We have a combined book review/Mary’s Meals promotion today. Celtic fan and politician, Jim Murphy, has written an excellent book, The 10 Football Matches That Changed The World. It’s in my top three books on the game (as opposed to a player), and gives insight into the deadly intimidation which sparked the Barcelona-Real Madrid rivalry, how the game was rescued from oblivion, and England’s public schools, by a handful of communities in the 19th Century, Hillsborough, standpoints against racism in the UK and a whole lot more.
Romantics forever mourn that the great Hungarian team lost the 1954 World Cup Final, but that game changed for post-war West Germany. Then there’s Robben Island, apartheid’s most feared opponents were locked up for decades, denied all but a football. With that ball, teams were built, men were built.
Profits from sales of the book through the link at the bottom of the page go to our Mary’s Meals appeal. Here’s the interview:
Q. OK, Jim, you’ve written a fine book, but I have to open with a question as charged as anything in the world football could be. On meeting then-Rangers chairman, Craig Whyte, you opened with “When do you think Rangers first decided on a ‘No Catholics’ policy?” Did you appreciate the enormity, and rarity, of that question? Would Scotland benefit from being open about what happened inside the game here?
“Looking back it’s hard to believe that the country tolerated that old style sectarianism. Growing up in Glasgow it was treated by far too many as the norm when it was anything but normal. My one and only encounter with the ill-fated Craig Whyte, the calamitous and short-lived Rangers chairman took place in the most unlikely of places. It was in the board room at Celtic Park, at half-time in the infamous 2011 Scottish Cup match.
“As part of my research for the book I decided to ask him about the history of the Club that he would go on to cause so much harm to. I asked Mr Whyte, ‘When do you think Rangers first decided on a “No Catholics” policy?’ He took such a direct question surprisingly well. Perhaps because I was asking him about a Rangers from what now seems like another age. Pretty fairly, he couldn’t place a date on it.
“For decades, his club was probably the only team in the world where the question of which foot you kicked with was more important than how well you could kick. Only a few yards along the corridor, in the Rangers changing room, no one knew how many Catholics were sitting listening to the Rangers manager Ally McCoist’s half-time team-talk. More importantly, no one really cared.
“Thinking back its inexplicable why so many in the media, football, UEFA, politics and others had accepted such a policy for so long. It was from an era when there was little protection against discrimination against ethnic or religious minorities, the disabled or on the grounds of sexuality and even against women. None of those things were right and nor was any sectarianism wherever it came from or who it was aimed at.
“I spoke to some of the best Celtic and Rangers historians there are. Celtic’s origins are rightly and universally celebrated but for decades much less was spoken of Rangers earliest days. But the passions of the Club’s founders the canoeing McNeil brothers had nothing to do with other people’s subsequent prejudices. For years when Rangers had a free Saturday their players sometimes turned up to watch Celtic and were welcomed by the sound of Celtic fans’ applause rather than any boos.
“In 1909 both sets of supporters invaded and rioted on the Hampden pitch after a drawn final. Parts of Hampden were set alight, fans fought with the police and some fireman were set upon when they turned up to save the stadium. Astonishingly there’s no reports in any of the media of rival fans throwing even a single punch at one another.
“But by 1924 events including post First World War anti-Catholic sentiment and the opening of Harland and Wolff shipyard in Govan helped contort Rangers. It was revealing to interview Graeme Souness, the manager who broke Celtic hearts by signing Mo Johnston and in so doing helped break a sixty year taboo. Talking to Billy McNeil about all of this was pretty enlightening.”
Q. Racism was rife in British football in the 70s and 80s and you give some inside into the tide turning after Chelsea fans booing their own black player on a day they won promotion in 1984, but if you look around Britain today, or even some football grounds, do you feel as though we have slid back after recent years or recession and shortage?
“Football has come a long way to challenge the racism that had been tolerated on the pitch and celebrated on the terraces; accepted in the boardroom and in far too many changing rooms. No Club was exempt from the racism, not even Celtic. I remember being at Celtic Park and how angry I felt about the treatment of Mark Walters. We’ve all come a long way since then.
“But there’s still racist and other attitudes to be challenged. Anti-gay sentiment is still considered acceptable by a lot of football people. And football isn’t immune from the anti-Muslim attitudes that survive in wider society.”
Q. The Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry is the most intense still alive in the game but its roots, and the roots of both clubs, as you explain, are difficult to pin to a single game. Do you think this is more about the struggle for Spain across the 20th century? Barcelona, as much as any club in the world, have a duty to live up to historical expectations. Do you think this is possible in the modern world?
“No other sporting rivals have been so trapped by the multiple and often tragic identities of their country. As a consequence of the brutality inflicted on Barca and Catalonia by Franco, Barcelona set themselves standards that they are finding it hard to live up to. The allegations on transfer kick-backs, tax problems and ties to Qatar 2022 are out of kilter with the often utopian ideals that Barca sometimes encourage. And now we have the signing of Suarez. I’m not sure the signing of this brilliant but troubled star is in keeping with the spirit of Gamper and Sunyol.
“For the unthinking many of course, there is a sense that Madrid the football club was founded by the forefathers of fascist neanderthals. In truth Real were formed by left-wingers. But at a time when Franco was a pariah, Real were world beaters. He simply sided with Spain’s greatest export. The Real Madrid of the late Di Stefano were transformed into his unofficial global ambassadors.
“In writing about Barca and Madrid I was spoilt for choice about which game cemented the political and cultural conflict that became the story of the two Clubs. The contenders are: 1925, when a British Royal Marine band came to play; 1943, with Madrid’s biggest ever victory; and, lastly, a sending-off in 1970 that never should have been. I opted for the cup semi-final of 1943. Barca were 3-0 up after the home leg and favourites to go through. But after a threatening pre-match visit to their changing room by the Director of State Security Barca managed to lose the return leg 11-1.
“To fathom what happened in 1943, you need to understand something about the one event in Spain’s history that has influenced politics, the nation’s football and culture for decades. For those who lost family it’s the heartbreak of modern Spain. For many football fans it’s the emotional backdrop to the Barca v Madrid rivalry. In his brilliant book ‘The Spanish Civil War’ Antony Beevor wrote of the conflict that, ‘It is perhaps the best example of a subject which becomes more confusing when it is simplified.’ Read his book to see what he means.
“In early 1936 Spain had a democratically elected left wing Popular Front government. It was rocked by an attempted military coup that summer by its right wing opponents. For three years Spain fought and with Hitler’s support Franco triumphed. Barca President Josep Sunyol was assassinated by fascists.
“Franco was vengeful against a defeated Catalonia and often defiant Barca. Its the memories of those horrors that live today for many in Spanish football.”
Q. Football and feelings of national image have had a mostly unfortunate relationship but you tell a different story for the 1954 World Cup Final, between the great Hungarian team and West Germany. Hungary were robbed of a deserved national highlight but you think Germany won more than just a football match?
“We’ve all just enjoyed a great World Cup with Germany winning for a fourth time. The one big surprise was that the hosts conceded more goals than any other nation. Its hard to say what the impact on Brazilian psyche is going to be. But there’s little doubt about the effect on the West Germany psyche of 1954 – the most important World Cup final ever played.
“That Bern final was played against the Puskas inspired unbeatable Hungarians. Franz Beckenbauer, the man who would go on to win the World Cup for West Germany, both as a player and manager, believes that, after their success, ‘suddenly Germany was somebody again’. And reflecting the experiences of his own childhood he knew how an eighty-fourth minute winner by Helmut Rahn changed Germany’s view of itself. ‘For anybody who grew up in the misery of the post-war years, Bern was an extraordinary inspiration. The entire country regained its self-esteem.’”
Q. Football is the sport of the people in South Africa, your childhood home, but the story of the role the game played in the lives of inmates – and future statesmen – on Robben Island in 1967, unfortunately, goes largely untold. How did this game reach into the hearts of Mandela, Zuma and their contemporaries, through such hardship?
“My family emigrated to South Africa in the early 1980’s and I lived there until the South African army came knocking on the door looking for me to serve two years national service. I’m neither a coward nor a pacifist but there was no way I was going to serve in an apartheid army.
“When I lived there Nelson Mandela and so many others were jailed on the former leper colony of Robben Island. Every morning I could see across to the Atlantic Island. There was very little news from the island. Like most people I had no idea about the Makana league that the prisoners had forced the regime to allow them to set up. It was inspired by British football. Aston Villa fan Tony Suze got it going.
“Many of the prisoners idolised Billy Bremner. A lot of the teams were named after British clubs. Current South African President Jacob Zuma was a tough tackling centre-back for a team called Rangers!
“One of the ANC’s former island political prisoners I interviewed Dikgang Moseneke was clear about how football helped keep hope alive. ‘It was the great escape from imprisonment. I don’t think the governor and wardens understood the full meaning of the football that they allowed us to play. Very few people came out of Robben Island broken, very few, And some went on to become leaders.’
Q. It is clear that you enjoyed writing the book but the final chapter, Liverpool v Nottingham Forest, 1989; the Hillsborough Disaster is haunting. More than the sectarianism which through football was institutionalised in Scotland in 1924, or the Soccer War game, between El Salvador and Honduras, it reaches inside the reader to touch regret and sorrow, in particular with Trevor Hicks account. What was the Justice for the 96 campaign up against, as they set about trying to change the world?
“Put bluntly the ‘Justice for the ’96’ campaign was up against large section of the British establishment. With the official inquests going on at the moment I have to be careful about what I say. Back then a media that was willing to repeat lies, too many police complicit in a cover up, a government too quick to blame the innocent and a country where many were initially willing to believe the worst of Liverpool fans. But over time the lies unravelled. Celtic’s solidarity with the campaigners is well known. What is less well known is that it wasn’t until a UK Cabinet meeting in Glasgow in 2008 that the campaign got its much yearned for political breakthrough.
“When I wrote the book I decided I wasn’t going to stitch anyone up; and I didn’t. But there’s one person who it’s impossible not to be angry with – the odious then Sun editor, Kelvin Mackenzie. Even today he gives mediocre middle aged men the world over a bad reputation. His malevolence is matched only by his unjustified arrogance.
“But the fact that the campaigners have now got to the truth means that they might just be on the cusp of getting justice as well. Theirs is a story of working class solidarity and of a city that refused to give in. As one campaigner put it to me. ‘We always believed that the law and the establishment would always win. As The Clash would say, ” I fought the law and the law won”.’ But on this occasion, mercifully, it appears they haven’t.
Q. There is so much in the book I didn’t know about the game, specifically, including that in the early 19th century it had all-but disappeared, apart from outposts in Orkney, Shetland, Workington, Cornwall and Jedburgh, before it was colonised by Britain’s public schools and Army messes. 200 years ago, it was a game, but not a game of the people. Your story starts with how people reclaimed football and lived their lives through it. Is this the real story of football over the last two centuries?
“Football almost died. How it survived is a little known truth and is the secret that the sport rarely recognises. A single match helped rescue the sport, and, with one unexpected victory, it finally broke free from its ghettos in the nation’s public schools and British Army officers’ messes. The ailing game had been violent, with very few agreed rules. It was run by and for the elite and, in a nation with very few sports fields, had been banned from public streets. In England, the FA Cup (partly funded by Scotland’s Queens Park) was colonised by university, public school, and regimental teams.
“In the 1883 FA Cup final, the former pupils of Eton College lined up against Blackburn Olympic at the Oval cricket ground. The Lancashire team won in extra time and the trophy went home with them which was further north then ever before. It coincided with Britain’s second Industrial Revolution and meant that when people left these shores they took with them a newly proletarian sport with them.
“A new breed of football innovator was born. They were more in the image of Blackburn Olympic than Old Etonian. In South America, British railway workers helped introduce the sport to Colombia, Uruguay and Argentina. A school-teaching Scot, Alexander Watson Hutton, set up the Argentine FA. In Chile, British sailors, and in Venezuela, British miners were amongst the first to play. In Spain, Brazil and Italy, Britons also planted their working class footballing roots.
“This change in football came in time for the First World War. It meant that football was one of the few things that the working class soldiers and their public school educated officers fighting in the Western Front trenches had in common. It’s an integral part of the story of how the 1914 football Christmas Truce came about. But that’s a different story and is the one match in the book which didn’t change the world.”
If you order the book through this link, with the promotion code: CELTIC, all profits will go to Mary’s Meals.