How Football Made the Working Class

In premodern England, peasants organized football games over enclosed land. Today, fans have gotten together to buy teams from corrupt owners. The beautiful game has always shaped the culture of the popular classes, despite moneyed influences.

Boys playing football in London on April 8, 1950. (Haywood Magee / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Evidence of the unsavory nature of modern football is endless: thousands of migrant workers dying while building air-conditioned stadiums in Qatar during the last World Cup; Man City winning the Champions league on the back of 115 breaches of UEFA’s financial fair play laws; private equity firms setting their sights on both Milan clubs so they can tear down San Siro and cash in on the new stadiums; Barcelona selling hundreds of millions in assets — not to mention actual bits of Camp Nou’s pitch — to bankroll the same reckless style of management that sent the club into disarray, on and off the pitch. Undeniably the beautiful game has of late become especially ugly.

In A People’s History of Football, French climate journalist and Le Monde diplomatique correspondent Mickaël Correia argues that things have not always been this way — or at least not to such a grotesquely indefensible extent. The world’s most popular sport has an alternative, “antiestablishment” history, which Correia seeks to uncover and defend. Though he dwells on the “subversive aspect” of football, Correia is hardly a romantic. “Globalized football,” he reminds us in the very opening of the book, “has become . . . the very embodiment of unbridled capitalism’s worst excesses.”

A People’s History of Football left this reader with the melancholic sense that an adversarial and popular vision of the game is quickly disappearing. It’s now unimaginable that a player would, as Brazil’s midfielder Sócrates did in 1984, justify their move to an Italian club by saying that doing so would provide them with an opportunity to read Antonio Gramsci in the original. At the end of last year, the European Court of Justice announced that attempts to ban the Super League — a proposal for a relegation-free league made up of the wealthiest teams — were contrary to the Court’s laws. The path ahead for the sport seems one of further consolidation: football grounds turned into shopping malls, and fans into passive consumers.

Correia does not ignore these uncomfortable facts. He does, however, offer as a counterpoint a longue durée account of the sport’s subversive origins. In the late Middle Ages and Renaissance period, folk football — or its French version soule in Normandy and Brittany — caused moral panic, provoking the reprimand of ecclesiastical authorities and local lords alike. In this earlier form of the game, rival parishes would face each other on the surrounding fields in a game whose only goal was to carry the ball into the rival town’s square. Broken bones and concussions were a common occurrence, but what bothered the powers that be was that these “rude ball games” would often evolve into acts of rebellion against the established order. Correia relates an episode recorded 1638 in Ely, England, in which peasants organized a game “with the aim of deliberately wrecking the dykes built to dry out the fens and convert them into arable land”; seventy miles away, in West Haddon, locals “opposed to the enclosure of 2,000 acres of common land” and organized a football game as “a pretext to tear up and burn the new fences”.

He makes clear how the disappearance of this kind of football — more akin to a popular festival than anything resembling a sport — is intimately linked to the rise of modernity, the monopolization of the coercive power in the hands of increasingly centralized states, as well as the privatization of farmlands and transformation of the commons into “enclosures” exploited by the rising landed gentry. That football has its roots in these acts of rebellion explains the odd sense of carnivalesque ritual that persists in the modern game, despite the grip corporate interests continue to hold over it. Football is still what the historian Eric Hobsbawm described as “the lay religion of the proletariat” and the Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini called the “the last sacred ritual of our time.”

Football reemerged as a politically significant pastime in the late nineteenth century. It was initially taken up as a disciplining tool for rowdy boys in British “public” — posh English for “private” — schools like Eton, the elite training ground of twenty of Britain’s fifty-five prime ministers. There, the game developed clearly defined rules designed, Correia argues, to instill in future members of the ruling class a sense of competition and sobriety vital to the project of empire. It was only later that the beautiful game came to be associated with working-class culture.

In the same century, Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, and West Ham sprang out from trade unions of dockers, metalworkers, textile workers, and miners. Correia shows how this nineteenth-century English working-class culture was part of a new way of life with its own distinctive symbols and rituals. Though generally maligned by the media, it gave rise to hooliganism and ultras culture in the UK and Italy in the 1970s and 1980s. Later, it formed the popular base for attempts by lower division clubs like Northampton Town FC and AFC Wimbledon to buy back their clubs after they were all but run into the ground by shady business owners looking for a quick buck.

Though attentive to its British origins, Correia treats football as a global phenomenon, taken up by oppressed people and groups all over the world. A sizable portion A People’s History of Football focuses on the individual stories of specific clubs, ultras groups, and football players who, at different times, acted as a symbol of resistance to reaction and political repression. He cites the example of Barcelona, whose motto més que un club (more than a club) emerged during the Francoist dictatorship between 1939–1975. Then, the club was one of the only places where a heavily repressed Catalan identity could be expressed and shared.

Correia dedicates a whole chapter to Brazil’s Democracia Corinthiana, an experiment in direct democracy led by left-leaning Corinthians FC players like Sócrates. The movement instituted a regime of self-management in the Corinthians football club that openly flaunted the dirigiste ideology of the military junta that ruled the country from 1964–85. The team’s black and white striped jerseys, adorned with the words “Corinthian Democracy,” became iconic, and Corinthians, which at its peak also won two consecutive Paulista championships, led the cultural wing of the struggle to end the dictatorship.

More recently, in the Middle East, football played a role in mobilizing people during the Arab Spring. In both Egypt’s Tahrir Square and Turkey’s Taksim Square, ultras acted almost like an organized armed wing of the popular resistance during the uprisings’ initial phases. The precursors to the more recent political tradition of Middle Eastern football can, Correia tells us, be found in the decision made by Algerian players in 1957 to boycott the French national team and found their own renegade outfit. France only recognized the team, which played a crucial role in bringing attention to the Algerian struggle, after the end of the war of independence.

Moving from Middle Ages Europe to nineteenth-century England, twentieth-century Brazil, and the Middle East, A People’s History of Football adopts a decidedly scattergun approach to history. This, however, has the merit of capturing the protean nature of the beautiful game, whose contradictory dimensions — proletarian religion, investment vehicle for the ultrarich — are difficult to hold together.

Admittedly, some of A People’s History’s best chapters are those in which Correia doesn’t adopt a “narrowly” political approach, but rather treats football as a magnifying lens and catalyst for struggles brewing elsewhere in society. He writes compellingly about the Hand of God — Diego Maradona’s infamous handball goal in the quarterfinals of the 1986 Mexico World Cup — which he casts as an act of poetic justice against the English for the Falklands War. This episode, he tells us, perfectly encapsulates the viveza criolla, the particularly Argentinian mixture of wit and cunning and disregard for rules that comes with having to fight your way out of disadvantaged circumstances.

While telling a history of football as a tool of popular resistance, in literal as well as metaphorical ways, A People’s History of Football consistently hammers home the point that ultimately power and money rule the modern game. Moments in which politics storms the pitch, exhilarating though they may be, are exceptions. For this spirit to animate football, massive change to the ownership and business model of the sport would have to occur. Correia is especially coy about offering solutions or paths forward; his history embraces contradictions and ambiguities: football, as he sees it, is a battleground on which the eternal struggle between popular forces and economic and political elites replays endlessly. On it, the odds are tilted, ever so slightly, in favor of the latter. While not offering a real blueprint of how the beautiful game can be put back in the hands of ordinary people, A People’s History provides evidence of brief, fleeting moments in which such a goal seemed possible.