The run-up to the EU Referendum has taken place in the wake of the completion of two major annual projects for achieving a cultural peace in Europe: the Eurovision Song Contest and the UEFA Champions’ League. Both competitions, rightly or wrongly, are viewed as lenses for examining states’ relationships with the broader idea of Europe. So, can sport be a useful tool for international diplomacy – or is it just ‘war minus the shooting’? 1

Sport, as ever is reflective of the times, and as the referendum also coincides with EURO 2016, now seems the perfect moment to consider the history of European football and international relations. A recent issue of Sport in History critically examined ‘European’ football in the broader context of post-war European statecraft and diplomacy. But, the obscure pre-war years within so-called ‘European’ football tell a very similar tale: one which hints at the possibilities and limits of using sport as a tool for international diplomacy and integrating Europe. These early international footballing encounters hint at the problems of recognition for the different constituent nations of the UK, in an upcoming referendum which could have major implications for the constitutional future of the UK.

Good examples can be found in Scottish clubs’ pre-1914, non-competitive summer tours of Scandinavia, especially Denmark, which I’ve recently examined. Queen’s Park were the first Scottish club to make the trip to continental Europe, visiting Copenhagen in the summers of 1898, 1900, and 1903. 2

These close-season trips were all about solidifying the bonds of middle-class comradeship in athletics, parallel to the rise of the modern Olympics – the ultimate celebration of the myth of amateurism. But the middle-class Copenhagen footballers who controlled the Danish Football Association (DBU) also wanted to learn how to play the game better, so they increasingly invited British coaches and, eventually, better, professional (in other words, working-class) British teams. And Denmark was a popular summer destination for Britain’s weary footballers: between 1910 and 1913 alone, British clubs played 35 ‘friendlies’ in Copenhagen on their tours of Denmark, Scandinavia.

Football arrived in Denmark through its increasing interdependence with the UK, with which it shared the North Sea. British-Danish trade, primarily in agriculture, boomed in the period after Denmark’s military defeat to Germany in 1864, and afterwards regular steamship services were established between Leith, Hull, Hamburg, Copenhagen, and Christiania (now Oslo). In this instance, an international sporting relationship was formed on the basis of pre-existing economic links. 3

Fun was heavily implied in these journeys – tours of the Carlsberg Brewery in Copenhagen featured heavily in accounts – these ‘educative’ displays were an early example of how football could be used instrumentally. Scottish commentators joked at Queen’s Park’s first visit to Copenhagen in 1898, that football might be used as a substitute for actual war (and used martial references from Burns to labour that point). But ten years later, a writer for Scottish Referee was more earnest about these informal contests, stating that:

Any disputes which could not be settled at The Hague might be quite well decided on the football field. The question of reduction of armaments would also be solved.

Governments themselves weren’t so naïve. Take, for instance, British clubs’ trips to Norway after the 1905 dissolution of its political union with Sweden. While sporting nationalism in Norway was particularly promoted through alpine skiing, football was typically the primary means of sporting competition with the Swedes. Government grants thus went towards funding visits to Christiana for Rangers in 1911 and Celtic in 1912. One Celtic insider stated that the motivation lay in ‘the most intense jealousy between Norway, Sweden and Denmark in matters political and imperial’. 4

The newly created FIFA, through its very genesis, made exceptions for the British nations that it did not make for Germany and Austria-Hungary, as Aberdeen FC found out in 1911 when they were warned against playing clubs from the unrecognised Bohemian Football Association. After World War I, Richard Robinson, Glasgow journalist and historian of Queen’s Park, expressed relief at a failed pre-war attempt to get a German squad to come to Scotland, bewildered that ‘the classic slopes of Hampden [could have ever] been desecrated by the foot of a Hun’. In this instance, football was certainly not viewed in the context of ‘peace’, so much as a means to form strategic alliances and friendships with like-minded people, at the exclusion of others. 5

‘Like-minded’, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, and accounts of these voyages on both sides tended to focus one’s own team rather than relations with opponents. It was rare to see names of opposition players – and, in the Scottish case, rare to see the names of the Copenhagen clubs at all. The acknowledgement of Scotland as a separate sporting polity was sometimes fleeting. Whilst Danish newspapers acknowledged the differences between visiting Scottish and English clubs, the 1913 DBU annual report stated that Denmark’s gold medal match against Great Britain in the 1912 Olympics had taken place against ‘England’. 6 This was during a period where the movement of European footballers to England was only just beginning its slow trickle, with Dane, Nils Middelboe, emigrating to English professional football shortly after 1912.

There was, of course, more to these tours than the football. In Scandinavia some Scots did believe they saw similarities with home. The Øresund was likened by many of these footballers to the Firth of Clyde. One member of Celtic’s travelling party in 1912 believed Norway’s fjords reminded him of ‘the Kyles of Bute at their best in midsummer’, and referred to the allegedly reserved Norwegians as ‘oor ain folks’.

Yet, these accounts rarely feel like a description of ‘home’ in any meaningful sense of the word, rather an attempt to seek out the familiar in an otherwise foreign land. In doing so, these early Scottish footballer-tourists inadvertently hit upon a conundrum at the heart of today’s EU debate. As Denmark and Norway eventually took very different approaches towards European integration, and as the internal continuity of the UK remains up in the air, we can see echoes in the preoccupations of these footballers and their officials, who were attempting to make sense of a geopolitical universe which seemed far from certain. As we watch the EUROs on our television screens in the next few weeks, in tandem with the EU Referendum, we too will be wondering about the end result.

Matthew McDowell is a Lecturer in Sport Policy, Management, and International Development at the University of Edinburgh and also the secretary of the British Society of Sports History. You can find him on twitter @MattLMcDowell.

Image: The Rangers’ 1877 cup final team, [Wikicommons].


  1. See Peter J. Beck, ‘”War Minus the Shooting”: George Orwell on International Sport and the Olympics’ in Sport in History (2013), Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 72-94.
  2. They were not the first British club to arrive in Europe: so far as we can tell, that honour goes to Clapton FC’s 1890 trip to Belgium.
  3. Danish and British origin myths differ on how the game became popular in Copenhagen in the late 1870s, but are similar in stressing the mutual trading relationship between the two nations: the former emphasises a Danish businessman who learned the game while based in Hull, while the latter credits a Dundee native who worked in Copenhagen for creating Kjøbenhavns Boldklub (KB) – continental Europe’s first football club – in 1876.
  4. ‘Jealous’ was certainly a good word to describe Sir Cecil Spring-Rice, the UK ambassador to Sweden, when he witnessed German prowess at field sports during the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm.
  5. The subaltern discourses on ‘European’ sport, to this day, recycle similar hierarchies. I, for one, am curious when the first subtle reference to World War II will be made regarding the German national team on the television commentary of this year’s EUROs.
  6. This was a side, admittedly, made up of English amateurs.
Tags : EU ReferendumEURO 2016Football historyhistory of sportinternational relationstwentieth century
Matthew McDowell

The author Matthew McDowell

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for a really interesting post.

    Some time ago I came across the existence of the Front de libération nationale algérien’s football team made up of footballers who had been playing in metropolitan France. During its existence the team played teams from nations who supported Algerian independence; this included teams such as recently independent Tunisia and Eastern-bloc heavyweights the Ussr and Yugoslavia.

    I started to think about the team as evidence of the Algerian independence movement ‘acting like a state’. As a gesture creating a national football team when you aren’t technically a nation is interesting. It holds a similar significance to establishing an embassy in a friendly nation. It is yet another fascinating intersection of football and diplomacy.

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