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Post-War Football and the Invention of the Teenager

April 9, 2011

This article first appeared on The Equaliser blog, as part of ‘1950s Month’.

There’s one at every club. Intricate hair, intricate tattoos, ‘obvious’ girlfriends. Strops, tabloid scandals and growing pains. Football has always been a good home to teenagers; a mode of communication for the shy, and a goldmine to those so inclined.

Forget the present day for a second, though, and cast your mind back to the decade that gave birth to the phenomenon. The world had never seen a ‘teen-ager’ until the 1950s. Nor had it seen modern football as we know it.

The post-war years saw football develop as a global sport, an institution powered by the same appetite for entertainment that sustained Elvis, Doris Day and the Rat Pack. The World Cups helped. Of course, there had been tournaments before World War II, but this was the decade which saw debuts for four of the Home Nations, West Germany and the Soviet Union.

And just as popular music was first being born, to be recreated in subsequent decades, the football on show was the very stuff of nostalgia. Massive crowds? The 1950 Final (Uruguay – Brazil) attracted over 173,000 people, a figure unlikely to be surpassed. Huge scores? Austria 7 – 5 Switzerland from 1954 is still a World Cup record. In 1950 and 1954, the World Cup averaged more than four goals a game.

Football was on show. The original version of Eurovision was created to transmit TV footage of Switzerland’s World Cup in ‘54 to neighbouring countries. It was very much the internet of its day, propelling football from the wireless and evening papers into the space age.

Pre-existing cultures were quick to tap into this pervasive, modernising force. When Scottish novelist Muriel Spark was writing her first novel, The Comforters, she made her male protagonist, a man with a supernatural knack for talking about every minute detail of everybody he sees, a BBC football commentator. And when theatre audiences saw the archetypal ‘Angry Young Man’ Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger despairing that there was nothing of worth in the Sunday papers, they would know that between final whistle on a Saturday and Sunday afternoon, Jimmy had the chance to read at least three match reports.

Men like Jimmy were among the first not to have their teenage years defined by the cycles of wars that blighted the first half of the century. With the increasingly complicated international scene within and without football, it came close to George Orwell’s glib definition of sport as “war without the shooting”.

That is not to say of course that the new teenagers did not fear being pulled into the various conflicts of the decade – in Korea, Indochina, or in the many wars against colonialism. Increasingly, though, it was becoming obvious that the militarised world would, eventually have to incorporate ‘football diplomacy’.

Britain ended conscription in 1958 – well after rationing, and after a period that saw the creation of both the Council of Europe and the European Cup. France didn’t officially stop conscription until the 21st century, but French youth proved eloquent in illustrating young Europe’s relationship with the military through football.

Albert Camus, the vanguard of both Marxist, and existential philosophy, is often quoted as saying “Everything I know, I learnt from football.” He had played as goalkeeper in his student days in Algeria, a colony fighting bitterly for independence from France by 1958. But during this decade, football became associated with discontent in the heart of France.

The freewheeling films of the Nouvelle Vague movement, directed by French luminaries like Jena-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and Eric Rohmer, are often characterised as being ironically and self-consciously in love with cinema itself. Football, though, was still a serviceable visual metaphor for the disaffection of Parisian youth.

True, the young tearaway, Antoine, anti-hero of Truffaut’s debut feature The 400 Blows, does skive off school to go to the movies, and is rewarded for good behaviour with another trip there. But the moments that define his anti-authoritarian stance are both built around football.

Firstly, we are treated to a towering shot, down onto the Paris streets as a gym teacher officiously leads his schoolboy charges to a football field. They never make it, the kids peeling off in twos and threes to escape the lesson.

After various scrapes and a period of homelessness, Antoine runs away from a young offenders’ institute, a precursor to the army for many kids. He makes his escape through the football pitch, before embarking on a solo run to the sea that poeticises the sheer bloody-mindedness of this new breed of youngster. You can see it here, and try not to think of those ‘creative’ types lagging behind the rest of the squad in pre-season training on long distance beach runs:

It might come as a surprise to find Evelyn Waugh at the forefront of Truffaut’s British counterparts. The author of elegant, aristocracy-fixated prose like Brideshead Revisited and A Handful of Dust makes an unlikely champion of ‘association football’. Waugh wrote unashamedly from his own privileged social position; Vile Bodies, for instance (from where we get the phrase ‘bright young things’), contains a scene where an ad hoc champagne breakfast is taken on a WWI battlefield.

That was at the end of the roaring Twenties. When Waugh came to novelise his experiences in WWII, the relation between the ordering and ordered ranks – the ‘lions and the donkeys’ – was less clear cut.

In 1952 Waugh published Men at Arms, a darkly humorous novel about the efforts of Guy Crouchback, the last of a distinguished ancestral line, to get into active service in WWII. Most of the tension – and comedy – stems from the clashes between an Edwardian concept of sport and the new, mass game that threatens to define the whole army.

The WWI point of view is characterised in the mad, bad and psychotic Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook. He is a commander of the old school (probably one of the oldest), whose military strategy hasn’t progressed beyond the doomed infantry charges of Flanders and the Somme. He explicitly compares his management to that kind of reckless gamble: it is like “slowly collecting a pile of chips and then plonking them all down on the roulette board.”

Ritchie-Hook embodies an instilled idea that games – football and “rugger” in particular – were the ideal preparation for war. Here he is extolling the benefits of sport in his command:

“The men don’t understand rugger, except Welshmen and we don’t get many of those. In my company at one time we had more casualties from soccer than from the enemy and I can assure you we gave more than we took…I remember once a sergeant of mine got his leg blown off. There was nothing to be done for the poor beggar. It had taken half his body with it. He was a goner all right but quite sensible and there was the padre one side of him trying to make him pray and me the other side and all he’d talk about was football. Luckily I knew the latest League results and those I didn’t know, I made up. I told him his home team was doing fine and he died smiling.”

This is the object of much of Waugh’s satire in Men at Arms; the late Victorian idea punctured by a poet in an earlier war. Wilfred Owen compared a soldier’s return to that of a victorious footballer in his poem ‘Disabled’:

“One time he liked a bloodsmear down his leg,
After the matches carried shoulder-high.
It was after football, when he’d drunk a peg,
He thought he’d better join. He wonders why…

… Some cheered him home, but not as crowds cheer Goal.
Only a solemn man who brought him fruits
Thanked him; and then inquired about his soul.”

There is a lingering adherence to the disappearing class system in Guy Crouchback’s army experience. When he and his fellow officers try to train in their gym, they are disturbed and intimidated by a group of enlisted men who kick a football close to their heads. They are eventually dispersed by Apthorpe, the character most in love with the inter-war social order, and who, significantly, played as goalkeeper at the kind of public school where football was preferred to rugby.

The sporting nature of the perpetual ‘training’ that Crouchback and Apthorpe find themselves in is raised to absurd levels when Guy is seriously injured. His knee is damaged not on the rifle-range, or even in the gym, but when a game of “footer” with boisterous younger men morphs back into rugby, with them piling on top of one another in pursuit of the waste paper basket they used for a ball.

If there was any doubt that football was encroaching upon established culture, it was in the 1950s that this became clear. To top it all, in 1957 Evelyn Waugh, after writing the army football novel, writes to congratulate another author on their use of football commentary to signify the pervasiveness of post-war cultures. That author was Muriel Spark, the novel The Comforters, and her commentator was on the BBC…

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