War Minus the Shooting
George Orwell’s famed essay of football shows how little he understood it
George Orwell did not like football. He was, throughout his life, largely dismissive of Britain’s great pastime. It was rarely mentioned in his work, but when the topic of football – and indeed any of the country’s other various popular sports – did crop up, he approached it with a general disdain. “Football,” he wrote, “is war minus the shooting. It has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence.”
That is just a short extract from Orwell’s 1945 essay “The Sporting Spirit”, in which he decries the tribalistic, overly aggressive nature of a sport that had, for most of Britain’s working-class population, only recently made a welcome return. For Orwell, football could not be detached from the political climate of the time.
Just a few months after the end of the Second World War, Dinamo Moscow had been invited on a tour of Britain. There was, for fans of the sport, a sense of intrigue, of curiosity. This was eastern Europe’s most dominant team, a team filled with some of Russia’s most gifted players, among them the prolific forward Vsevolod Bobrov, who had joined temporarily from CDKA Moscow.
In Britain, very little was known about the opposition. It was not clear when the tour would begin, nor which team would land in London. There was speculation, an air of anticipation.
For Dinamo, the intention was to prove a point. Their players had been told to visit Joseph Stalin shortly before departing for Britain. Alongside his sadistic chief of Soviet Security, Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin gave them a simple message: do not lose to the capitalists. There was, then, an underlying politicisation surrounding the tour: England, still considered football’s elite, would be knocked off their perch by the rising power in the east.
That is how Stalin saw it, and that is what concerned Orwell. He did not approve of entertaining a totalitarian state, even given the role the Soviet Union had played in the conclusion of the war.
In November 1945, Dinamo arrived, their players all wearing the same blue coats. They carried briefcases, the contents of which were the subject of much speculation. Some suggested they had been used to smuggle an atomic bomb into the country. The reality, though, was that they had simply contained the players’ food.
There was a mysteriousness about Dinamo. No one knew what to expect. But the assumption was, of course, that the British teams would win. At this point, the English hubris, which would be shattered a decade later following the visit of the great Hungarian side, was as prevalent as ever.
Dinamo took everyone by surprise. At a packed Stamford Bridge – filled to capacity with 85,000 supporters – they adjusted to the noise and intensity to earn a 3-3 draw. Then came a 10-1 victory over Cardiff and a 4-3 win against Arsenal at White Hart Lane. A draw with Rangers in Glasgow meant Dinamo returned to their homeland unbeaten. They had earned the respect of football’s founding nation. The USSR’s reputation had been enhanced and Stalin was content.
Orwell, meanwhile, had watched on, unwilling to be drawn in by the furore of the crowd. “I am told that the match in Glasgow was a free-for-all,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “Those bloody Scotchmen again, eh? What are they like, mate?”
Orwell, of course, was writing in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Football was back, and it had been a long wait. Attendances spiked: in 1938-39, the final season before war put an end to the football calendar, average attendances in the Football League stood at 16,413. That figure rose to 21,642 during the first season back. There was, clearly, a huge demand to watch football after this enforced hiatus.
According to Orwell, though, it simply offered an outlet for those with any left-over anger, a conduit through which they could channel their pent-up aggression. He did not approve of these “orgies of hatred”. There is an element of Orwell’s critique that appears almost tongue in cheek, deliberately exaggerated. It is written from the perspective of someone with no appreciation for the sport, although the argument could be made that this allowed him to cast a more objective eye over its shortcomings.
That, though, is not the belief of Dorian Lynskey, author of The Ministry of Truth: The Biography of George Orwell's 1984. He has, in his own words, “read every word” of the writer’s work. And he describes Orwell’s pontification on football – which would, had it been written in the modern day, almost certainly have earned him the abuse of hundreds of anonymous Twitter dwellers – as “a kind of proto-trolling”.
“Orwell often had strong opinions about things he didn't appreciate or understand,” said Lynskey. “One was Hollywood movies, another was sport. He saw football as inherently violent and an arena for destructive nationalist rivalry, which is quite an extreme view. In his Tribune columns he liked to exaggerate for effect and enjoyed goading his readers. Of course, international sport can foster xenophobic hostility but it's the safest vessel for it. ‘War minus the shooting’ is better than the other kind.”
Of that there is little doubt. Orwell’s denouncement of football – and, more specifically, of Dinamo’s tour of Britain – could justifiably be dismissed as little more than an overreaction, the curmudgeonly views of a man who simply placed too much significance on the role of sport in foreign relations. And, as Lynskey points out, Orwell’s intention might not have been for his essay to be taken entirely seriously.
“This is a great example of how Orwell valorised the common man but looked down on things that the common man enjoyed,” Lynskey said. “He was oblivious to the positive aspects of sports fandom, especially football. All he saw in football was a lot of shoving and shouting. He was repelled by anything that pitted nation against nation, even if almost everyone else thought it was harmless fun.”
In Orwell’s 1937 book The Road to Wigan Pier, an exploration of the living and working conditions of the working classes in Lancashire and Yorkshire, football barely warrants a passing mention. There is a brief mention of the Pools, a pastime he lumped in with fish-and-chips, the movies, the radio and strong tea as “cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life”. It is likely he had the same opinion of football itself.
Some of his observations in “The Sporting Spirit”, though, are worthy of further observation. Some remain pertinent even now. And some of his objections – the inherent tribalism, xenophobia and hostility – have grown only more severe in the decades since. The opening of Orwell’s essay is, perhaps, the neatest summation of his overarching point: “… sport is an unfailing cause of ill will, and that if such a visit as this had any effect at all on Anglo-Soviet relations, it could only be to make them slightly worse than before.
“… At the Arsenal match, I am told by someone who was there, a British and a Russian player came to blows and the crowd booed the referee. The Glasgow match, someone else informs me, was simply a free-for-all from the start. And then there was the controversy, typical of our nationalistic age, about the composition of the Arsenal team. Was it really an all-England team, as claimed by the Russians, or merely a league team, as claimed by the British? And did the Dinamos end their tour abruptly in order to avoid playing an all-England team? As usual, everyone answers these questions according to his political predilections… No doubt the controversy will continue to echo for years in the footnotes of history books. Meanwhile the result of the Dinamos' tour, in so far as it has had any result, will have been to create fresh animosity on both sides.
“And how could it be otherwise? I am always amazed when I hear people saying that sport creates goodwill between the nations, and that if only the common peoples of the world could meet one another at football or cricket, they would have no inclination to meet on the battlefield. Even if one didn't know from concrete examples (the 1936 Olympic Games, for instance) that international sporting contests lead to orgies of hatred, one could deduce it from general principles.
“Nearly all the sports practised nowadays are competitive. You play to win, and the game has little meaning unless you do your utmost to win… 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… that running, jumping and kicking a ball are tests of national virtue.”
Orwell’s main qualm about football was obvious. The “ill will” it encouraged was, in his view, simply not worth it. Why could the game not be played more amicably? Why was it so tied up in nationalism? Why did it induce such anger and such derision towards the opponent?
Many would argue that these sentiments are simply part of the game – that to remove tribalistic behaviour and a distrust of the opposition would take the edge off football. That, it could be argued, is what makes the sport interesting. It is what draws people in. The culture of supporting a club, the rivalries, the ultras, the feeling of winning, the schadenfreude when another team doesn’t.
“The words of a man who never played competitive sport - a perplexed observer,” wrote Brendan Gallagher in a 2004 piece for the Telegraph. “A solitary, introvert man who had no concept of teamwork and no comprehension of the passion which motivates sportsmen and women.”
But base tribalism has become such a pervasive and insidious problem over the last decade that Orwell’s comments seem almost prescient. Things were relatively tame back in 1945. In the decades since, social media has brought partisanship to the forefront of football’s discourse; almost normalised it. Xenophobia has, in many instances, become blatant racism, too.
It would have been fascinating to read Orwell’s take on the advent of the Premier League, to see what he would make of football’s unapologetic embrace of hyper-capitalism. He would probably not have been very surprised with the way things have gone.
Of course, his essay might still strike some as a sanctimonious and slightly hyperbolic attempt to belittle a sport he considered beneath him. But there is no question that he raised issues which, 75 years on, have only grown more concerning. Orwell might not have understood football, but he understood what it could do to people. Perhaps, in football, the focus should be on the simple pleasures it brings, and a little less on the “savage combative instincts”.