In 1966, England achieved, for many, the zenith of their sporting achievements. They had climbed the mountain of world football and had come to the top above the greats of S. America and Europe. The small group of working class lads, including one who had started out working as a cleaner on the railways, had achieved a high-water mark that looks impossible to be reached again.
Politicians have always been known to associate themselves with sporting heroes. An endorsement from a sporting icon is worth thousands of votes and so how much more valuable would it be if a whole team capable of winning the World Cup said vote for X?
After the English victory of 1966, observers noted the national feel good factor created. Had it helped carry Harold Wilson’s Labour party to victory? But the fantasy is simply not true – as the two dates easily show: 1966 general election, 31 March; 1966 World Cup final, 30 July, 17 weeks later. However, there is a distinct possibility that the result of the general election after that, four years later in the summer of 1970 when Edward Heath’s Conservatives surprisingly tipped Wilson out of Downing Street, may well have been influenced by England’s sudden and generally unexpected quarter-final defeat by West Germany in the World Cup quarter-final in Mexico just four days before the poll.
Politics and sport two sides of the same coin.
One hundred years before in the 1860s, social pressures were building on many western societies, and changing the political landscape irrevocably. Italy was coalescing its manifold city-states, republics, and other independent entities into a unified whole. Similarly, the German Confederation of States was being united by its Iron Chancellor, Bismark.
In Britain, the Industrial Revolution had produced a massive working class and the burgeoning middle classes wanted to mould the country more in their own image, towards new leisure pursuits affordable to all and away from the hunting and shooting pursuits of the landed nobility.
Arthur Schopenhauer, a great but pessimistic philosopher, who died in 1860, lived the last thirty years of his life in two rooms of a boarding house alone but for a dog called Atma. Most nights he dined at the Englischer Hof, and every time he dined there, he put a gold coin in front of him at the start of the meal and replaced it once he had finished.
Eventually, a waiter asked him why he did it. He answered that it was a wager with himself. He said that he would drop the coin into the poor box in the church if the English officers who dined there ever talked of anything but horses, women, or dogs.
Clearly he had an image of the English which coincided with the view that they could only ride, hunt, and shoot.
Cricket, which can trace its formal origins to Hambledon, thanks to the earliest surviving record coming from a passage in the 1756 “The Oxford Gazette and Reading Mercury” was starting to make an imprint on English society in the 1800s. The Oxford University Cricket Club made its debut in the inaugural University Match against Cambridge in 1827.
By the 1860s cricket, rugby, and football and other sports were starting to gain mass appeal. The beginning of their ascent as recreational activities for the many had arrived.
Consider the conjunction of major political and sporting events, especially in the UK:
1860 The first ever Open championship is held at Prestwick Golf Club in Scotland,
1861 The Kingdom of Italy is proclaimed by the new Parliament, with Victor Emmanuel II of its king,
1862 The first English cricket team tours Australia,
1863 The Football Association codifies a set of rules, specifically banning players from running with the ball in hand. Football is separated from rugby,
1864 Marx and Engels form the First International or International Workingmen’s Association in London,
1865 The Liberal Prime Minister, Palmerston, dies after winning the election and the confused Liberals allow Disraeli’s Conservatives to form a minority government,
1867 Disraeli cannot ignore the demands of the masses and his Second Reform Bill doubles the number of adult men entitled to vote in elections to two millions, out of a total population of seven millions,
1869 The first all-professional baseball team is organised in the USA,
1870 The Franco-Prussian War begins and ends French hegemony in continental Europe. A unified Germany results.
The eighteen sixties were a time of change and the demands of the majority of the populace could no longer be ignored. Games, which had been an essential part of Greek civilisation over two millennia before, had re-emerged and become an important outlet for the ‘masses’.
The sixties, a hundred years later, saw the emergence of drugs, the mass appeal of pop music, the space race, the Kennedy-Khrushchev missile crisis, the Vietnam war and England’s World cup win.
Today, in April 2021, a further sixty plus years on, the Conservatives have swept to power in many English towns and cities diminishing Labour’s tenuous hold on voters on the other side of Offa’s Dyke. But not in Wales. For the last twenty two years Welsh Labour has remained in power. It has retained its own image of a Welsh national identity and one important aspect of this is the national game, rugby. In this period, the Welsh have won five grand slams and two championships. Wales are the current Six Nations champions. So, did the timing of the announcement of Wales’ captain’s, Alun Wyn Jones, captaincy of the British Lions on the day of the election add an extra fillip to Labour?
Politics and sport two sides of the same coin?