What would George Orwell have said, had he been walking through Marseille’s Old Port district last weekend?
It’s likely to have been some combination of ‘duck’ and ‘run’, followed by ‘I told you so’.
The violent clashes between Russian and English football supporters echoed The Sporting Spirit, an essay Orwell wrote following the 1945 visit of Dynamo Moscow to Britain, during which the Soviet side played four ‘friendly’ games.
Citing on-field clashes between Dynamo and Arsenal players, and the booing of the Moscow players by the home crowd, Orwell pithily concludes, “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…in other words it is war minus the shooting”.
The English writer, though forgiving in parts (a game of football with friends “on the village green” is acceptable, just about), sees little merit in competitive sport – and much malice.
“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” he writes. “The significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators; and, behind these spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests.”
Writing in an age before FIFA was the $2bn-a-year behemoth it is today, Orwell notes that – even in the first half of the 20th century – “games were built into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions”.
The essay, written six months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, concludes, “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of [international] football matches…watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.”
What’s the solution then? How can we avoid rousing the savage passions that see a city like Marseilles locked down, people kicked and beaten police firing tear gas, and dozens injured?
Orwell’s is simple. Don’t play such games. And, if you must, send out a team of no-hopers to highlight the pointlessness, if not danger – of the entire thing.
Which goes to show that even the greatest writers of modern times, can be blindly naive, and wrong.
Denying peaceful national passions an outlet in a Europe riven by internal discord and home to a rise in support for the far right could result in a continent that Orwell was all too familiar with – the simmering Europe of the 1930s.
Aside from the soccer and the small hooligan minority, the Euro 2016 football championship provides a space for national rivalries to play out in a loud, assertive but non-violent manner – perhaps even a boring one, as anyone who watched rivals Germany and Poland play out a 0-0 draw last night will attest.
Football is, as Orwell put it, ‘mimic warfare’. Better that than the real thing.