Football’s cultural side helped Britain wage the last Cold War

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Football is not often linked to warfare, but as the 2018 World Cup begins in Russia – during what some political commentators have deemed a new Cold War – the mixing of people from all over the world will be part of a global governmental competition for prestige. It may not seem like the most straightforward tactic, but football’s ability to bring cultures together previously formed part of the British government’s waging of the original Cold War, in the 1950s.

England’s assumed superiority at football meant that the football association did not enter FIFA’s World Cup until 1950. But in the first two tournaments the national team took part (1950 and 1954), they were rather uncompetitive. Worse, in 1953 the team suffered its first home defeat to a team from outside the British Isles, being crushed by Hungary’s “Magnificent Magyars”. The national game was in disarray with defeat to an iron curtain nation compounding the issue.

Britain did have an ace up its sleeve, however. Many clubs organised exhibition matches against Soviet sides. In the same way that the World Cup provides a great opportunity for Valdimir Putin to showcase the best face of Russia now, so the mid-1950s allowed the post-Stalin Soviet leadership to tell the world that things had changed. What became known as “the thaw” – when the Soviets lessened censorship and repression and attempted to show the benefits that communism could bring – created new opportunities for clubs, and the national team to visit the turf of their ideological rivals.

While sport appeared politically neutral, the government hoped to benefit from these visits. Prior to Arsenal’s 1954 visit to the Soviet Union, the British embassy advised that, “we should urge on the Football Association that they should send out a really first class team, ensure that they are in good condition and that they do not drink too much … This will, at least, ensure that we put up a credible performance”.

Arsenal’s visit was seen as being of national importance, and the government acted to prevent defeat in the sporting arena. A British embassy “scout” even sent a report on the Moscow clubs tactics’ on the basis that “a few remarks … about the standard and tactics of the club teams they will meet may be of interest and of possible help to the British team”.

However, even with the state’s advice, Arsenal lost their match to Moscow Dynamo, 5-0 – a “massacre”, according to the Mirror and Express newspapers – before losing 2-1 to Spartak Moscow in London in November 1954. The limited encounters available to Britons were often regulated by their own government and the Soviet state but they still played a broader role in waging the cultural cold war.

Sporting diplomacy

The next year, the Wolverhampton Wanderers, who were first division champions in 1954 and finished second in 1955, visited the USSR. They took around 100 supporters to Moscow with them, along with both print and broadcast journalists. Though newsreels showed Wolves losing 3-0 to Spartak Moscow, and 3-2 to Moscow Dynamo, a more revealing clip introduced Moscow itself. As Russia will this year, the USSR presented its best face. When the team visited the Kremlin the Pathé voiceover noted that their cameraman was “the first British newsreel man to be allowed inside its towering walls”.

Shots of a giant cannon, Red Square and the mausoleums of Lenin and Stalin completed the tourist iconography of communist Moscow. Outside Lenin’s tomb, British viewers were given a rare glimpse of the Soviet population including “farmers from Kazakhstan and Mongolia”, which helped to reinforce a sense of difference between Britain and the USSR. The commentary concluded with “Surely the iron curtain is melting away at last; may it never return”.

These images of Moscow raised hopes of better relations with the USSR and the possibility of an end to the Cold War. Individual contacts warmed relations, even if the British teams’ failings suggested the communists were ahead in sporting prowess. And so it was left to the national side to redress the balance.

By 1958, following the Soviet suppression of the Hungarian uprising and the deepening Berlin Crisis, the thaw was over. That year England took on the USSR four times. Holiday company Morlands even offered supporters “a special cruise with five days in the USSR to see the international football match in Moscow”.

Draws in that friendly, and the group stages of the World Cup in Sweden were compounded when the Soviets won a play-off to send England out. Cold War sporting parity was restored, however, when the English won an autumn friendly 5-0 – described by the Daily Express as being “hammered and sickled”, with suggestions that Russian players would now be forced to work in salt mines. As the Cold War re-froze the conflict trickled into the sports reports.

While football became a proxy for the Cold War in the 1950s it also allowed sports fans to learn about the enigmatic country behind the iron curtain. As Britain’s global position is once more changing, and Russia is portrayed as posing a direct threat, more understanding between the respective countries might lead politicians to question how to approach international diplomacy as people from different cultures mix.


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Nick Barnett is affiliated with the Labour Party.

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