The host countries have a lot riding on not just their teams' performances, but also their management of the tournament.

Published on balticworlds.com on June 1, 2012

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Like most people, politicians want to see their national sports teams do well. Politicians in government, though, are especially keen to have their teams induce a feel-good factor among voters, because that may make them regard their incumbent political leaders more favourably. A team that falls short of expectations may do the opposite.

In Europe, at least, sport is usually not that big a deal for politics. People’s elation at success, and distress at failure, wears off fairly quickly. However, a good number of European governments will be anticipating the football European Championships with more trepidation than usual.

No one will need reminding that these are pretty awful times for much of the continent. Many economies are in dire straits. The EU is experiencing its most profound crisis. The feel-bad factor is widespread and, in some places, very intense indeed – as recent election results have shown. That is the context for Euro 2012. Only one team will leave the tournament feeling really good about itself, and thus making its country feel good. A couple more might be quite pleased. All the others will be somewhere between disappointed and bitterly disappointed. If this adds to an already acute sense of malaise, incumbent governments could reach even lower levels of popularity – which, needless to say, would impair their chances of getting re-elected.

The host countries have a lot riding on not just their teams’ performances, but also their management of the tournament. Poland’s government will be keen to show its organisational competence, even if its economy has proved relatively robust and its government has a recently renewed electoral mandate. For Ukraine, the stakes are higher, given its stagnant economy and increasingly ugly politics, which has alienated it from many other countries. But the British government, too, will be unusually keen to see the England team do well in Euro 2012.

Britain is not a terribly happy place at the moment. A colossal public deficit has forced painful austerity. Private debts have pressed down consumption. A series of scandals about politicians’ behaviour has put Britons in a highly anti-political mood. Even beyond the current economic difficulties, however, I think that football has become increasingly important to British politicians – perhaps more so than in most other countries.

Politics and football: parallel development

“Class is the basis of British party politics”, claimed a Austrian-born scholar, Peter Pulzer, in 1967; “all else is embellishment and detail.”[1] For many years, it was easy to agree. The Conservative Party was the party of the middle and upper classes, Labour that of the working class. In the 1951 election, nearly 97 per cent of British voters lent their support to one of these two class-based parties. As late as 1970, the figure was nearly 90 per cent. The electoral system, with each constituency electing only a single representative, certainly helped to preserve this two-horse race. On the other hand, this institutional choice reflected the dominant political interests that made it.

As in other European countries, football embedded itself in British national culture at roughly the same time as the contours of party politics established themselves. The Football Association, English football’s governing body, was formed in 1863. The Conservative Party, meanwhile, emerged in its modern institutional form in 1834. The Labour Party was founded a little after that, in 1900.

The election of 1918 was the first in which almost all adult males could vote, and women achieved similar rights a decade later. As political scientists have shown, these extensions to the franchise offer rare opportunities to political parties to corner the electoral market. Patterns of competition can then, to use a famous description, be “frozen” for many years.[2] Interestingly, in the British case, football did something rather similar at roughly the same time. The “size” of English football clubs, defined by the pool of spectators who might attend a particular club’s home matches, was largely determined in the years between the world wars. It is extremely difficult for a club to expand the size that was generated at this time, no matter how successful or well-financed it becomes.

The decades that followed the middle of the 19th century, then, were obviously formative ones for politics and for football in Great Britain. What is more, the imprint of social class that was so obvious in politics was also present in football – although in quite a different way. That, in my view, makes the country quite unusual.

In much of Europe, football became popular across classes. Some Swedish cities, for example, saw club affiliation that reflected class differences. Hammarby was the team of the southern Stockholm working classes, for instance; Örgryte was the club of some of Gothenburg’s middle class. In Great Britain, football was simply the game of the working classes. Club affiliation was based largely on locality, sometimes on religion (especially in cities that had communities descended from Irish Catholics), but not on class – because they all had a working-class identity.

It is an exaggeration, but not a huge one, to suggest that if you were a sporty, middle-class, English boy during much of the 20th century, you played and watched rugby during the winter and cricket during the summer. You might have liked football, but it was not bound into your social and educational life. (If you were a girl, all this was irrelevant.)

There has been some regional variation. One type of rugby has had a broader, cross-class appeal in the English West Country (and in Scotland and Wales); another type remains popular in working-class communities in the north of England. Football, though, was the primary game of the masses. The biggest English clubs all have their roots in the urban, industrial working-class populations of the Midlands, the North-West, the North-East and, of course, in London. Many of the classic club stadiums were or remain in the middle of typically English urban terraced-housing areas. The vast majority of these club’s fans, at least the ones who regularly attend matches, still come from those communities.

Individualisation: social, political, footballing

As elsewhere, much has changed in British politics. For a start, less than 66 per cent voted for one of the two class-based parties in the 2010 election. For sure, each of those parties remains associated – through its supporters, its members and its leaders – with their old class bases. But other factors are far more than “embellishment and detail” these days. Research has shown that British voters, like those elsewhere in Northern Europe, are much less likely now to identify themselves with a political party, so that they vote for it almost no matter what. Voters frequently switch their support across parties from election to election. Their voting behaviour is now much more guided by current political issues, which in turn are shaped by the media, by politicians themselves and by events.

Football in Britain, meanwhile, has – in some ways, though not all – outgrown its own class-based identity. The game’s darkest days, in the 1970s and 1980s, seem a long time ago. At that time, a culture of violence among sections of supporters (which led to English teams being barred from European competition in 1985-90), plus a series of dreadful accidents in antiquated, crumbling stadiums, cast long shadows over the future of professional football. Since then, its popularity has grown enormously.

There are various reasons for that, aside from the natural fluctuation of popular tastes. Governments, police and clubs did much to suppress spectator violence, which is now rare. England pioneered a rule change that made the game more entertaining.[3] Technology has also played a big part. The arrival of satellite television-broadcasting in 1990 led to much more competition for the rights to televise football, which allowed the game to extract a much higher price from their auction. Clubs spent a lot of this income on improving their stadiums, while the new broadcaster greatly improved the marketing of football. The bigger English clubs, meanwhile, were well-placed to take advantage of European labour-market integration, which reformed restrictions related to club registration and players’ nationality. Hugely rich foreigners have subsequently bought various English clubs, injecting yet more money.

In short, English football, like that in other larger European countries, is now very big business. Perhaps more than in the rest of Europe, though, other sports in England have (with the odd exception) been pushed towards the margins of public consciousness. And that makes it hard for politicians to be indifferent to it.

The last but one British prime minister, Tony Blair, felt the need to reminisce publicly about watching a legendary player scoring for Newcastle (which, rather embarrassingly for Blair, was later shown to have been a false memory, as it could not have happened as he had described). The current Conservative incumbent, David Cameron, has the most privileged social background of any British prime minister for a long time. This is speculation, but I would guess that his family has, over the years, probably contained rather few football fanatics. Yet Cameron makes it known that he supports Aston Villa, a big provincial club that – unlike, say, Manchester United, England’s biggest – does not invoke much antipathy from other clubs’ fans, except those of Villa’s most local rivals.

Fingers crossed before the Euros

The European Championships come at a particularly bad moment for Cameron’s government. Politically, it is having a rough time. Amid economic gloom, his party is often squabbling with its coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. Unaccustomed to having to share office, some Conservatives are grumbling increasingly loudly about the arrangement. The prime minister himself is being drawn into a long-running scandal about his government’s excessively friendly relations with a media company, News International – which, oddly enough, owns the broadcaster that so transformed British football. The biggest-selling newspaper, the Sun, has also become more hostile to the government lately. This matters in British politics (indeed, that is part of the backdrop to the scandal). As it happens, the Sun is also owned by News International.

A poor England performance in Poland and Ukraine will not end Cameron’s prime ministerial career, of course. But it would make the mood in England even sourer. It would also induce a massive bout of Schadenfreude in Scotland, which, in turn, would antagonise the English still more – and possibly enhance the chances of the union between the two countries being dissolved in the next few years. Separation is what the current Scottish government hopes for; the British government is strongly against it. (Scottish voters are uncertain; English ones are uninterested.)

There may, too, be a further danger for the Cameron government. For all its widened appeal, and for all the national and ethnic diversity in its ranks, English football retains its distinctly working-class culture. This football culture is not at all xenophobic or, these days, racist. But nor is it very sophisticated or cosmopolitan. Almost no English footballers play for clubs elsewhere in Europe. Of the few that have done so in recent years, even fewer have learned the local language. The same culture appears, at least, to envelop many of the journalists who cover English football.

Just a few weeks ago, the Football Association appointed a new manager (head coach) for the national team. Roy Hodgson is highly qualified for the job. He is, however, an extremely rare type in English football: he is an intellectual. He appreciates art and especially likes Czech literature. He is also cosmopolitan: he has coached in eight different countries and speaks five European languages (including Swedish, having lived in Sweden for several successful years at the start of his coaching career). He is not posh by any means, and his London accent does not, to an attuned ear, suggest a privileged background. But the range of his vocabulary is not customary among English footballers or coaches.

Hodgson was surprisingly chosen in preference to another English manager, one who personifies the traditional English football culture. If things go badly for England in Euro 2012, the abuse that Hodgson will inevitably get from newspapers – whose precarious financial situations could make them even more aggressive than usual – may well have an extra, class-related tinge to it. That, in turn, might be bad news for an upper-class, Conservative, yet football-supporting prime minister.


  1. Peter Pulzer (1967), Political Representation and Elections in Britain (London: George Allen and Unwin).
  2. Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan, "Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignment" (1967), reprinted in Peter Mair (ed.) (1990), The West European Party System (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  3. Michael Aylott and Nicholas Aylott (2007), "A Meeting of Social Science and Football: Measuring the Effects of Three Points for a Win", Sport in Society 10:2, 205-22.
  • http://twitter.com/Slerik Erik W

    Lovely note on two of my favourite summer distractions these paste few years; football and British political scandals