‘We would have had little to gain’: British insularity and the World Cup 1930-1958


England’s team lines up for their first ever world cup game vs Chile in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil

This post is a bit of a departure for the blog.  Instead of Polish football I write here about Britain’s conflicted relationship with the game it created and how this was reflected in their attitude to early World Cups.  A Polish version of this text appeared in the ‘Polish Blizzard’ Kopalnia. If you read Polish you can order that wonderful book here.  Without further ado, let’s get down to the story…

It’s almost an inevitability before every World Cup, the English media starts to ratchet up the tension plying us with questions: ‘Will this be our year?’, ‘will we finally break the hex of 1966?’, ‘will football come ‘home’ once more?’ To many England fans this over-the-top hype is a source of consternation and, partly due to poor form, there seems to be a more realistic attitude in England towards the approaching World Cup in Brazil. This time around it seems most people will be happy with a good showing and perhaps a quarter-final berth.

Despite this new-found reticence, the World Cup still plays a central role in the average English football fan’s world-view – achieving success at the tournament would give the footballing community a rush of positivity and a defeat would bring months of soul-searching. Once however it was very different, once England turned down the chance to play at the World Cup not just once, or twice but three times in a row and Charles Sutcliffe, a leading figure in the Football League, was able to dismiss the 1934 World Cup as ‘a joke.’

To see how this was the case we need to cast our minds back to the origins of the game itself and understand the nature of Britain as an Imperial power and its gradual decline. For a very long time Britain had an uneasy relationship with the game it founded, especially as it developed outside its shores. This article will show how reactions to the World Cup in Britain reflect the country’s understanding of its place within the world and illustrates how the tournament only began to gain importance when Britain’s status as a true world power had ended for good.

Britain is of course the home of the modern, codified game of football. The generally accepted narrative is that the country’s public schools fastened on to existing folk games, giving them an organised shape and, what’s more important, rules and regulations. Duly organised the game spread across the country like wildfire in the second half of the 19th century with the primary landmarks being the organisation of the first FA cup in 1872 and the Football League in 1888.

This was a period where Britain was the most powerful state in the world. It possessed an empire which stretched to all corners of the globe and and a mixture of the British principles of free trade and industrially based modernity dominated global thinking. Britain was not only a world power but was also seen as a model of modernity and progress by elites across the planet.

Football had a role to play in this. Indeed the beautiful game was brought to countries around the world by British engineers, tradesmen and civil servants. While abroad, Brits set up their own sides and taught the locals both how to play the game and in what spirit it was to be played. But it wasn’t simply a one-way process. Local elites also set up their own clubs and, perhaps more importantly, football became seen as a litmus test of modernity. If you wanted to be seen as modern and progressive, you could take up the game of football – something which clearly underlines the respect for British values at the time. In this way the sport eventually took root outside of Britain, with a plethora of local leagues and cup competitions being set up.

Despite football’s inexorable spread, Britain at the turn of the 20th century still saw itself as the game’s unchallenged global leader. Britain had invented football, it possessed a developed league system and in 1885, far earlier than in any other country, it legalised professionalism. As far as the British footballing establishment was concerned, nowhere else mattered.

The spread of international football

Although sporadic matches were played between international sides in the early 20th century, initially there was no organisation in charge of the international game. At first Britain was expected to take the lead in establishing such a body, however it dawdled so long that a French sports body, the USFSA, eventually created FIFA (Fėdėration internationale de Football Association) in May 1904 in Paris. Britain’s relationship with FIFA was rather tempestuous until right up to the Second World War.

British FAs first joined several years after the organisation was founded in 1906, but then left again in 1920, refusing to be part of a FIFA which permitted the membership of the German and Austrian national sides. Britain believed that the football teams of the First World War’s defeated powers should not take part in international competition. Although Britain rejoined FIFA in 1924, four years later they left once more due to arguments over broken-time payments – i.e. compensation for players who had to take time away from clubs to play internationally. British football associations would not return to FIFA until after the Second World War.

In the first half of the twentieth century when Brits talked about international football they would have been referring to games between British national sides. The first ever ‘international’ match was held between England and Scotland in 1872 and it soon became an annual encounter. For Scottish fans the game was a chance to prove their worth against their larger neighbours and was fiercely anticipated. Attendances at the games were very large – in 1912 the match in Scotland was watched by a record crowd of 127,000 fans. English players who took part in games held in Scotland commented on the raucous atmosphere which helped Scotland’s play considerably.

The Home Nations’ Championship (established in 1884) between England, Ireland, Wales and Scotland continued to be the major international football tournament for the British Isles until well after the Second World War. Historians however argue that the tournament was more important for the smaller British nations – at this time there was not such a direct link between English national identity and the national football team. Indeed to many the English national game was still considered to be cricket as it fit more easily into elite visions of English identity. Football was the game of the country’s industrial cities and working classes – and thus more problematic for those that walked the corridors of power.

England and the inter-war World Cups

For the great majority of the inter-war period British national sides were thus isolated from international football. Historian Peter Beck in his book ‘Scoring for Britain’ explains what was behind this:

‘(It was) based on a strong concept of Britishness, a belief in the fundamental superiority of British football, and the primacy of the domestic league programmes.’

The argument generally goes that British national sides simply did not consider international football as being fundamentally important. This can be traced back to a dismissive and conservative attitude from those in charge of the game. When announcing the English departure from FIFA in 1928 the aforementioned Charles Sutcliffe was able to state:

‘I don’t care a brass farthing about the improvement of the game in France, Belgium, Austria or Germany. The FIFA does not appeal to me. An organisation where such football associations as those of Uruguay and Paraguay, Brazil and Egypt, Bohemia and Pan Russia, are co-equal with England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland seems to be a case of magnifying the midgets. If Central Europe or any other district want to govern football let them confine their power and authority to themselves and we can look after our own affairs.’

These kind of conservative attitudes were also common in the domestic game – nothing has changed there some of you might say! One example of this was the British attitude to coaching – something to which there was initially considerable resistance. In the inter-war period many believed that football clubs should simply have trainers to look after professional footballers’ physical fitness. Indeed many British coaches felt they could only be fully appreciated by moving away from the British Isles. Here they found players willing to learn skills and not just turn up and play. Negative British reactions to the first World Cup in Uruguay were thus entirely in keeping with prevailing opinions in Britain. The English FA’s rejection letter was wonderfully curt in its tone:

‘Dear Sir,

The letter of the 10th ultimo from the Associacion Uruguaya de Football inviting a Representative team of the Football Association to visit Uruguay in July and August next to play in the Worlds Championship (sic) in Montevideo has been considered by our international committee. I am instructed to express regret at our inability to accept the invitation.

F.J. Wall, sec.’

Further rejections followed for the 1934 and 1938 World Cups so – while Italians and Uruguayans were making history – British players remained at home. In terms of press coverage of the event, broadsheet newspapers paid it very little regard. Indeed The Times, the newspaper of the British elites, did not contain any information whatsoever about the first two tournaments. In turn in 1938 the newspaper only included a five-line Reuters’ report of the final. The Manchester Guardian also spent little time on the tournament – although it did carry a match report of the 1930 final. In 1934 the paper clearly illustrated what it thought about the competition:

‘England, Scotland and Wales were wise in abstaining. It would have been too much to expect our top players to maintain top form into the summer or to ask them after the strain of eight months of the most exacting League competitions in the world to conserve the qualities which success in the competition will demand. We would have had little to gain. Despite a few disturbing reverses on the continent, our football prestige remains high. On the other hand failure in this event might have had unwelcome effects.’

Despite this aloof attitude it is important to underline that Britain was not entirely isolated from the international game in the inter-war period. Peter Beck has shown that the British government in the 1930s started to understand that the game could tentatively be used for matters of cultural diplomacy. Initially the British government had strictly separated issues of sports and politics, but felt they had to react after Mussolini’s Italy, Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia used sports to show the strength of their political regimes. For the British government then, sport could be used in order to ‘disseminate British ideas and beliefs.’

One way they did so was by putting pressure on the FA to arrange friendlies against politically ‘useful’ opponents. A classic example of this were the games played between England and Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Playing Germany for England was a continuation of the British policy of appeasing Hitler – indeed in the 1938 friendly between the two sides the England team were encouraged by the foreign office to make the Nazi salute. The team agreed – surely the most ignominious political act by an English football team in their long history. While British national sides avoided the World Cup it was left to British club sides to fly the flag abroad. Before the Second World War British sides toured Europe and South America regularly – in fact this was one sure-fire method for clubs to make money in the close-season.

England at the World Cup 1950-8

English football’s attitude to the rest of the world changed somewhat after the Second World War. The people who ran the game felt there was more to gain from integration instead of remaining aloof and insulated from world trends. The main figure in this change of approach was the head of the English FA, their secretary Stanley Rous – a man who would go on to become FIFA President in 1961. Rous saw football as a way of maintaining British influence over the world in an uncertain post-war climate.

He was influential in convincing the British FAs to rejoin FIFA in 1946 and he used his connections to get British coaches good positions abroad. Rous for example was instrumental in the appointment of George Raynor as Swedish national team coach – Raynor would go on to win an Olympic Games and finish third in two World Cups with the Scandinavian country.

As a result of this change of tack, the English football team finally appeared in their first World Cup finals in 1950. FIFA decided that teams which finished in the top two places in the British Home Nations’ Championship would advance to the competition. England finished first and, interestingly enough, the second place finishers Scotland refused to go the finals. Why was this? Well their secretary George Graham had announced previously that they would only go if they finished as winners!

England would not cover themselves in glory in their first World Cup campaign. After beating Chile 2-0 they then lost their next two games, one of them 1-0 against a USA side consisting almost entirely of amateurs. The tournament also did not enthral the British public, as historian Matthew Taylor states:

‘The media showed little interest in the tournament: There was no BBC radio commentary or television broadcasts and some newspapers, such as the Times, did not even send a correspondent.’

This lack of enthusiasm shows that falling in love with the tournament would be a slow process for the British, who still looked at the football world with reticence. Several events in the 1950s pushed the British to accept the international game with more conviction. The first was the catastrophic 6-3 loss of the English national team to the ‘Mighty Magyar’ side of Puskas, Kocsis and Hidegkuti in November 1953. It was not simply the defeat but its manner that made English football question its belief in its own superiority. The Hungarian side’s agility and flexibility embarrassed the English – and the loss was compounded by a 7-1 hammering in a friendly in Budapest the following May.

Willy Meisl, the renowned Austrian-Jewish emigree football journalist, was one of the few to realise the problem with British football. Meisl had been forced to emigrate to the United Kingdom to escape persecution in Nazi Germany – and had originally loved the game in Britain. He however quickly discovered that something was deeply wrong. In his 1955 book Soccer Revolution he wrote the following:

‘The unpalatable truth is that English soccer has gradually deteriorated, finally fallen off its pedestal and now keeps on rolling downwards. No longer does it impress by its quality, but only by its breadth. With her 40,000 clubs England still is the most diligent soccer player. The sorriest feature in this drama is that the English, with very few exceptions, cannot get themselves to recognize what has happened. In their self-satisfaction and conceit they still fancy themselves the first in the football world and their defeats sheer accidents. The fact is that English soccer has an enormous amount to learn from the rest of the world, about training, courses, tactics, organisation and strategy.’

Despite Meisl’s worries the Hungary débâcle was the beginning of a period of greater honesty for English football. In the 1954 World Cup the tone of the media was much more humble. England did well to battle through to the quarter-finals, only to eventually fall 4-2 to Uruguay. The Manchester Guardian reported England’s plight thus:

‘When all this has been said, the fact remains that the Uruguayans were technically far the better footballers. The contrast between the two teams lay not only in individual skill but in teamwork. When England’s attack reached the danger zone there were usually seven or more Uruguayans to be beaten and yet in midfield play Uruguay seemed always to have a spare man. The English forwards time and again were in the wrong position and far too many attacks were spoiled with inaccurate passes.’

Indeed the mid-1950s brought increased soul-searching in all areas of British life. The 1956 Suez Crisis is seen as the moment when Britain finally realised its days as an imperial power were over. At Suez British beliefs in its inherent superiority had been shown to be detached from reality. Matthew Taylor explains that it was at this time that the performances of the English national football team began to matter – for England finally needed to show that it could succeed on the global stage. One other important development tied England to the outside footballing world in the 1950s – the birth of the European Cup.

Although England once more showed its insularity by refusing to enter a side for the inaugural competition in 1955 – English football teams and television audiences quickly realised the merits of the competition. The excitement across Britain was palpable as a young Manchester United side reached two successive European Cup semi-finals in 1957 and 1958. Tragically Manchester United’s second campaign was devastated by the Munich air Crash. Despite this Britain was hooked by European football.

In the 1958 World Cup for the first and only time four British teams took part in the tournament. Although England and Scotland failed to advance from the group stages, Northern Ireland and Wales qualified for the quarter-finals, eventually being knocked out by France and Brazil respectively. Media coverage of the tournament had by this time considerably increased – with even the elitist Times carrying articles on social and economic aspects of the competition. The more outward-looking Manchester Guardian carried previews of the tournament where the strengths and weaknesses of individual teams were assessed – something which would never have happened in 1930.


It took a long time for Britain to fully understand its place in the world – in many ways it is still trying to readjust its self-image after empire. Britain for many years saw itself as a leader, as a starter of trends and it needed the shock of decolonisation to realise that it wasn’t that special after all. In the world of football it was no different – the associated game originated in Britain, and Brits spread it the lengths and breadths of the globe. For many years the British footballing establishment could not fathom that the rest of the world was catching up – and what’s more it had the temerity to defeat it at its own game.

This can be shown by the aloof and arrogant way the World Cup was originally viewed by British Football Associations. The defeat by Hungary in 1953 finally broke through the British footballing glass and forced the country to look at the international game through new eyes. But Britain was not able to adapt immediately – indeed we are still trying to adjust now. In a couple of months no doubt tabloid headlines will scream ‘England will win the World Cup!’ Oh well, at least we want to be in it these days.

2 thoughts on “‘We would have had little to gain’: British insularity and the World Cup 1930-1958

  1. Pingback: football favourites (weekly) | footysphere faves

  2. Pingback: The World Cup – 1966 (Background and Preparations) – The 1888 Letter

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