Matt McGinnComment


Matt McGinnComment

Joe Hart emerged on to the balcony and saluted the crowd that had gathered below on Via dell’Arcivescovado with a thumbs-up. Around his neck, he wore a white scarf with maroon trim. It bore the name of his new club, Torino. The season-long loan to Piedmont in August 2016 was not exhilarating, but it made sense. It presented Hart with an opportunity to play regular football away from the niggling attention of the British press. Hart had been heavily scrutinised following his slapdash performances for England at the European Championship earlier that summer.

But one British newspaper disparaged the move. ‘How the mighty have fallen’, sneered the back page of The Daily Mirror, ‘Hart quits City to join Serie A minnows’.

Torino have won the Scudetto seven times. Only Juventus, Genoa, and the two Milan clubs can boast more. Il Toro have also won the Coppa Italia on five occasions. Erno Erbstein’s five-time title-winning Grande Torino team of the 1940s, tragically killed in an air disaster on the Superga hilltop overlooking Turin in 1949, has a robust claim to be considered one of the best teams in the history of club football.

Torino has been less successful in recent decades. Yet the club has regained an even keel following a period of chronic instability at presidential level, which resulted in bankruptcy in 2005. While it would be inaccurate to describe Torino as one of the modern-day powerhouses of Italian football, it is no minnow.

The day after the announcement of Hart’s move, his England teammate, Jack Wilshere, joined AFC Bournemouth on loan from Arsenal. Bournemouth has spent the vast majority of its existence in the lower divisions. In fact, the club has spent just one full season in the top division of English football in its 117-year history. The shrewd management of Eddie Howe has combined with the financial clout of Maxim Demin to propel The Cherries to the Premier League. Yet even the most ardent Bournemouth supporter would acknowledge that ‘minnows’ is a reasonable adjective to describe Bournemouth.

The Daily Mirror’s coverage of the two transfers was incongruous. Wilshere’s intra-Premier League move did not prompt the same condescension that greeted Hart. The degradation of Torino was a manifestation of a residual insularity and arrogance in British football, an occasional distrust of foreign football as ‘other’ and vaguely inferior. This attitude may not be prevalent, but it still lingers. For instance, despite his burgeoning cabinet of domestic titles, Zlatan Ibrahimovic struggled to gain recognition in England until relatively late in his career. His ostentatious style of play and prickly character are at odds with the idealised English footballer; hard-working and humble. Sections of the press deemed his mediocre performances against English clubs to be the true barometer of his ability. Ibrahimovic’s spectacular acrobatic goal against England in 2012 caused a shift in attitude. But it is doubtful as to whether this shift would have occurred, had Ibrahimovic scored the same goal against a team other than England.

A different thread of arrogance ran through the British footballing establishment in the 1930s. This thread emerged from a deeply ingrained self-perception of British sport, the notion that that the independence of British sport was sacrosanct. Unlike in the totalitarian countries of Europe, football and politics were separate. It was sport for the sake of sport, a gentlemanly pastime without further implications.

Sir Frederick Wall, the Secretary of the Football Association from 1895 until 1934, clung to this view. In his memoir, he presented British football in quaint, village-green terms: ‘Football in dear old England is merely a sporting entertainment’. Wall contrasted this to European football, ‘abroad, international sport has a political aspect’, he warned. The latter statement is undeniable. The Fascist government in Italy used calcio to strengthen the regime domestically and internationally. Beyond the peninsula, calcio was a diplomatic tool to increase the regime’s prestige and project an image of an idealised Fascist society. At home, calcio was a vehicle to cultivate nationalism by uniting the people around eleven blue-shirted symbols of the nation.

British football could not isolate itself from the overt politicisation of football in countries where the national football association was a governmental organisation. The image of English players giving the Nazi salute in Berlin in 1938 is an iconic symbol of this. But a match at the San Siro the following year was equally revealing of the blur between British politics and football.

The political atmosphere in Europe was tense when the England team travelled to Milan in 1939. Meanwhile, the Azzurri retained the World Cup in Paris the previous year, perpetuating the narrative of a battle for world honours. On one side, England, the creators, exporters, and self-assumed innate superiors of football. On the other side were Italy, the World Cup and Olympic champions. But the result of the match was ancillary to its political implications. The Italian armed forces had invaded Albania one month before the match, and Ciano and Ribbentrop were negotiating the Pact of Steel. Clifford Webb predicted in The Daily Herald that ‘the atmosphere should be charged with suspicion, intrigue, thoughts of war’.

The actions of the Italian government were a preoccupation for British foreign policy makers. Mussolini’s expansionist foreign policy clashed with British strategic interests in East Africa and Spain. The Foreign Office was also aware of Italianising influences in Malta, a strategically important British colony that was vital to Mussolini’s aim of establishing a mare nostrum in the Mediterranean.[1] In fact, diplomats had pondered the effect of football on British rule in Malta for some years. Ahead of the match between Italy and England in 1933, Victor Perowne feared that a defeat would ‘give an enormous fillip to the Italianising influences in the colony.’

Football assumed a more prominent diplomatic role in the late 1930s as the British government pursued a policy of appeasement towards the Italian government. Neville Chamberlain visited Rome in January 1939, as an act of conciliation towards Mussolini. It was within this context that Sir Robert Vansittart, Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office, sanctioned the England team’s tour of Italy, Romania and Yugoslavia later that year. The FA’s official report of the tour confirmed that its primary objective was ‘to show that international matches can be played between teams of England and continental countries before big crowds in a vigorous yet friendly spirit.’ The match was always inseparable from the political ambitions of the British government.  

European politics was simmering to the extent that Tommy Lawton, Eddie Hapgood and Stanley Matthews all recalled in their memoirs that the viability of the match was uncertain. Some British journalists advocated cancelling the match. George Casey naively argued this, using the flawed logic that ‘politics do not interfere with sport’. Cancelling the match in response to the fraught relationship between the British and Italian governments would have constituted a more acute political interference in sport than allowing the match to proceed. Besides, Percy Lorraine, the British Ambassador to Rome, confirmed that he viewed the match as a means of strengthening Anglo-Italian relations. As he saw it, no bridges should be burned ‘which one day the Italians might wish to re-cross.’ At the official post-match dinner, Lorraine used his speech to emphasise the cordiality of Anglo-Italian relations. The Foreign Office did not cancel the match, because it sought to use it as a diplomatic tool.

Sections of the British press acknowledged and supported the use of football to support Neville Chamberlain’s search for Anglo-Italian détente. John Macadam encapsulated the significance of a match ‘pulled in to the quagmire of politics’ in The Daily Express: ‘it was a political gamble and it came off. Thanks, not to the politicians, but to the twenty-two players who took part’.

The result of the match was important to the success of the gamble. It ended 2–2. Vittorio and Bruno Mussolini, sons of Benito, watched from the stands. The match was tied at one goal apiece at half time. After the break, Willie Hall, England’s inside right, equalised after Silvio Piola scored a highly contentious goal with his ‘clenched fist’. Crucially, the match was not marred by the violence of the ‘Battle of Highbury’ in 1934. The Leeds Mercury noted that the manina santa (little holy hand) was ‘the only real incident to disturb the placid nature of the match’, while Clifford Webb described ‘quite a jolly encounter’ in The Daily Herald.

The political implications of the match featured prominently in Fleet Street’s coverage. The sports pages strongly implied that this match served an important diplomatic purpose and, by extension, that the government was appropriating sport to appease Mussolini. Ivan Sharpe concluded that ‘the greatest thing of the match was not the result, but the triumph of good feeling and sportsmanship on a tense occasion’; elsewhere the same journalist wrote that ‘at a ticklish time… the reward has been a splendid and opportune fillip for British prestige.’

L.V. Manning, who travelled to Milan to cover the match, commented that ‘the team have blazed a trail of lasting friendships, and in every legation, every consulate… there is, I know, an appreciation of the national importance of their achievement.’ Despite Piola’s handball, the dominant narrative was that the match had been played in difficult circumstances but good spirits.

The journalists who travelled to Italy also reported that the locals welcomed the touring party with great enthusiasm. Ivan Sharpe struggled to reconcile this welcome with the aggressive political rhetoric coming from Fascist Italy. 

‘Why all this kindness when the streets of Milan, where Foreign Ministers of the Axis, were plastered with red and yellow posters, Viva Il Duce, Viva Ribbentrop, Viva Ciano? We could see those posters from the steps of the hotel as close on 1000 people cheered our players’.

L.V. Manning wrote that ‘there were such emotional demonstrations that one knew the cheering expressed something deeper than a greeting for a team of footballers.’ He implied that Italian civilians welcomed the English players as symbols of anti-Fascism. Regardless of the accuracy of this implication, Manning’s article would have challenged the views of readers who assumed that all Italians were committed Fascists. He made the further suggestion that ‘if ever there arose the danger of the FA dropping the European tour, Whitehall should step in and make it compulsory.’ It is interesting to note that the journalists who accompanied the tour wrote about its political success so gushingly. It is possible that the FA encouraged them to do so. Yet journalists that did not travel broadly echoed their thoughts. Ostensibly, a considerable section of the press accepted international football as a supportive tool for political objectives.

Significantly, the FA and the Foreign Office decided that the Englishmen should give the Fascist salute in Milan during the Italian national anthem. Tommy Lawton wrote in his memoir that ‘the British public later reacted with anger and disgust.’ This was exaggeratory. Unlike after the England team gave the Nazi salute in Berlin in 1938, the salute in Milan was not widely scrutinised in the press. Most reports were similar to that in The Birmingham Post, which noted that the gesture was ‘greatly appreciated’, but did not judge the morality of the action. It is interesting to observe that even before World War Two shaped the collective British consciousness, Britons seemingly viewed Fascist Italy as less odious and evil than Nazi Germany. Eddie Hapgood’s autobiography showed this in microcosm. Hapgood described giving the Nazi salute in Berlin as ‘the worst moment of my life’. Yet he recalls with apparent fondness that he stepped on to the balcony of his hotel room in Milan to acknowledge the clamouring crowds with ‘a quick flip of my arm, the nearest I could get to a Fascist salute’. He deemed the same gesture repugnant in Germany, but frivolous in Italy.

The British governmental tinkering with the fixture in Milan was unsurprising given the swirling political turbulence at the time. It represented the culmination of a decade during which the search for European stability eroded the divide between politics and football in Britain. Frederick Wall’s presentation of English football was utopian. It was inconceivable that the British government could have isolated itself from the politicisation of football in the political cauldron of 1930s Europe. Italy and Germany viewed international football as a central tenet of propaganda, wherein victory simultaneously reinforced tropes of racial supremacy and the cultural decadence of the opposition.

Once totalitarian countries appropriated football for political gain, it was difficult for the British government to avoid doing the same. If the government espoused the moral superiority of a separation between politics and sport it would, implicitly, have endorsed the values of liberal democracy over fascism. Often, as in the case of the match in Milan, the political stakes were deemed to high for the government to remain neutral. Of course, the FA had far more autonomy than its Italian equivalent. But this was on the government’s terms.

Chamberlain and Vansittart would have been satisfied that the outcome of the tour supported a broader aim to cultivate amicable Anglo-Italian relations. The notional divide between football and politics, which supported the superiority complex of the British football establishment, had become increasingly blurred throughout the 1930s. By the time the English footballers returned from the San Siro, it was blurred beyond distinction.  

Mare nostrum is the Latin for ‘Our Sea’, and was the Roman name for the Mediterranean Sea. Fascism invoked the notion of ‘re-establishing’ Italian control over the Mediterranean. The idea that Italy drew its heritage from ancient Rome, known as Romanità, was a central thrust of Fascist rhetoric.

All images are of the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan and have been kindly provided under licence by Marco Pochestorie.