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And they’re off!: What Sports Discourse Can Reveal About Postwar British Democracy

1971 Anglo-Italian Cup Winners – Blackpool Football Club

Whether you are an avid football fan who never misses a game or, like myself you have yet to grasp the offside rule, sport is near impossible to avoid. A form of entertainment and escapism, sport undoubtedly plays a crucial role within our lives.

In response to the irrefutable prevalence of sport, over the past decade we have seen a rise in sports history as a respected field within academia.

Noting how sport history is primarily ‘marked by a cultural approach’, in his 2021 article Harm Kaal makes a convincing case that sport should be taken more seriously by political historians of the postwar period.[1]

As Kaal states, sport and politics are ‘intimately connected’, yet until now political historians have ‘hardly reflected on the nature of this connection in the postwar years’.[2]

One of the most prominent ways that we see the link between sport and politics, and indeed between sport and many spheres of popular culture, is through language and communication. As a political historian whose research is centered on articulations of democracy in the tabloid press, it is certainly hard to avoid the conflation between sporting and political discourse.

In this blog post I will be investigating the use of sporting discourse in political reporting, in particular how it was utilised during British General Elections in the 1970s. This will provide insights into the nature of democratic culture during this period.

On 19th May 1970, the Express announced the beginning of the election campaign with the front-page headline, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES’, accompanied by the subheading ‘They’re off on June 18th’, utilising discourse drawn from horseracing in order to mark the start of electioneering.[3]

Alongside the article, the Express published a cartoon image of the main candidates, Wilson and Heath, racing on horseback.[4] Here the democratic process was being equated to horse racing, a sport with an unclear outcome that is very much dependent on the performance of individuals on the day. Coverage of the election was therefore less about policy and parties, and instead focused on the performances of individual prospective representatives during their campaign, as opposed to long-term party affiliation.

This process can also be seen in the following quote pulled from the Sun’s coverage of the second General Election of 1974:

 ‘As we move into the half-way stage of this thrilling contest – so help me, I am beginning to sound like Match of the Day – it is clear that honesty is the new policy. The dramatic first-half incident, in which Mrs Shirley Williams scored an own-goal, may actually have turned out to the advantage of that celebrated schemer, Twinkletoes Harold [Wilson]’.[5]

This time equating politics to football, we see politicians being referred to in a satirical manner, detaching them from their parties and instead focusing on their individual performance.

Along similar lines, in the month preceding the 1979 election, the Mirror also utilised boxing vocabulary in order to communicate their notions of the electioneering process, declaring that ‘the first round of the battle between the two election heavyweights [had] been won by Jim Callaghan – without a glove being laid on him’.[6]

Language such as ‘heavyweights’, ‘lightweights’, ‘combat’, and ‘battered’, along with describing Westminster as an ‘arena’, immediately drew parallels between politics and boxing, making democratic deliberation more tangible for newspaper readers.[7] As well as making politics more accessible, principally to men, it also shifted political representatives’ positions within democratic culture. Once yardsticks of gentlemanly civility, they instead became sources of entertainment, allowing for them to be viewed with less deference.

The use of sporting metaphors in newspapers’ coverage of politics was symptomatic of the broader changes in the way the popular press was articulating popular understandings of democracy. From the late 1950s onwards, party democracy was facing a lot of criticism from the popular press and its readers, who desired increased proximity between the people and their political representatives.

The version of democracy we see emerging in the 1970s therefore, referred to by Bernard Manin as “audience democracy”, was a product of efforts to make this an actuality.[8] Politicians attempted to present themselves and were being presented as “one of the people”. One of the ways through which the popular press did this was through the use of sporting vernacular, which allowed them to communicate politics with their readers within a framework that they could relate to. In other words, sport made politicians more palpable for the ordinary person.

What we can see from this small case study is that there is a real value in political historians taking seriously sports history, along with other aspects of popular culture including the tabloid press.

Sport can help us shed light on changes in political communication, popular expectations of representatives, inclusion and exclusion and shifts in political power.

These concerns will be explored in the Voice of the People project, which aims to put the voices of ordinary citizens centre stage in the discussions of postwar political cultural, by deconstructing articulations of democracy in the popular press.

Jamie Jenkins is a PhD student at Radboud University working on the Voices of the People project. She tweets @jenkinsleejamie.

Cover Image: Anglo-Italian Cup Winners, Blackpool FC., 1971. Source: Wikimedia Commons


[1] Kaal, H. G. J., ‘Boundary Disputes: New approaches to the interaction between sport and politics in the postwar years’, Journal of Modern European History 19.3 (2021), p. 364.

[2] Ibid., p. 362.

[3] Maurice Trowbridge, ‘THE PREMIER STAKES!’, Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[4] Daily Express, May 19th 1970, p. 1.

[5] John Akass, ‘Twinkletoes could find it pays to tell the truth’, The Sun, September 30th 1974, p. 6.

[6] Terence Lancaster, ‘Election Briefing’, Daily Mirror, 5th April 1979, p. 2.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bernard Manin, The principles of representative government (New York, 1997), p. 218.

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The War on the Football Field

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“Two World Wars and one World Cup.”

This is a frequent chant of English fans when facing their old football rivals: Germany. The chant refers to England having won the First and Second World War, and the 1966 FIFA World Cup. But what exactly is the basis for this chant? After all, West Germany had already won a World Cup in 1954, 12 years before England would win. And Germany has gone on to win three more since. Apart from the conceited nature of the chant, the comparison between war and football may seem like a harsh comparison. Can Football be compared to warfare?

Perhaps it can, on a national level. The oft-quoted George Orwell once wrote about sports: “At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare. But the significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators: and, behind the spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests, and seriously believe – at any rate for short periods – that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.” Written in 1945, but does it still hold truth today?

Any controversy between Britain and Germany in football has rarely originated in the game itself or with the players, but more often with the media and the fans. In 1966 the Sunday Mirror described the victorious England team as ‘conquering heroes’ and celebrations as the wildest night ‘since VE night in May 1945’. These kinds of descriptions have not tempered over time. Other controversial headlines throughout the years include ‘The Battle of the Krauts’, (1987) ‘Achtung! Surrender’, (1996) and ‘Job Done… Now for the Hun’ (2010).

It is not hard to imagine that these media headlines were meant as general provocations. What is more striking is the behaviour of the fans. A common English chant uses  the theme to The Dam Busters (1955) which is accompanied by arms outstretched in a mimicry of the war planes the film portrays. When Britain was knocked out of the World Cup by Argentina in 1986, 75 per cent of Brits said they supported Argentina rather than Germany, despite the Falklands conflict with Argentina having only ended four years prior, and Germany (who had not come up against Britain in that particular World Cup) being their political allies for forty years.

More recently, those who followed the Euro 2020 tournament, may remember the England-Germany match, as well as the crying German girl that dominated the screen for a short amount of time. They may also remember the abusive comments made about her online and the cheers of the English crowd. These comments included references to Anne Frank and the Holocaust and referred to the girl as a Nazi, among other offensive labels. 

What all of these examples have in common is not only lack of hesitation, but the often flagrant willingness to create connections between football and the status of Germans as wartime adversaries. It is therefore difficult to disagree with Orwell’s view on sports in the context of the England vs Germany football rivalry. Yet what should be noted (and may be a hard truth for some English football fans) is that this rivalry only appears to truly exist in England: German football fans don’t tend to reference the war when mentioning England or English fans. 

So why does British football culture seem to have merged the memory of the war and Germany’s defeat in it with football? Why is the fact that ‘we won the war’ such a defining trope for football fans across the nation? It may have something to do with envy over the fact that the German team generally dominates the English team. As Gary Lineker once remarked, ‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.’

But this German position of dominance has not been limited to football. By the time of the 1966 World Cup, the West German economic miracle, or Wirtschaftswunder, was well under way. At the same time, Britain was losing its status as a superpower. It has often been put forward that this inferior position in various realms has led England supporters to hold on dearly to what they knew they had over the Germans: wartime victory. 

Ruth Wittlinger suggests that this issue of inferiority has also been the cause for the loss of a British identity, further aggravating emotions. She further writes that Britain holds on to a wartime memory of Germany while remaining uneducated about current-day Germany because of an ever-present memory of the Holocaust in the media and in the classroom, together with a strong focus on the war and Germany more generally speaking. Moreover, parallel developments to Nazi fascism, racism, and antisemitism have continued in the post-1945 period, such as in the form of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans or the development of ‘skinhead’ culture and violence against immigrants across Europe. 

This all paints a bitter picture indeed and can also help uncover a certain hypocrisy within Britain when it comes to  its relationship with the past as well as the present, as has been humorously satirised. It has been shown before that Britain is less than willing to engage with its own uncomfortable memories, including deeply rooted issues like the romanticisation of colonialism and the question whether stolen items in the British Museum should be returned to where they were plundered from.

There are some that say we simply can’t help it, relying on Ad Populum arguments about pride and suggestions that Germans ‘deserve it’. Others present more nuanced arguments interpreting the supporters’ behaviour as a reflection of British pride, attempting to recapture the wartime spirit that brought the British people together. Others still think it is all just good fun and not offensive, that these football chants are harmless and there are bigger issues in football to worry about. The fact that these contrasting opinions exist and have been published in major outlets is proof enough that the question remains a hot topic.

So the question remains: is all this about modern British pride, or are the chants a reflection of a bitter longing for a better past? Are we remembering our own values when we chant “Ten German Bombers,” or are we making sure Germany doesn’t forget that they lost theirs during the first half of the twentieth century? If we are so keen to avoid facing our own problematic past as a nation, is it really fair that British football fans keep reminding Germany of theirs? It is difficult to agree that football fans’ anti-German chants are not quite a serious problem when you don’t have to look far to find examples of violence and insults towards Germans, or when an emotional little girl is abhorrently called a Nazi.

Matthew Brundrett studied History with Psychology at Keele University, and has recently completed an MA in Modern History at the University of Sheffield. He is currently continuing his MA research related to the First World War with a view to obtaining a PhD. Matthew can be contacted via matt.brundrett@sky.com.

Cover image: England and Germany fans outside Cologne Cathedral, 2006. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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