Johan Cruyff at the 1974 World Cup Final.

Millions of people will tune into the Champions’ League Final this weekend; billions watch the football World Cup. But despite its popularity, professional historians have tended to overlook the beautiful game. A Cambridge Public History Seminar sought to find out why.

The most popular and universal activity of the 20th century is still ignored by historians.

Philippe Auclair

Although its origins can be traced back to the Middle Ages, in official terms, football needed less than a hundred years to become one of the biggest cultural phenomena ever known. Codified in 1863 (using laws conceived in Cambridge) the sport had established itself as the world’s favourite game by the middle of the 20th century.

By the turn of the 21st, Association Football was being played by more than 250 million people in more than 200 countries, according to a survey by FIFA, its governing body. In excess of 1.3 billion declared themselves “interested” in football, a figure dwarfed by the estimated 2.2 billion who tuned in to the last World Cup finals. By any standards, the rise of the sport has been meteoric. And history, it would appear, is struggling to keep up.

History, that is, not in the popular or amateur sense, but in its academic form. British universities are leading centres for historical scholarship, but the most popular pastime of the last 100 years has, for the most part, been overlooked.

Few standard histories of Britain or the British Empire – the mechanism that helped football to spread throughout the world – refer to it at all. Even Eric Hobsbawm, a passionate supporter of the Rapid Vienna team whose players would be forced to play for Germany, mentioned it just once in his 640-page work on The Short Twentieth Century.

Whether historians should pay football more heed, and how they should address it if so, was the subject of a Cambridge Public History Seminar – How Football Explains British History, organised by the University’s Faculty of History earlier this month. The seminars aim to explore the nature and impact of popular history and interrogate the people who ‘do’ history in the public sphere – whether they are historians, filmmakers, journalists or museum curators. The football edition featured Kevin Moore, Director of the National Football Museum, and Philippe Auclair and Jonathan Wilson – both eminent football journalists.

“When you think about the history of football that does exist, it tends to be quite specialised,” Dr Scott Anthony, a researcher in 19th and 20th century British social and cultural history, who organised the seminar, says. “It tends to get shunted away. It becomes enthusiast history as often happens with, for example, the history of the railways. But there is clearly a case for it being integrated into bigger historical narratives.”

“We wanted to find out why historians don’t talk about football, and more importantly how they should be talking about it if they are going to take it more seriously. We’re interested to know how you should do football history - is it the history of clubs, spectators or players? Is it all of these things, or something else?”

The National Football Museum opened in 2001 at Deepdale, the home of Preston North End and the oldest football league ground still in constant use. Later this year, it will move to the former Urbis Centre in Manchester, after a decade that saw it draw in more than 100,000 visitors a year.

Few thought that the museum would be successful when it was first mooted in 1997. “The original concept was met with scepticism because it was regarded as unworthy,” Kevin Moore, the man at its helm, says. “Issues of social class and cultural value are at play here: Museums typically belong to high culture. Football belongs to popular culture.”

Now he is relatively optimistic about football’s future as a “serious” subject. That is not only because of the museum’s success. In the last 10 years, a rash of popular and academic history books have emerged on the subject which attest to that changing picture. This has elevated football away from its low-brow 1980s image, when it was associable with hooliganism and racist violence; but it is only incipient change.

What may be holding academics back, Moore argues, is the relative apathy with which many have typically treated material culture. Football, both as a game and in terms of the legacy it bequeaths later generations, is, in many ways, material evidence more than anything else.

The ball used in the 1966 World Cup Final is a case in point. Since Geoff Hurst thumped it into the back of the net three times during that match, it has travelled the world and been presented to fans, players and Prime Ministers. It is, like the game itself, a symbol of identity and national pride. “When you look at an object, you are looking at a person’s thoughts,” Moore says. “Football has become symbolic of the popular perception of the decline of England. It is linked to the end of Empire and the decline of the country. It often represents a more hopeful past.”

This presents real possibilities for historians trying to understand societies which play football. But, Moore says, they will only seize that opportunity if the old view that the game is incompatible with high culture – including university scholarship – is resolved. If museums, amateur historians of the game and football writers are all acknowledged as sources of information and historical narrative in their own right, the writing of history will change.

Philippe Auclair, biographer of Eric Cantona and a respected football journalist on both sides of the Channel, believes that in this capacity journalism is leading the way. In the past 20 years, he has witnessed football writing move from a back-page backwater to front page news. Football writing is now highly specialised, demands a deep knowledge of the subject and a high level of attention to empirical detail.

“We already apply methods that historians and academics use,” Auclair says. “There has been a complete sea-change in this sense – a radical change. The example is coming from the press box.”

These writers manifest Moore’s point. In modern journalism, football writing is about more than reporting matches – it is a way to speak about society, class relations and national identity – about how a community of people see themselves and express that on the field of play.

One possible reason why historians do not follow suit may be the way in which the subject is studied. Football writers have the liberty to take a “helicopter” view of society and look at a big picture. Historical scholarship often focuses on narrower subject matter. This, Auclair believes, should not lead historians to overlook the game: “The most popular and universal activity of the 20th century is still ignored,” he says. “I would like historians to take a look at the planet during that century and ask themselves what the most popular thing was during that time.”

Some researchers do, although many try to dissociate themselves from the derision that greeted the University of Staffordshire’s much publicised adoption of “David Beckham Studies” in 2000, when it introduced a module on the sociological relevance of football to some of its courses. To escape this association, many historians link football to broader, academically acceptable themes. Instead of the history of football alone, they look at issues such as “football and gender”, or “football and violence”.

Jonathan Wilson, another football writer, is one of the few to have tackled football history apropos of nothing except itself. His landmark book Inverting The Pyramid is a history of football tactics and an example of how football can stand alone as a subject of historical study, in which the cultural and social preoccupations of the time can be seen converging on the field of play itself.

One example he cites is Herbert Chapman, the legendary Arsenal manager who led the trophy-less team that started the 1920s to an FA Cup and two titles before his death in 1934. Wilson argues that he was more than just a great football manager, but a product of modernism. This was clear in the art deco styling introduced to Arsenal’s Highbury stadium during that period and the look of the Arsenal kit, which adopted the iconic red shirts with white sleeves at the same time. Even the clean lines of the “WM” formation which Chapman’s team pioneered had a modernist flavour.

But Chapman did far more to reflect the social changes of the time. He was, Wilson believes, a new kind of manager - the first to take an organised approach to winning. In contrast with the gentlemanly ethos that pervaded football’s early years, Chapman saw teams as ‘machines’ for defending and scoring. There are clear, close parallels here with the mass-production of the age, and both the optimism and fear which accompanied western societies’ mechanisation before, during and between the two World Wars. Indeed, Chapman himself appears to have brought techniques with him from the munitions factory where he worked in the First World War.

This compatibility between the way football is played and the nature of any given age recurs through its history. In contrast with Chapman’s Arsenal, the great Ajax side graced by Johann Cruyff between 1964 and 1973 emerged during a different kind of cultural flowering, which prized rebellion as much as it did conformity with the machine. Little coincidence, then, that the “Total Football” espoused by Ajax valued the principle of individual flair – epitomised by Cruyff – operating in relation to the whole team.

“Nobody would have said or thought that in the Ajax team of the time,” Wilson argues, “but football was a cultural mode in this sense. It is puzzling that we don’t study it or give it the same level of respect that poetry, drama, or music receive. This is something it deserves.”

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