THERE is a widely accepted idea that football emerged from working-class culture, went through a golden age as ‘the people’s game’ and then sold its soul to Sky, Adidas and Coca Cola. Soccer vs, the State, Gabriel Kuhn’s lively and painstaking examination of the sport’s hidden history and competing cultures, reveals a more complex narrative.
The book is full of surprises. In the early nineteenth century football was played by future ‘captains of industry’ and ‘administrators of empire’. This changed in the 1880s, when ‘professionalisation’ attracted young men seeking an escape from factory work. With professional players came working-class crowds keen to watch their mates.
Another revelation concerns female players. We are currently witnessing a revival, not a genesis. Women participated in medieval village matches and were excluded only when public schools appropriated the game. There was renewed interest in women’s football in World War I, and in 1920 Dick, Kerr’s Ladies (from Preston) beat St Helen’s Ladies before a record crowd of 53,000 at Goodison Park. The response of the FA was to introduce a ban, not lifted until 1971, and to encourage international prohibition of women players.
Kuhn highlights the tension football provokes between workers and bosses on every continent, using archived pamphlets, manifestos, interviews and news clippings. A complex picture emerges of a Jekyll and Hyde sport. There is evidence it’s a counter-revolutionary activity fostering greed, corruption, sectarianism and nationalism; but there are also examples of teamwork on the pitch promoting working class solidarity. For example, the late Aboriginal activist Charlie Perkins said the Greek and Croatian soccer teams of Adelaide were the first groups to recognise him as a person.
The book provides fascinating snippets of information on activism, racism, anti-fascism, corporate influences on accessibility, bigotry and internationalism.
The author’s impressive archive and interview-based research, and his rich and varied presentation of information, is slightly compromised by the book’s structural flaws. The thematic similarity of some chapters leads to repetition of ideas and makes it hard for readers to refer back to specific information and stories. But Kuhn offers a cornucopia of anecdotes, facts, life histories and extracts to create a fragmented but fascinating picture of a sport facing profound risks and possibilities. The new edition covers the development of feminist clubs, the contribution of ‘ultra’ fans to the fall of Mubarak in Egypt and the impact of the FIFA corruption scandal.
The book is an invaluable resource at a time in which football risks destruction by the greed of club owners and their corporate ‘partners’. At the same time it celebrates the game’s potential for building social cohesion and alternative forms of community. It is a timely and entertaining read.
This review first appeared in the Morning Star
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