Why football is political and what a game in 1929 has to do with it

Football is a burning glass of society and thus cannot be apolitical. At least not if one uses today’s concept of the political. Cosmopolitan, football pioneer and kicker inventor Walther Bensemann thought: Football should not be political and yet it expressed itself very politically. A contradiction in terms? No.

Let’s travel back just under 100 years. September 1929, London. It is the interwar period, shortly before the Great Depression, and in Germany all territories on the left bank of the Rhine are occupied by the Allies. In the middle of this period, for the first time since the First World War, a football match took place between a German and an English football team, and also one from the occupied Rhineland: a Cologne selection played here in London against a local city selection.

Understanding in the field of sports policy

But not only the match took place, but also the subsequent statements were political: Frederick Wall, the Secretary of the FA, promised that after the end of the occupation (it ended on 30 June 1930) a friendly match of the English national team would take place in the Rhineland in order to mend the rift between Germany and Great Britain and to promote international understanding.

He deliberately wanted to tie in with the first games of the English national team in Germany in 1899. At that time, it was Walther Bensemann, of all people, who managed on his own initiative to invite the English team to Germany for the first time. The passion and perseverance of the only 26-year-old Bensemann impressed the then 41-year-old Wall.

Unconditional fight for victory or fair play and “the unprejudiced openness of a citizen of the world”?

London versus Cologne was not a relocated battlefield, on the contrary. Or as Wall put it, “You showed us that you too can play football in Cologne, the way the game is meant to be played, in the true sporting sense.” Wall, of course, meant the British sense of sport: fairness, courage, justice – preferring to let the other guy win when in doubt.

The ideals of German football culture, on the other hand, are a horror to him: commitment to the last second and to the last man, eternal team loyalty, fighting, no matter how hopeless it is, and only having victory in mind.

The fact that patriotic, soldierly ideals shaped football culture in Germany was due to the time of its origin and the socialisation of football in society. In Germany, it could only gain a foothold and become a mass phenomenon because the DFB and the German army cooperated and football was integrated as a military sport.

“Sport is a religion, is perhaps today the only true means of uniting peoples and classes”.

But the why should not concern us further here, but the consequence: football is democratising, because everyone can be part of it, no matter how smart, how tall or how old they are. But football can also divide, through identities, through behaviour, through colours. On the one hand there is the common, the cosmopolitan, on the other hand the national, the divisive.

Let’s come back to Walther Bensemann. He was born in Berlin, but went to school in an English boarding school in Switzerland. Here he got to know football and English culture directly. Throughout his life, he railed against the military, national influence in football – and always used the term “politics” here.

When Bensemann said that football was not political, he meant that national ideas had no place in football – if that is not a political statement from today’s perspective!

“Sport should not divide, sport is there to unite and to bring all that is good in people to the highest development.”

What is the conclusion to be drawn? Sport was already political during Bensemann’s lifetime 100 years ago, but the term has since undergone a change of interpretation. This is because the experiences of twelve years of NSDAP government led to a change in the concept of “politics” in the post-war period.

His biographer, Bernd-M. Beyer, rightly called him a sports pacifist and quotes Bensemann from an article in the sports magazine “Spiel und Sport” from 1900: “Bensemann himself linked his advertising for sport with political and ethical objectives. It was about alleviating the ‘gaping opposition of the estates’, it was about socio-political tasks, and it was about ‘the effort to preserve the concepts of freedom, tolerance, justice in the inner sporting life, of national feeling without chauvinistic taint towards foreign countries’.”

This article first appeared on WebDE in German as a FRÜF column on 7 September 2022.