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 ….

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