In a military museum in England there is a dried-out rind of cowhide that once upon a time, when the world was young, was a soccer ball. In the battle of Montauban Ridge in 1916, B company of the East Surrey Regiment was ordered to cross 400 yards of no man's land under heavy fire, and Captain W. P. Nevill issued each platoon a soccer ball to kick toward the German lines. At 7:27 a.m. Nevill went over the top, put his boot into one of the balls and led the attack, kick by kick, casualty by casualty, until the objective was taken. The next day his body was found just outside the German wire, and not far away, spiked into the barbs by a heavy-footed Surrey soldier, was a soccer ball.
The willingness of the Tommies to chase a sphere of leather into the valley of the shadow excites no incredulity in Great Britain, where the bouncing ball has been followed with rapt attention for hundreds of years. As this year's 79th professional football season opens in England, there are times when the whole country seems to have been converted into one vast soccer field or, as it is more properly called, football pitch. To be sure, there are some stuffy Englishmen who say that the game has been corrupted, that it will never be the same again, that the foreigners are taking over and, anyway, the British referees are becoming so schoolmasterish that if the battle of Montauban Ridge were to be fought again, one of them would surely stall the entire attack by shouting, "Offside!"
The cynics notwithstanding, there is no game in the world that so reflects the personality of a nation as soccer reflects England. Once it was the game of the industrial masses (gentlemen played Rugby), but in later years the game has crossed all class lines and even attracted a new intelligentsia, titillated by its subtle patterns and flow of play and mysterious intangibles. Dr. Alfred Jules Ayer, professor of logic at Oxford, editor of Logical Positivism and author of other philosophical works, once confided: "In the morning, at my lectures, I sometimes see the fleeting figures of footballers racing through my mind." On Sundays young London travels out of town to the Hackney Marshes, where 111 football pitches lie side by side, each of them the scene of a small war, clean but hard, in fidelity to the English sporting ethos. Harold Wilson, the Labor Party leader, carries in his wallet a dog-eared picture of the great Huddersfield Town team of 1922, the Green Bay Packers of their era. There are some 30,000 amateur teams in Britain, 420 professional teams and millions of small boys kicking soccer balls, tennis balls, English-style "spaldeens" and balls made of rolled-up cloth. The soccer season lasts nine months, through the long bleak English winter, and 92 professional "big-league" teams, grouped into four divisions, play to an average of 16,000 fans per game, a turnout that leaves baseball far behind. And though the game has spread around the world like Schweppes and Scotch and XKEs, its broadest base remains in England. The best 11 players in the world may currently be in Brazil; the best 11,000 are in England.
A few years ago a cartoon in the London
expressed in one quick pop what the sport means to the masses of Britain. Andy Capp, a vastly overdrawn caricature of a working-class husband, is reminiscing to his wife. "I'll tell yer straight, Flo," he says. "Football isn't what it used to be...them were the days. Mordue slingin' 'em across, an' Charlie Buchan noddin' 'em in, an'—"
"For Pete's sake, Andy," his wife interrupts. "Let's stop talkin' about religion."
The Church of England has not enjoyed its biggest success in reaching the working classes, and soccer has filled the spiritual void. "I've always thought of it as a religious game," says Danny Blanchflower, the recently retired star who was the Mickey Mantle of the Tottenham Hotspurs. "The father took his son to the match, and the son took his son, and the team was the cathedral, the shrine. Why, there were men who asked that their ashes be spread over the pitches where they used to stand and watch their side. It was their open-air church—the club was their god and the players their angels. They promised something divine and exciting. Oh, it was vastly more important than religion, especially in the '30s. The people felt that soccer was more true than religion. You went to the church and you saw that monkey wearing the big coat. On the football ground, your gods came out in clean white shirts, they didn't come out in all this gold and nonsense and talking Latin terms you didn't understand."
Blanchflower was not the only player to hear the religious overtones of the game. Albert Camus wrote, "All that I know most certainly about morality and the obligations of man, I owe to football." J. P. W. Mallalieu, Member of Parliament from the industrial town of Huddersfield, once wrote about the pregame ceremonies at the Cup Final at Wembley: "At last, as we always do, we sang Abide with Me. And at that hymn the whole crowd rose, men who would not know to take their hats off in a church stood bareheaded and reverent in a sports arena."
In the smoky, miasmic midsection of England, where the industrial revolution was born and where it trapped a hardy race of men indoors, soccer early became the only escape from a Dickensian life of frustration and misery. The heart of English football is still in that belt of industry and coal, in places like the Yorkshire woolen mills and the Lancashire cotton mills, in gray-black cities like Leeds, Preston, Blackburn, Halifax, Sheffield, Burnley, Manchester, Blackpool, Huddersfield—dark cities with sodium lights cutting through the fog and smoke, cities where one is never much farther than a corner kick from a soccer pitch.
A man went to the match on Saturday afternoon and then spent three days dissecting the play with his pubmates. The next three days were devoted to lengthy discussions on the probabilities of the upcoming match. When the big day arrived, as it did once each week for nine months, he worked in the morning, then hustled off to the game. "Life wasn't very romantic then," says a lay sociologist. "It was very hard, and there was nothing else but soccer to talk about. There was something very real about the game. A man grows up as a young Indian brave, and he wants to go out and conquer the world. But by the time he's 30 he's got married and he's lost the romance of it all—he's working in a mill or a mine and realizes he's not going to conquer the world after all—so what else has he got to believe in but football? All he can do is try to recapture the life of his 20s, and he does that on Saturday afternoon when he is one of the boys again and his life is being lived all over again on the pitch. He can tell a bloody manager how to manage the team and the directors how to direct. He's a young man again, a young man in authority. And the greatest thing about it is the uncertainty. If his team wins, he did a good job, see? He's the guy—he knew his team was going to win. If it doesn't win, there's nothing wrong with the club, nothing wrong with his judgment, nothing wrong with himself. It's that bloody center forward. 'If I could only get rid of him,' he says, 'we'd win again.'
"So there he is, searching for ultimate justice on the pitch. He figures everything else has deserted him. 'Look at the government,' he says. 'Bloody useless. What chance have I got? The press? Useless, no truth in it.' He knows that, mate. He grows up with a Bible and he has the Ten Commandments and he believes in justice, but he doesn't see any of it except out there on Saturday afternoon. There's a referee and there's two teams, and the best one wins, mate. You put the ball in the back of the net and you get a goal. It's quite clear—you can see it with your own two eyes: justice and democracy as they ought to be. That is the way they look at football in those industrial towns. Where a man has a harder deal, soccer matters to him."