TCS Daily

Political Football

By Helen Szamuely - August 27, 2004 12:00 AM

Football? Have they gone mad? Have they abandoned their high principles and joined the media throng? No, indeed, but there are times when one needs to meditate on the political aspect of many things, including The Beautiful Game.

The starting point of this meditation is a new German film, The Miracle of Bern, which deals with the astonishing West German victory in the 1954 World Cup soccer final. The brief review by Tim Robey published recently in Daily Telegraph, alas, shows quite clearly how far most of the British media is from understanding recent European history.

In the first place, Robey talks about a German football team. One of the points of the story, as I shall explain, is that it was a West German team, there being two Germanies at the time and, therefore, two football teams. Then Robey decries its parochial sentimentality with the words: "Imagine 1966 retold from the point of view of Geoff Hurst's home town in Lancashire and you have some idea of the crowd-pleasing nostalgia trip on offer here."

Well, no. Without getting into the controversy about those goals, one must point out that England's 1966 World Cup victory was of very little significance in the history or politics of Great Britain, apart from being, possibly, the first occasion on which a Prime Minister (Harold Wilson) tried to capitalize on a sporting victory for his own political purposes.

The 1954 World Cup final, on the other hand, had enormous implications across Europe.

Here I must declare an interest. As a child in the country of the other team in the final, I knew the story as one of unbearable tragedy. Hungary in the early 1950s had one of the great football teams of the world. Its fame resounds with all true football fanatics to this day. The pride the country had in the team was especially great because there was little else to be proud of. A small country (by this stage) Hungary had had a chequered history in the 20th century. Cut loose from the Austro-Hungarian Empire by its collapse in 1918, the country went through two revolutions, a red terror and a white terror within less than two years.

At the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 it definitively lost about half its previous territory and about a third of its Hungarian population, as well as many non-Hungarians.

After a more or less settled period it was dragged unwillingly into another war, during which, under the Germans and then the local Nazis, appalling atrocities were carried out. Another defeat led to the establishment of a democracy briefly, then another Communist coup and a terror that was probably the most ferocious of all the East European ones.

Hungary under the Rákosi regime was forbidden to celebrate its national festivals or feel pride in any national achievements. All it had was the great football team and all the country's emotions centered on it.

The national team was made up largely of that of the Ministry of Defence with a few extra players added. Those who played for Honvéd, the MoD team, were officers in the army and, sometimes, deputies in the parliament as well. Major Puskás really was a major, though he would not have been sent into battle even if there had been a war. His skills were too precious. He was also a parliamentarian.

There were many tales told of him and his colleagues and their ineffable cheek towards the authorities. The most famous one was of a match against the Soviet Union. The great Hungarian team was never allowed to win against big socialist brother. During this particular game Puskás took the ball from one end of the field, outmaneuvering all the opponents. He stopped in front of the goal and prepared to shoot. Normally he was a somewhat better striker than, say, David Beckham. This time he steadied the ball, looked around at the audience, gave them a big grin and shot deliberately wide. The crowd roared its support and implied defiance.

Then came the 1954 World Cup. Hungary was tipped to win and had already defeated West Germany once before losing in the final. The shock experienced in the country was unbelievable. The team, on returning, was greeted with a huge torch-lit demonstration and had to be smuggled away, together with the trainer and the manager, to avoid lynching. The demonstration has frequently been described as a dress-rehearsal for the one on October 23, 1956, which triggered the revolution.

That was the story I knew. It was not till many years later that I heard the other side of it, the one covered by The Miracle of Bern. West Germany, too, was a country that had lost everything and was not allowed to feel anything but shame after the war. It had a football team but that was just an average one. Then, against all odds, the team won.

Suddenly, as people who remember it say, there was something the country was allowed to be proud of. You could admit to being German and praise a German achievement. It was a crucial moment in the modern German psyche, greater on a popular level than the creation of the Federal Republic and the economic miracle. The 1954 World Cup was the beginning of the slow rehabilitation of Germany.

But this was not, pace Robey, the whole of Germany. There was the eastern part, the German Democratic Republic, the Soviet Union's westernmost outpost. Their reaction was even more interesting. Publicly, they were supposed to support their socialist brothers, the Hungarians, and publicly they mourned the loss to a western capitalist, imperialist power. But secretly, in their homes, people celebrated. They, too, felt that, for once, they could be proud of being Germans. For them, the rehabilitation had to wait another 35 years.

Why go through all these long-past events? Well, partly because their importance to the participants is clear from the fact that it is still discussed and even films are made.

Then there is the obvious moral to be drawn from the story that European history at all times, but especially in the 20th century, is a convoluted business that cannot be disentangled by a few hundred pages of EU constitutional legislation. Sport and its management, let us recall, is part of that constitution, to be handed over to become EU competence. An attempt, perhaps, to build up pro-European feelings through team support? A dangerous concept and unlikely to work at that.

There is, however, another and more important reason why we must look at those events. What comes out clearly from the whole story is that it is countries that have lost everything else who concentrate on sports teams and sporting events with a fanatical ferocity as a substitute for other glories and achievements.

What is it that has made football the central factor in what can only be described as national hysteria in England in the last few years? Could there be a subconscious understanding that a great deal of what the country should really be proud of - its political and legal structure, its historic achievements, the example it can give to many other countries struggling to free themselves - all that has either been taken away or denied? If that is so, it would be useful to note that in those far-off days all the countries involved, Hungary and the two Germanies, knew exactly what had gone wrong and what they had lost. And that knowledge is a vital pre-requisite to winning everything back.

Dr Helen Szamuely was born in the Soviet Union and attended school in Hungary, Ghana and Britain. She has a First Class degree from the University of Leeds and a D.Phil from the University of Oxford. She has written extensively on Russia, Eastern Europe and the European Union, and is co-author with Bill Jamieson of A Coming Home or Poisoned Chalice?, a critical study of European Union enlargement. Dr Szamuely also co-authored Alien Thoughts: Reflections on Identity published by the Bruges Group. She is a TCS contributor.


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