Society and Soccer

Hunter Davies' The Glory Game and the birth of "modern football"
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We're excited to share this bonus track from the most recent issue of The Classical Magazine: Moacir P. de Sá Pereira's excellent analysis of the Against Modern Football movement, using Hunter Davies' seminal insider account of a year with Tottenham Hotspur, off a great inswinging cross from the German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. Enjoy, and get ready for the next issue of the Classical mag, coming very soon.

This "Best Legs" trophy is awesome.

The Glory Game, published in 1972, still stands as one of the most celebrated sports books ever written. 40 years later, Hunter Davies’s all-access account of Tottenham Hotspur’s 1971–72 season is still praised for the insight it offers on both sports and society—and it remains in a very exclusive club. Few journalists have ever been granted as much access as Davies had to Spurs that year. This in part because of just how honest Davies was in documenting what he saw.

The book deserves its place in the sports-lit canon (14th on The Observer’s 2005 list of the top sports books of all time), in part because Davies picked a great season to follow Spurs—the book ends with the club winning the inaugural UEFA Cup over a rival English side, Wolverhampton Wanderers. But the way in which the dilemmas faced by the soccer players in the book remain completely recognizable also contribute to its popularity. Nevertheless, the athletes also read as phantoms from an era of innocence about to fade away forever. Though it’s tempting to let that spectral presence make us long for a simpler time, we should resist. Davies’s work reminds us that, as soccer mirrors society, we’ve got to look at society to make sense of soccer. To understand how, we need to travel back to 1887 and jump to the other side of the North Sea.

In 1887, only two years after the English Football Association first permitted “professionals” to play for clubs and one year before the first soccer league began (also in England), German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies published the first edition of what is his best known work, Gemeinschaft und Gesselschaft. A study of how society evolves over time, the volume influenced sociologist Max Weber, and the dichotomy Tönnies proposed—between community and society—is still used across a broad array of disciplines today. Contemporaneous with English soccer’s slow move from being a game played primarily by refined gentlemen for the love of sport to one played by working-class men selling their labor value, Tönnies introduced a spectrum along which humanity moves, a spectrum we see everywhere around us, including in the way in which we talk about sports.

Gemeinschaft (translated as “community”) is a nod to a world Tönnies considered “younger,” where bonds between people are seen as an end unto themselves. Bonds on the Gemeinschaft edge of the spectrum are based on the family and developed by “folkways, mores, and religion.” Shared values like the love of a specific team keep the community together, but roles and hierarchies among the members, like a father at the top of the family, remain largely immutable.

Yet Gemeinschaft always “evolves” toward the liberating (and liberal) conditions of Gesellschaft. In this “society,” people enter into relations to reach some other, mutually beneficial goal. Convention and agreement replace more “organic” bonds. Individual and city crowd out the family and village. Even though contracts become “the basis of the entire system,” free agency and individualism crash against the forces of both the state and public opinion, which define publicly acceptable behavior. For Tönnies, the move toward Gesellschaft is both the result of the increasing rationalization of human thought and another version of the Marxian path from feudalism through capitalism. Somewhere along that path, humanity can expect to reach “a socialism of state and international type.”

Wherever there are humans doing human things, Tönnies argued, Gemeinschaft is slowly becoming Gesellschaft. Community becomes society. The focus on the family gives way to an army of mes.

Let’s skip back to the 21st century. The “Against Modern Football” (AMF) movement, which has spread throughout Europe, voices a dissatisfaction with the current state of the sport. In an English context, AMF finds its strongest avatar in the fanzine STAND. In the first issue, released in 2012, the co-editors of STAND asked readers if they’re “sick of what was once the working man’s game being systematically turned into a business with a blatant disregard for the fans who formed the traditions that made it so great?” The implicit and rousing affirmative to the question brings the reader into a compact with the co-editors.

Many articles in STAND gesture with contempt toward “modern football,” but that slippery beast wriggles out of fixed definitions. The ’zine emerged out of the furor that followed Cardiff City’s forfeiting their traditional kit color, blue. Still nicknamed the “Bluebirds,” Cardiff’s playing in red to please their new owner (who allegedly feels red is more marketable in his native Malaysia) serves as the ne plus ultra insult from the modern game to the fans—the total abandonment of tradition. But STAND also bemoans the presence of fans for whom the side they support is not, properly speaking, their “local club.” Elsewhere, co-editor Seb White suggests that what all his magazine is “against” includes unheeding owners and zealous stewards policing the crowd in the stands. Basically, he explains, “Modern football is what is happening now,” and that includes “Anything that takes the gloss off what can be a good day out at the match.” To this broadest of definitions STAND asks the reader to join others “crying out for a change.”

These calls for change voiced by the AMF movement, especially those aimed at owners who treat their clubs merely as financial instruments without proper attention paid to the history and traditions of the club, stand as an effort to slow or turn back the march toward Gesellschaft. Soccer was once, they imply, not a business but a culture. And to that culture it should return. Cardiff should be playing in blue.

What might, then, the “pre-modern” game have looked like in England? How far to turn back the clock in order to get rid of profit-seeking, hooliganism, and the rest? Was soccer a culture in the early 1970s? That is, after all, a time still remembered by older fans, who are often the fathers or uncles who took many contemporary AMF activists to matches when they were kids. Far enough away to predate the tragedies at Heysel and Hillsborough as well as the formation of the Premier League, the era is also not so far removed to be unfamiliar. Players from the 1970s work as television pundits or appear on fan podcasts, reminiscing about good old days that are actually not so old.

In the 2001 preface to an updated edition of The Glory Game, Davies nods to that distance when describing the season he spent with North London’s Tottenham Hotspur as something from “a long time ago… where they did things differently.” The mere presence of the book is an indication of that difference. The Spurs board, terrified after the fact over the access they gave Davies, tried (unsuccessfully) to halt the book’s serialization. Davies, after all, describes players drinking! But the book is not a salacious tell-all. Instead, it is a carefully crafted look into every personality at the club. Davies spends time with each player at his home, for example, to get a sense of his life outside soccer. Furthermore, the questionnaires on cultural tastes that he gave each player, designed with help from social scientists, make the book feel like an ethnography of a soccer club.

Davies’ account of that “long time ago” has remained in print since its release. Davies pins the success of the book on a certain continuity. The psychological dramas and traumas that he captured in 1971–1972 port easily to a contemporary readership, even as English soccer’s locker rooms have changed—the racial composition of rosters, the massive influx of non-English players, and more.

As the locker rooms have changed, though, Davies sees money as “the most amazing change” in the years between publication and 2001. “Everything goes up all the time,” he laments in a way STAND would find agreeable, mentioning “wages, income, the price of season tickets.” As the figure below shows, Spurs’ annual revenue has exploded over the past 40 years more than 30 times over, even accounting for inflation. English soccer’s importation of players coincides with the Premier League’s increasing value on a global market. One wonders which top-flight clubs have more fans inside England than out, without even beginning to wonder which fans are “local.”

I think that Davies has it wrong. Money isn’t the most amazing change. Money is only part of the issue. Or, rather, it is a primary symptom of a deeper change, tracing the wider move from community to society. A look at the biographies of Tottenham’s five directors in 1971 suggests what owning a club meant back then. Four were born at the turn of the century. A fifth director was born in 1940, but was the son of one of the older group. But the men are all North London born and raised, with two finishing their studies at Tottenham Grammar School, not even 2km from the club they would grow up to co-own. They are “gentle committee men who become directors more through family connections.” Stewardship and the long-term health of the club, not profits and profiles in glossy magazines seem to drive the old men. At the time, the purchase of shares in the club could be vetoed by the directors, so their values were passed on from generation to generation.

Though the directors in 1971 would receive some spending money when travelling with Spurs abroad, it was against the Football Association rules for them to draw a salary. They earned a laughable dividend on their shares every year, but they also invested none of their own money in improving the club. The club sustained itself with its soccer activities, though the board was debating adding advertisements inside White Hart Lane to bump revenue. The adverts would surely have been a ghastly sight to the proper directors as they enjoyed a four-course meal before each Saturday home match followed by cigars and sherry with the visiting directors. In other words, as Davies describes it, soccer was not a money-making venture 40 years ago. A “football club” was much closer to the sense of “club” that persists in American usage today. In the New World, we have country clubs and sports teams. In the Old, the distinction is (or was, depending) far less clear.

Davies notes that though the directors had a financial responsibility over the club, they were “football fans first and foremost,” leading to an awkward lack of phase between the directors and players. One of the newer directors got a little friendly with the players by Spurs standards yet still felt the distance. “I suppose it’s a bit like the colour question,” he explains to Davies, “They want to be apart.” But he also hastens to add that the difference isn’t “a class thing,” but, rather, “just a matter of age.” Nevertheless, Davies does find some common ground. “Arsenal,” after all, “is the traditional rival” for both groups.

Age, acting in a way like class or race, keeps the directors and players apart. Hating Arsenal keeps them together, and it also brings the fans into the fold. Davies notes the players find the supporters fickle and the directors often find them a nuisance. But the directors have heightened scorn for the “rag-trade hangers-on,” the newly rich textile industry executives of London’s East End. Though Davies notes a class (as opposed to, say, anti-Semitic) antipathy toward these arrivistes from the directors, their main crime is bridging social gaps by using their money to influence players, leading to a scene where the directors were left embarrassed and furious after the players ditched a celebratory dinner at the Savoy in 1967 to go to a more rocking party thrown by chief rag-trade hanger-on Morris Keston.

The directors Davies profiles in The Glory Game ended up sending Spurs into debt after a difficult renovation of White Hart Lane in the early ’80s. Irving Scholar, a fan, took over the club in 1983. Years before the Premier League, Bosman transfers, or Sky Sports, Scholar shoved the club as Gesellschaftward as possible. For Tottenham and perhaps the English game as a whole, Scholar was the true innovator of “modern football,” as the AMF crowd might define it. First, he floated Tottenham Hotspur PLC, a holding company that circumvented FA rules regarding paying unlimited dividends to investors, on the stock exchange, becoming the first owner of a soccer team to do so. Since this profit-driven innovation, the FA has been changing its own rules to allow the influx of money and profit motive into the sport. Now it feels like every Premier League team has an ownership devoted mostly to the bottom line. As for Spurs, the investment group ENIC has been running the ship since 2001, in more than a matter of speaking. Majority owner Joe Lewis does most of his business from the superyacht Aviva in the refreshingly tax-light waters of the Bahamas.

Can't Buy Me Love[?]

In the Avivas wake, it’s tempting to read Davies’ description of the directors’ fretting about advertising in White Hart Lane with the same kind of jaded longing Tönnies shows when yearning for good old Gemeinschaft. After all, at the start of the book, while describing how the teenaged apprentice players get ready to go training after washing the first team’s boots, Davies captures manager Bill Nicholson’s wife waving to the club’s trainer from her bicycle. It’s “as if Spurs were a village football team.”

With Nicholson, whose career as manager was in its twilight in 1971–1972 (though he stayed on as consultant on and off for two more decades), Davies got to see one of the longest-serving servants in Tottenham’s history. Nicholson’s wife unjokingly would say that the five-minute walk from home to White Hart Lane was too far, such that Nicholson wished he could have a flat in the stadium and never leave. As a player, he also turned his back on England to use international breaks as an opportunity to regain fitness for Tottenham. Such a grounded preference for the local community over the nation is a basic trait of Gemeinschaft, and Davies provides many examples of this kind of pre-modernity.

To tweak the French sociologist Bruno Latour, however, soccer has always been modern. This is true even in the stories recounted above: Spurs were not a village club in 1971; Tottenham was just empty in the summer off-season. Nicholson considered it his obligation to Spurs, as the signers of his paychecks, to be as fit as possible for them. Even the very fact that soccer had a “working-class” fanbase at all—the kind of fanbase whose disappearance STAND so laments—is tied up with modernity. You can’t have a working-class without Gesellschaft. Soccer was originally a rich man’s game, played at elite public schools serving the spawn of the elite. The FA Cup, whose random, knockout nature is celebrated for giant-killing “magic,” was based on a similar tournament between houses at Harrow, Winston Churchill’s old school.

The democratization of English society opened up sports like soccer to the workers. Even so, it took a decade before a team that wasn’t educated gentlemen from around London could claim the FA Cup. Winners Blackburn Olympic played for a working-class club from a cotton mill town outside Manchester. An extremely uncharitable view of the contemporary soccer landscape would argue that the moneyed gentlemen sitting in the owner’s box are simply reclaiming the sport’s history by pricing out the rabble—save that rabble talented enough to play, who are then elevated to the elite through sky-high wages.

The lurching toward Gesellschaft also forced the sport toward abandoning its racism. It allowed for players to enjoy freedom of movement when their contracts ended. It even positioned the state as a regulatory body that, with the Taylor Report in England, led to abandoning the preferred death trap model of stadium design. STAND’s editors understand this, shown when White reminds the readers that no one wants to bring back thrown bananas or unsafe standing, or when the editors encourage fans who are fed up with the manipulation from the owners like ticket increases to turn to Parliament for restitution.

But truly reshaping the current game (“current” being an adjective far more appropriate than “modern”) calls for building new forms of community, for crafting novel modes of engagement with the club, not nostalgic turns back toward a past that may never have existed. The Glory Game is a superb historical document deserving its canonization, though it remains perhaps useless as a tactical manual, precisely because it reveals how things were never as good as they could be tomorrow. At a Morris Keston party, Davies hears a guest telling Spurs forward Martin Chivers that “The whole of commercialisation of footballers is still in its infancy.” In the 1970s, no one could have imagined how that baby would grow up, but its growth has brought both bad and good to soccer, including forming the current generation of AMF activists. We can’t return to Gemeinschaft, but we can make Gesellschaft better.


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