, but many fans still hold firm to the belief that debating theories over a decision was just part of the enjoyment.

Olivier Giroud and Harry Kane have both scored superb goals this month but the joy of either moment could never be fully embraced due to prolonged monitor viewings and re-viewings that followed.

#10: ‘Breaking News: Player Eats Sandwich – More to Follow.’ 

Clickbait media is a huge pep-eevee of mine.

The digital version of tabloid gossip and quotes being taken out of context drives me up the wall. What’s worse is that even Sky Sports have got in the act with misleading captions on their YouTube. Hoping to draw in views because a pundit supposedly said something controversial.

In these cases, the word ‘slams’ gets a ridiculous amount of use. With the exception of the occasional actual outburst by a manager during a press conference, very few of these ‘slams’ are ever anything to take note of.

And with this being an era of likes, shares and retweets, it’s little wonder fans often end up talking more about what pundits say or didn’t say during the broadcast of a live match instead of the game itself.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a luxury having the ability to sprawl out on the sofa and channel-hop between matches but I just don’t buy in the “explosive punditry” narrative.

In conclusion, while the game of football has indeed changed an incredible amount over the last quarter of a century, some are uncertain for the future. Will it ever be enjoyed the same way as it once was?

Attending games, even post-Covid, could become even more expensive and we’ll rely more and more on mass media to pass their opinions onto us.

Is “the game gone” though? I mean, really?

If life teaches us one thing, surely it’s that this is a common feeling that has been uttered by generations many times in the past.

History books like ‘Sport and the British’ (Richard Holt) teach us that the very notion of players being paid to play the game at all spelled certain doom during the late 19th Century.

It’s unimaginable to think now but there was even a time when a group of Scots factory workers adapted a revolutionary new tactic called ‘passing the ball.’ A ghastly idea that their English gentlemen counterparts thought to be most appalling (cite: ‘Inverting the Pyramid’ by Jonathan Wilson).

Even in my own years as a fan, I still recall my elders bemoaning the death of the game when players had the audacity to wear coloured boots and gloves while on the field. The Horror!

@JohnnyFoley1984

HOLLYWOOD’S GOD COMPLEX.

Originally published in January 2018

As we all often tend to do over the Christmas period, we get to kick back and relax on the couch with a seemingly endless flurry of popular films to divulge ourselves into. Being something of a movie-buff, my old educational qualification in Media Studies and English had me watching away when it hit me: ‘Does religion play a strong underlying role in popular media?’

I wrote previously about how hidden political statements are often made in fiction. In that article, we looked at how even the likes of Godzilla reflected the international relationships between the governments of the USA and Japan. Anon, me thought, let’s see if religion does the same with a specific focus on ET: The Extra Terrestrial and The Shawshank Redemption.

Starting with ET, it might be considered laughable at first to think that a wee alien creature who befriends a young boy could be anything more than a nice little piece of science-fiction. As some people like me tend to do however, there was time to read between the lines – and maybe overanalyze some might say – so see what you think. Spoiler alerts ahead, by the way. 

The underlying religious themes of ET are found when you look closely into his connections with the stories of Jesus Christ. Most other alien-based movies of this time dealt with ray guns, battles in galaxies far, far away or in the case of ‘Alien’, a most gruesome looking birth scene you could ever wish to see. ET bucks the trend of this stereotype.

His behaviour in some scenes give rise to the theory that he is on earth purely to study plant life and nature. This can be seen as early as the opening scene as he caresses and smells greenery with a sense of happiness and contentment. It’s shown again later in a very simple and basic scene where he brings a plant back to life through his telekinetic powers. 

Some people have suggested that these actions mirror the paintings of Christ that show him being at one with nature where he is immensely immersed in what he sees as God’s most wonderful creation – the Earth. The connection goes further as the filming progresses. When ET rises from the dead – connection made – he is shown wearing a shroud as his heart glows. 

Almost every home in Ireland would have pictures of Our Lord displayed on the walls of hallways or kitchens posing in the very same manner. During the narrative, we also notice that the creature has the ability to heal pain and this is demonstrated when he cures the cut on Elliot’s finger by touching it with his own. 

Another part of this famous film shows ET being treated by medical experts who are trying to resuscitate him as he slips away from life. The time of death is audibly heard as “15:36.” This sprang me to nosey if this was a Bible passage of some relevance. The quote I found was “What you sow cannot come back to life!” Perhaps this is a metaphor both plants and death. 

Director Steven Spielberg vehemently denies any Christian theme to the film but that doesn’t stop us from being allowed to interpret it anyway we choose.  

Spielberg himself is Jewish but that hasn’t stopped other theorists from looking closer at the ‘Bike Scene’ where the fleeing boys try to outrun the authorities by purposely ‘crossing the desert’ as they veer off-road. 

His ascension into the sky at the film’s end is another possible link and we should not forget of course what his two most important messages to Gertie and Elliot were. 

He reminded Gertie (and us) to “Be Good” and similarly to Elliot (and us again) that “I’ll Be Right Here” as he literally touches his heart.

Moving onto The Shawshank Redemption. Based on the novel by Stephen King, this story changed his reputation as being purely a writer of horror-based fiction. On the surface, it’s your basic prison movie with an almost all-male staff and themes of hope and freedom running along with the storyline. 

Delving a little deeper however, that there is no real representation of God in this film, so in his absence, the audience are given what is known as a perverse deity; a devil-like character who is disguised as a holy figure.

This character is portrayed by the warden who repeatedly makes biblical quotations as well as using a stitch-work about judgement (that his wife made at church group, remember?) as a cover to the safe where he keeps records of his illegal financial dealings. Yet this connection cannot be made fully unless reference is given to the essay ‘Existentialism is a Humanism’ by Jean Paul Sartre. 

In this written piece, Sartre argued that in the absence of God, humans must define their essence themselves through the choices they make. In the prison, the inmates aren’t allowed to define their own essence and this is echoed by the lines: “You eat when we say you eat!” and “Forty years I’ve been asking permission to piss.”

In a nutshell, the walls come to define who they are. First they hate them and then have to get used to them, so much so that Brooks becomes institutionalised and chooses not to live anymore. In the same essay, Sartre compared humanity to rocks in that rocks are shaped and defined by something else whereas we see Andy choosing to shape and polish rocks in a way that he wants. 

This of course wasn’t the only time King would use religion in his works. A few years later, The Green Mile held much more obvious forms of Christianity and used the prison setting here as a metaphor for purgatory. Here Tom Hanks’ character often questions the morality and what judgement he will face before God when dealing with John Coffey’s impending execution (note the use of initials.)

Maybe I’m overthinking but sure interpretation is something we’re allowed to do.