Football and the military: An uncomfortable alignment

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 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 may be getting 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. It has received fresh impetus in the current terrorism-riddled era, and has largely been imported from the United States. 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 take part in remembering the fallen, 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 and are living on a tiny percentage of the wealth of the royals.

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 – “intelligence”, “terminated”, “force multiplier” and “aggressively attack”. Some US companies have their own version of “Veterans Day” and some football clubs have introduced “forces day” which often promotes an enforced intimacy that some might be uncomfortable with. The military rides with weapons and vehicles that kill 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, with no conscription, it is often unclear about who the real “enemy” is. The dynamic is very different from the past, 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 down the centuries. In today’s society, it is not really possible to manipulate in the 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 and appropriate date in the calendar but a little less visibility at football matches would be a good manoeuvre. After all, in the UK, we used to sneer at countries in places like South America, the eastern bloc and Africa when images of football matches with a huge military presence came into view.



Room for all models?


I’VE recently returned from Leipzig, which has suddenly become a very vibrant city with lots of interesting things going on, from both a social and economical point of view. From a football perspective, the progress of RB Leipzig has attracted a lot of negative attention in the media  – the club created and run by Red Bull. We could talk all day about the wrongs and rights of the way Red Bull have cleverly got round the rules in Germany, which while ticking the box to a certain extent, has upset the rest of German football. As the supporters of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and others protest about the structure of RB Leipzig, the club’s new-found support base is delighted at having Bundesliga football in the city once more.

At the same time, traditional supporters of football in Germany’s fastest growing city, are outraged. I’m referring specifically to the fans of Lokomotive Leipzig, a club we associate with the old DDR, but one that has dropped dramatically from its pre-reunification position. “Lok”, as they are known (pronounced Lock), play in the regional league but they remain quite well supported and their fans – who have not always had good press – are passionate.

It is certainly true that RB Leipzig’s model is very different from the purist and more cultish position of Lok.  RB are a young “manufactured” club that represents the very essence of corporate football that fans at clubs like Lok, and indeed non-league clubs in Britain, largely reject. But just what is the right model? It is clear that big-time football is part of the financial system across the globe – sport contributes around 1% of global GDP, of which football is a big part. If you think about that, it is quite astonishing that a game can command such importance. More relevantly for non-league fans, what is the right structure for the game at non-league?

People talk about “level playing fields” and quite frankly, they’ve never really existed in football. Football is all about meritocracy – the rich invariably are more successful than the poor. Is it level to have a club with an average crowd of 75,000 playing against a team that can only muster up 18,000? Sponsorship, inflated investment, corporate backing attempts to flatten that playing field, but the traditional clubs that have enjoyed positions of superiority don’t like any moves to change the order unless it is on an organic basis.

In non-league football, clubs with inflated investment are almost always despised by their rivals. We have seen some pretty ridiculous scenarios where village clubs suddenly get stacks of money courtesy of an ego-driven businessman. It works for a while, but when the plug is pulled the club drops as fast as it has risen. But like RB Leipzig’s new audience, if you’re the recipient of such an enterprise – foolhardy as it often is – most people don’t care too much.

There should be a place for all kinds of football models, if every club was exactly the same, the pecking order may never change. I’ve long been an advocate of supporter-owned clubs at non-league level, but I also feel that this type of club can only thrive if every club has a similar structure – and we are back to Germany again.

However, the fact that football can co-exist with various club models does make the game more interesting. I recall when Team Bath were playing in the Southern League that a lot of people hated them, and no doubt the vitriol directed towards them contributed to their demise. I wonder how a team from Oxford and Cambridge Universities, like Pegasus back in the 1950s, would be received today? At the time, I believe Pegasus were highly respected, but were also a curiosity. That’s how I saw Team Bath- something unusual, a departure from the norm.

I think there’s room for many different models to co-exist, but above all, whichever one you choose, it should be transparent, accountable to the people that pay to watch the product you’re putting on the field, and inclusive. And that means honesty at the turnstiles, honesty about the wages you pay players and open dialogue with all stakeholders. I return to Leipzig and the approach being taken by the new kid on the Bundesliga block. They are very open about what they are trying to achieve. It doesn’t mean everyone likes it, but the majority of football fans in the city of Leipzig seem to love it. They must be doing something right- they do play excellent football, by the way, even though nobody will ever give them credit for that.

If you’re ever in Leipzig, a trip to both RB and Lok is certainly worth it. Non-league fans will surely love Lok’s atmospheric old ground!

This article first appeared in the Non-League Paper on Sunday March 5, 2017