The politician and his playmaker: Tony Blair and Alex Ferguson in 1996. Photo: Steve Eason/Getty
Show Hide image

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

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.