An examination of the English Football Association and its isolationist policy during the interwar years. Was this policy a continuation from the imperial days or a reactionary phenomenon due to the international situation of the time? In order to examine the external policy of the English football association (the FA) during the interwar years, we must understand the historical factors that led to this policy. In the first part of this essay I am going to provide an historical background into the interwar period. I then aim to examine the relationship of football and English society during the interwar years. I then aim to examine the relationship of sport and the empire and how sport was used in an imperial context.
I am going to couple this with the importance of sport to British ideology and did this importance lead to an isolationist stance for England in particular. I am going to look at the international development of football during the interwar years. I aim to round up by looking at the English football association policy during the interwar years concentrating on the political ramifications of the English F.A’s actions during this period, deciding if this was a result of earlier ideologies of sport and race or was it a reaction to the current climate.
The period immediately following the First World War was one of great international upheaval, however the British Empire continued to grow. The war spoils from Germany meant the empire had increased in size. During the interwar years the British colonies and dominions continued to push for home rule this made many believe that the empire was reaching its sunset. India which, had long been seen as the jewel of the empire came to symbolize the decline of the empire, it had always attracted large amounts of people to its civil service, however during the interwar years the amount of recruits for this service fell dramatically there was no long term career in India for British civil servants, this was an indication of Britain’s imperial decline.
The First World War had also seriously affected the British economy and the informal empire, the empire of trade, collapsed because countries that had relied upon Britain looked elsewhere for their imports1. This reduced Britain’s economic might throughout the 1920’s, Britain was also affected by the wall street crash. Economic depression-enveloped which was followed by the British governments unwillingness to interfere with the economy and the continuation of laissez-faire economic policies meant that Britain never really recovered. It is to this background that football which was already an established part of the fabric English and Scottish society as a sport began to increase in importance for the nations restoring pride in the countries.
Now I am going to look at imperial sport and examine the relationship and role of sport in the empire. The story of sport within the empire initially had nothing to do with imperialism, British ex-pats played games for there own recreational purposes to keep themselves occupied. This led to the formation of sporting clubs around the empire2. Games within the empire were not always of Anglo-Saxon descent, the British army were always keen on taking sports home3. The sports that the British played highlighted the social differences in the empire, while Polo was the game of the gentleman it was football that operated in the lower social circles throughout the empire. In 1892 a Bengali team managed to beat a British army regimental side in the trades cup, this defeat meant that when the Indian football association was founded in 1893 its knockout competition was restricted to only white teams. This showed an early form of the isolationist policy that would continue through to the interwar F.A.
As it was an accepted ideological ‘fact’ that football provided an army to defend the empire4, it was not in the best interests of the British to appear inferior on the football field to the native populations of the empire. This acceptance of sport as a breading ground for the future dominance of the British race shows the importance put upon games played in the empire, to be defeated at the hands of the colonial populations would seriously undermine the status of the British masters. However during this period sport became a great way of spreading ideology within the empire the creation of the ‘British way of life’, it enabled the British to make cultural ties with the native populations breading a sense of brotherhood between them by spreading English culture the creation of the ‘picture postcard’5 country.
The British used sport in the top boarding schools for cultural reproduction, with the playing of Anglo-Saxon games like cricket. It was believed that the schoolboys who played cricket would be pro-British and indoctrinated into the essence of Englishness and therefore loyal to the ‘mother country’. This of course was not the case many of the Indian ruling elite while accepting the ideals of fair play were still not loyal to Britain, indeed once the Indian educated elite had shown themselves fit for government it was ‘not cricket’ for the British to deny them their chance. This form of argument carried much weight to the British middle classes, who of course had been brought up on the same values. The success of the school system in placing such a high value on the importance of sport could be seen after the Second World War during the period of decolonization once the educated elites took control they saw no reason to change the system they inherited.
On to the interwar years, this period was one of isolationism for the British game. After joining FIFA6 in 1906 the F.A enthusiastically withdrew in 1920 over a row regarding matches that some FIFA nations had played against the defeated central powers7, only to rejoin in 1924. However this return was to be short lived with the F.A casting its self outside the international game in 19288. This was down to an argument over the definition of amateur, ending up with England’s withdrawal from the Olympic games9. The F.A in the 1920s had presented itself as an isolationist body remaining aloof from alterations to what they considered their game, this form of isolationism relying on the policy ‘we leave you alone and you leave us alone’ left difficulties which were never fully resolved. The press however noted the international growth of the game, tours of English sides, which had been a formality before 1914, had become serious challenges to English domination of the game.
England’s first international defeat to Spain in Madrid10 in 1929 was followed by England’s victory over Spain in 1931 this was greeted with the headline ‘England’s Prestige Restored’. The recognition of the political usefulness of international football became key during the 1930’s, football on the continent was used a political tool. The new fascist regimes in Italy and Germany now used football as a means of increasing national prestige and supporting their ideologies. The new political emphasis and increasing international tension of this period meant the nature of the game became more violent, this came to a head with the infamous ‘Battle of Highbury’ in 1934, the Italian world cup winners came to England in the same year of their world cup win, hoping to follow the world title with a win over England11.
The Italians were not used to the physical aspect of the game and reacted violently, two players were treated in hospital and three more badly hurt. This encounter boosted the argument of the isolationists within the game, the international game had clearly moved away from the essence of gentlemanly ‘fair play’, which had shaped the game during its early public school days. In 1935 the political side of football was again visible with the visit of the German national side to play a friendly at White Hart Lane12, the T.U.C who had been one of the first institutions to issue warnings over the nazi regime, the T.U.C also warned of trouble surrounding the game, in the end there was no trouble but the political side of the sport had become visible once again. If as the F.A hoped ‘political interest would never succeed in damaging the interest in football’ why did the English team continue to tour even under the advice of the foreign office?
The answer may lie at the internationalist idealist Sir Stanley Rous, who had become head of the FA. Rous had fought in one war and would do anything to avoid another. Under his stewardship England continued to tour Europe against the increasing politicized international backdrop. This culminated with the English national side giving the Nazi salute in Berlin in 193813 under foreign office orders.
The aloofness of the F.A at FIFA during the interwar years meant that during a period of great growth in the international game the country which had given the game to the world turned its back upon the running of the game. The F.A may have had reason to remain out of the international scene, all other aspects of international life Britain was involved in during this period were failures as I have mentioned the Empire was breaking up, the League of Nations had proved its self ineffectual and the world economy had gone through its worse period to date. In contrast to all this the English football association were able to look at the national game and see a beacon of success, the English football league was clearly the world leader with increasing attendances and greater professionalism than elsewhere, the dominance of the England team over foreign opposition clearly underlined the superiority of the British game. It could easily be concluded that the English game was better off without the interference from the international body.
Football in Britain had become a large business which provided the public with a product it could enjoy in many different ways, by the mid 1930’s the football pools14 were used by five to seven million people who were spending up to 30 million pounds a year in this industry. Football was elevated to a station where it affected people by the mere routine of the event and the pools were key to this development, millions took interest in the pools even if they had no interest in the games themselves. Even though the F.A could see success in isolation the political aspect could still be seen when the foreign office made it clear that good performances were expected in diplomatically sensitive countries. The ability of the England team to provide good propaganda when playing politically sensitive countries showed the it made sense for the F.A not to join England into the political game of international football in the late 1930s.
This isolationist view would continue until after the Second World War even after England’s re-entry into FIFA, the F.A bared Chelsea from playing in the first European cup competition in 1956 it was only when under pressure from Sir Matt Busby did the FA relent its grip over English league clubs involvement in cross border football in 1957. In conclusion English football served a political role, which was enhanced by the isolationist policy of the F.A, national pride could be upheld while the team remained unbeaten. The defeats of Italy during the 1930’s only confirmed English superiority. This belief that the English were superior to any competition was partly down to the early ascendancy of the English game, developments in the international game during the interwar period passed England by and only the defeat at the hands of the Americans finally awoke the English to the new world order.
The Fall of the British Empire Colin Cross, Hodder and Stoughton 1968 The Peoples Game A Social History of British Football James Walvin, Allen Lane 1975 Propaganda and Empire The manipulation of British public opinion 1880-1960 John M.MacKenzie, Manchester University Press 1984