The politician and his playmaker: Tony Blair and Alex Ferguson in 1996. Photo: Steve Eason/Getty
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Pitch perfect: the ten football matches that changed the world

Jim Murphy’s book combines a blokey ethos with a serious tone, and includes the Eton-smashing 1883 FA Cup final, the 1943 Spanish Cup semi-final and Robben Island’s  “Makana League”.

The Ten Football Matches That Changed the World . . . and the One That Didn’t 
Jim Murphy
Biteback, 352pp, £16.99

 

The unofficial New Labour Sunday league football team is called Demon Eyes, taking its name from the infamous 1997 Tory election poster by M&C Saatchi “New Labour, New Danger”, which portrayed Tony Blair as a crazed Stalinist Satan. The idea that such a crypto-socialist agenda existed was of great amusement to the confident new intake of MPs who arrived in Westminster on the back of the 1997 Labour landslide: no radicals they. Among them was the Celtic fan and talented striker Jim Murphy who, as an erstwhile president of the National Union of Students, had already earned himself a rebuke from Ken Livingstone for his reputation as a moderniser with a soft line on the abolition of student grants.

Here I should declare an interest. I’ve played a few seasons at centre-half for Demon Eyes, mostly alongside the Terry Butcher-esque former work and pensions secretary James Purnell. I’ve never met Jim Murphy, though I have man-marked Ed Balls, who is both sharp-elbowed and surprisingly mobile. Whereas Clement Attlee was a cricket man and Harold Wilson’s 1970 election loss has often been attributed to the national gloom that followed England’s World Cup quarter-final defeat by West Germany four days earlier, football was very much the New Labour thing. Even Gordon Brown professed an encyclopaedic knowledge of Raith Rovers and, in better times (1998), would pop next door to No 10 to watch Scotland in the World Cup.

Murphy goes as far as to claim that football played a crucial role in the rise of Blair. He tells the story of how, after 12 failed attempts, the nervous young barrister was desperately trying to win the nomination for Sedgefield in 1983 to save his fledgling political career as others, including Brown, stole a march. It was only when watching Aberdeen’s victory in the European Cup Winners’ Cup in May that year, masterminded by the Labour man Alex Ferguson, that the then 30-year-old Blair was finally able to bond with local party power brokers over a beer. Football remains the British common denominator.

Murphy’s book is very much in this mould, combining a blokey ethos with a serious tone and right-headed engagement with global affairs, as befits a shadow secretary of state for international development. Of the ten matches that “changed the world”, his first choice is an open goal for a Labour frontbencher: the 1883 FA Cup final, in which the previously dominant blue bloods of Eton College were beaten by the working men of Blackburn Olympic at the Oval cricket ground. This signalled a transition of football from the public-school playing fields to the industrial heartlands of the north-west and north-east. London has wrested much else from the rest of the country since but our national sport has yet to be dislodged from its power base in the industrial north.

Beyond these shores, too, Britain’s “most successful export” has been a uniquely powerful force – more so than any other sport, though not always to good effect. Although biting your opponents is a recent innovation, politics, violence, sectarianism and even match-fixing have been entangled with the game since its inception. Much of the bitterness that marks the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry to this day can be traced to the 1943 Spanish Cup semi-final, in which Barça travelled to Madrid with a comfortable 3-0 lead from the first leg. Allegedly threatened by the director of state security before kick-off, they had little choice but to succumb to the Madristas, capitulating 11-1 by the final whistle.

There is the inspiring story of the three-tiered “Makana League” on Robben Island, in which the prisoners of the apartheid regime in South Africa eventually won the right to play for a precious half-hour every week. Nelson Mandela, however, as a high-security prisoner, wasn’t allowed to watch from his window.

Most football fans will be familiar with many of the anecdotes in the book (Mo John­ston’s transfer, Peter Bonetti’s flap, Rod Stewart’s support for Celtic, quotes from George Best). There are also quite a few platitudes (“Nothing, including football, lives in a vacuum”; “England v Germany is a footballing clash with a century-long significance”) that put one in mind of the Fast Show character Ron Manager. Nonetheless, Murphy’s enthusiasm is catching and he reminds us how – despite the advent of Sky TV and all-seater stadiums – the game remains entrenched in our hearts.

At an 1863 meeting at the Freemasons Arms in Covent Garden, London, convened to codify the sport, a delegate warned about the likely effects of outlawing handling the ball and hacking opponents’ shins. “You will do away with the courage and pluck of the game and I will be bound to bring over a lot of Frenchmen who would beat you with a week’s practice.” Plus ça change

John Bew is a historian and New Statesman contributing writer

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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The World Cup you’ve never heard of, where the teams have no state

At the Conifa world cup – this year hosted by the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia – ethnic groups, diaspora communities and disputed territories will battle for footballing glory.

Football's European Championship and the Olympics are set to dominate the back pages over the next few months. How will Team GB fare in Rio? Will the zika virus stop the tournament even going ahead? Will the WAGS prove to be a distraction for the Three Lions? And can Roy Hodgson guide England to a long-awaited trophy?

But before the sprinters are in their blocks or a ball has been kicked, there's a world cup taking place.

Only this world cup is, well, a bit different. There's no Brazil, no damaged metatarsals to speak of, and no Germany to break hearts in a penalty shootout.  There’s been no sign of football’s rotten underbelly rearing its head at this world cup either. No murmurs of the ugly corruption which has plagued Fifa in recent years. Nor any suggestion that handbags have been exchanged for hosting rights.

This biennial, unsung world cup is not being overseen by Fifa however, but rather by Conifa (Confederation of Independent Football Associations), the governing body for those nations discredited by Fifa. Among its member nations are ethnic groups, diaspora communities or disputed territories with varying degrees of autonomy. Due to their contested status, many of the nations are unable to gain recognition from Fifa. As a consequence they cannot compete in tournaments sanctioned by the best-known footballing governing body, and that’s where Conifa provides a raison d’être.

“We give a voice to the unheard”, says Conifa’s General Secretary, Sascha Düerkop, whose world cup kicks off in the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia at the end of this week.

“We are proud to give our members a forum where they can put themselves on the map.

“From that we hope to give back in the long run and invest in the football infrastructure in our member nations to help them grow.”

The two week footballing celebration starts with an opening ceremony before Kurdistan and Székely Land kick off the tournament. It follows on from 2014’s maiden competition which saw The County of Nice avenging a group stage defeat to Ellan Vannin from the Isle of Man, to take the spoils in the final via a penalty shoot-out.  There were some blowout scores of note however, with South Ossetia smashing Darfur 20-0 and Kurdistan beating the Tamils 9-0 at the event which took place in Östersund, Sweden. Neither of the finalists will be returning to the tournament – throwing down the gauntlet to another twelve teams. 

This, the second Conifa world cup, is testament to the ever-expanding global footprint of the tournament. Abkhazia will welcome sides from four continents – including Western Armenia, the Chagos Islands, United Koreans in Japan and Somaliland.

Despite the “minor” status of the countries taking part, a smattering of professional talent lends credibility to the event. Panjab can call on the experience of ex-Accrington Stanley man Rikki Bains at the heart of their defence, and the coaching savoir-faire of former Tranmere star Reuben Hazell from the dugout. Morten Gamst Pedersen, who turned out for Blackburn Rovers over 300 times and was once a Norwegian international, will lead the Sapmi people. The hosts complete the list of teams to aiming to get their hands on silverware along with Padania, Northern Cyprus, and Raetia.

A quick glance down said list, and it’s hard to ignore the fact that most of the nations competing have strong political associations – be that through war, genocide, displacement or discrimination. The Chagos Islands is one such example. An archipelago in the Indian Ocean, Chagos’ indigenous population was uprooted by the British government in the 1960s to make way for one of the United States' most strategically important military bases – Diego Garcia.

Ever since, they've been campaigning for the right to return. Their side, based in Crawley, has crowdfunded the trip to the tournament. Yet most of its members have never stepped foot on the islands they call home, and which they will now represent. Kurdistan’s efforts to establish an independent state have been well-highlighted, even more so given the last few years of conflict in the Middle East. The hosts too, broke away from Georgia in the 1990s and depend on the financial clout of Russia to prop up their government.

Despite that, Düerkop insists that the event is one which focuses on action on the pitch rather than off it. 

“Many of the nations are politically interested, but we are non-political,” he says. 

“Some of our members are less well-known in the modern world. They have been forgotten, excluded from the global community or simply are ‘unpopular’ for their political positions.

“We are humanitarians and the sides play football to show their existence – nothing more, nothing less.”

The unknown and almost novel status of the tournament flatters to deceive as Conifa’s world cup boasts a broadcast deal, two large stadiums and a plush opening ceremony. Its aim in the long run, however, is to develop into a global competition, and one which is content to sit below Fifa.

“We are happy to be the second biggest football organisation,” admits Düerkop.

“In the future we hope to have women’s and youth tournaments as well as futsal and beach soccer.”

“Our aim is to advertise the beauty and uniqueness of each nation.”

“But the most important purpose is to give those nations that are not members of the global football community a home.”

George Weah, the first African winner of Fifa World Player of the Year award remarked how “football gives a suffering people joy”.

And after speaking to Düerkop there’s certainly a feeling that for those on the game’s periphery, Conifa’s world cup has an allure which offers a shared sense of belonging.

It certainly seems light years away from the glitz and glamour of WAGs and corruption scandals. And that's because it is.

But maybe in a small way, this little-known tournament might restore some of beauty lost by the once “beautiful game”.