Life in the big smoke

Why the English invented football? To stop their men from touching themselves

Hello World Cup 2014, everyone is talking about you. As I was researching my book “Det finns inga britter“, I stumbled across an interesting theory about why football became such a popular sport in England and then in the rest of the British empire.

David Winner writes in his book Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football that playing football was encouraged as a way to stop British men from, er, there’s no easy way of saying this… from masturbating.

Winner writes.

Revd Edward Thring, was headmaster of Uppingham School and one of the giants of Victorian education, equalled in importance only by Thomas Arnold of Rugby. In the mid-nineteenth century Thring was a key figure in shaping Victorian ideas about manliness. He was also a pioneer of two of its key motors: organised sport and sexual repression.

His younger brother J. C. Thring helped found one of the significant vehicles for this new manliness: the game of football. Edward was a muscular Christian who turned “weaklings into men”. He also preached a holistic, egalitarian educational doctrine which he called true life … He was obsessed with stamping out the heinous sin of masturbation, which (he was certain) led to early and dishonoured graves.

Apparently Uppingham school wasn’t a very nice place to be a young man, at least not by today’s standards.

Any boy at Uppingham who was found to have committed “self-abuse” was instantly expelled. To maintain an atmosphere of “purity”. Thring encouraged boys to spy on each other. And used sport as a tool in the war against vice.

“Self-pollution” was not only intrinsically vile; it also posed a danger to race and Empire because it was the crucial first step on the road to all other kinds of effeminate and dangerous sensuality. If only boys and young men could be taught not to masturbate, they would grow up chaste and pure and all other sexual evils would disappear.

The Victorians had a strange obsession with masturbation. Interestingly the campaign against so called self-pollution was started by a man who wanted to get more costumers for his brothels, Winner writes.

The idea had first surfaced in a quack French pamphlet in 1710 called Onania. The author believed to have been a brothel-owner trying to drum up business by using scare tactics against a rival form of entertainment. He claimed that masturbation wasted essential bodily fluids and “destroys conjugal affection, perverts natural inclination, and tends to extinguish the hope of posterity”.

The pamphlet was widely translated and for nearly 200 years underpinned a quietly burgeoning medical and quasi-medical literature on the subject. Only in Britain did a full-scale moral panic erupt. Doctors were partly to blame.

It was widely believed that masturbation had the following “side effects” – pale complexion, emaciated form, slouching gait, clammy palms, glassy or laden eyes, averted gaze, or worse insanity and death!

So what does all of this have to do with football? Well it was used to turn these British weaklings into real men.

Thring and other schoolmasters started a radical new ideology – athleticism – a motor for the muscular new imperialism, for militarism and conformism. Suppression of sexuality, individuality – an even thought itself – were essential elements of this process, and were encoded in the games themselves.

What I find interesting is that this fear of masturbation seem to have stemmed from a deeper, almost subconscious fear that the British empire was failing because British men were no longer “real men.” It’s all pretty Freudian.

One key fear at the time was that British power was faltering. Ironic because the late nineteenth century appears now as the zenith of British power, wealth and social stability, but that’s not how it felt at the time. The Victorians were gripped by a sense of dread, seeing not stability, but decay; they felt their world crumbling. Some of this anxiety reflected geostrategic changes … from the 1870s America and Germany started catching up – industrially, economically and as imperial rivals, but the British problems went deeper still.

In almost every cultural register of the time there is a sense of Britain under attack or threat … there were massive problems with the British economy in the 1870s, and it’s linked to anxiety about the Empire. There were new anxieties about sexuality too, shifting boundaries between men and women and emergence of the “new woman” phenomenon: women living alone, wearing bloomers, riding around on bicycles and reading “suspect” novels. It was an awful lot for the British to come to terms with psychologically says gender historian John Tosh. And since it’s men who are supposed to defend the Empire and run the show, it was clearly all to their discredit. In some sense it was seen as their weakness.

Winner also writes about the English way of playing football and perhaps offers up a theory of why the English aren’t normally World Cup winners.

The game is and has always been “a man’s game”. English footballers are expected to display Lionheart qualities: strength, power, energy, fortitude, loyalty, courage. As for delicacy, cleverness, sleight-of-foot, imagination and cushion-slicing … well that’s the sort of thing we prefer to leave to foreigners.

The idea is rooted in what the Victorian’s called “manliness” and it lies at the heart of all that’s best and worst in English football. It accounts for the energy and power which make the English league exciting. It helps explain why English football rarely produces creative artists (and usually treats badly the ones who do emerge). And it provides an insight into the root cause of England’s forty years of hurt in the World Cup.

Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football is a fascinating book, it’s filled with interesting stories about sexual repression and sport in Victorian Britain. I don’t want to show you all of my research as it feels a bit wrong to share so much of the author’s own work. But if you find this kind of stuff interesting I recommend you check out the book.