Football and the military: A tricky alignment


Photo: Press Association


IT SEEMS impossible to avoid some form of military presence when any major football event is taking place. Whether it is a game old cock rattling a tin in aid of “helping heroes” or somebody dressed in khaki bringing a trophy onto the pitch, there seems to be a deep desire to attach the game to Britain’s armed forces.

Football continues to be used as an opportunity for mass engagement, be it in the form of conspicuous shared grief, nationalistic celebration or the alignment with a “worthy” cause. It doesn’t matter what has happened, in any part of the world, football feels obliged to recognise that somebody, somewhere, is suffering and we – the crowd – must show due respect. Just consider how often a game begins with a round of applause or a minute’s silence or a match is punctuated by synchronised clapping at a defined moment in celebration of a player’s passing. You cannot help feeling that somewhere down the line, the currency has been devalued.

Why football should be singled out as a mixing bowl for emotional support is a mystery. Although the conspicuous grief thing is so very contemporary in its desire to avoid offending anyone or anything, the belief that we are all part of the same machine, same church (a loose term), same nationalistic DNA and same society is extremely out-dated. We are not as one because we have spent the last half century insisting on our own individualism. Our contract with society – family, friends, employment, affiliations – is purely personal.

The armed forces thing concerns me as it is part of a revived obsession with all things military that dates back to the early 1980s, has received fresh impetus in the current terrorism-riddled era, and has largely been imported from the United States. We are asked to contribute to charities that support “heroes” almost on a daily basis. I have witnessed, first hand, charity collections within the workplace for servicemen. When I commented that I do not endorse such charities, that I buy a poppy each year and remember, the reaction was one of “you’re either with us or against us”. It is similar when you refuse to sing the national anthem, which has nothing to do with England’s “green and pleasant land” but is all about an individual and asking God to save her – quite remarkable when the majority of the population have no religious persuasion.

Nationalism, religion and support of the monarchy are all different things and singing a hymn that attempts to combine all three should be optional. Perhaps that’s why British sportsman and fans are among the worst anthem singers – they are uncomfortable with the words?

The corporate world has also started to become over-fascinated with uniforms. As well as recruiting from the officer class – don’t be fooled that they’re interested in anything below highly educated Captains and Colonels –  corporates have also wasted no time in attaching themselves to the military. Indeed, some areas of global business, such as banking, often use language that would not be out of place on the battlefield. Some US companies have their own version of “veterans day”.  Some football clubs have introduced “forces day” which often promote an enforced intimacy that some might be uncomfortable with. The military rides with weapons and vehicles that kill and maim, after all and there’s some irony in the cap being removed from a water bottle as you enter a stadium for fear of it being used as a weapon!

The link between football and the army dates back decades, but has always been referenced to the first world war and the 1915 FA Cup final – “The Khaki Final” between Sheffield United and Chelsea. Football was used as an ideal recruitment platform by Lord Kitchener and Lord Derby and footballers’ platoons were formed. In those innocent times, when the class structure ensured that the cannon fodder of the lower orders obeyed instructions as they were flung to their [almost certain] death, the peer pressure of a big crowd signing-up was very effective. By the time the second world war came around, however, the working man was a little more savvy and all too aware of the horrors of mechanised warfare.

In both wars, the common cause meant that people were willing to commit to defending their country, but in the modern era, it is often unclear about who the real “enemy” is. There is no conscription, so solders sign-up willingly for a career. The dynamic is very different from the past.

Very few expect to be engaged in actual armed conflict, although they will not complain if it happens, and that’s where the average man or woman should direct their appreciation. Yet the military, which amounts to around 200,000 active people (versus 1.5 million National Health Service employees) is thrust into view at every available opportunity at major football events.

Why is this? Firstly, it is a symbol of the “establishment” in much the same way doctors, nurses, teachers and clergymen represent the body social. Secondly, by using a ceremonially-dressed soldier to deliver the FA Cup, for example, you are given the impression that all is in good order, that the prize is guarded, secure and as shiny as the spit and polished boots of the squaddie. And thirdly, it is a reminder that you are witnessing an event that has a military presence, so good behaviour is required. It is also the chance for people to actually see a soldier, sailor or airman, because let’s face it, unless you are from a garrison town, when did you last see a soldier? Interestingly, it is rare that the presence of khaki is aimed at drawing applause or recognition from the crowd – there’s an admirable modesty and service ethos among most soldiers and in “civvy street”, they are invariable well organised, efficient and pragmatic.

Traditionally, aligning the working man to the armed forces through football was another way to control people and get them united behind a goal, in much the same way religion was used to supress and guide down the centuries. In today’s society, it is not possible to manipulate in that same way, although there a few politicians who are trying their hardest to play upon the emotions of under-privileged and marginalised people. Showing due respect to the military has its place, but it doesn’t have to be at a football match.

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