British Football and Working Class Culture

This week in my upper division class on the history of popular sport in the modern world, we are talking about working class culture in nineteenth century Britain and the development of professional association football (soccer, to my students).

In Britain today, soccer retains the aura of a working class sport, albeit one under assault. But what is a “working class” sport, and what modern circumstances threaten it?

The short answer of course is that a working class sport is ostensibly whatever a self-identifying working class identifies as such; and in Britain, where class affiliation has been such an important aspect of public life since at least the mid-nineteenth century, that identification comes in many guises. People with traditionally working class occupations attend games, and when joined by fellow fans with whiter collars in their workplaces claim more legitimacy in the stadiums as the hardcore or “real” fan-base.

As for the challenges facing English soccer today, well… the classic kick-off time for an English league match is 3pm on a Saturday, matching the half-day once issued in factories across the country. Now broadcasting companies move kick-offs around to avoid increasingly anachronistic TV blackouts. Teams play games throughout the week if they are lucky enough to qualify for major European tournaments. Attending a soccer match in Britain has become expensive, with ticket prices suffering inflation that vastly outstrips the capacity of many “traditional” fans to pay, or at least to bring their children with them to games. Media companies now advertise games as expensive jaunts for attractive young people, where the actual competitive aspect of play is merely an afterthought.

We will get to those challenges later in the semester. For now, I am interested in hearing what my students think about why soccer becomes such a good fit for working class culture in the nineteenth century. It is a fun discussion to have as an Irishman with American students because our conceptions of class are so different. Irish and British conceptions of class and experience of class vary, but not so much as we see across the Atlantic. In the United States public figures consistently call up the imagery of the middle class as a unifying factor, both the engine of change and object of aspiration. Class relations in Britain are certainly more complicated, or at least more frequently debated publicly as contested ideas. This week we have the luxury of pretending that soccer as a working class sport was ever truly a stable, monolithic concept. We will get to questioning that idea later on in the term.

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