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'Play Up! Play Up! And Play the Game!'

Martin Johnes explores why sport is an important topic for historical study.

It is a common refrain that the two dates in English history that everybody schoolboy knows are 1066 and 1966. One event had a profound impact on the course of history in the British Isles while the other was just a football match. Yet soccer, like many sports, can be so much more than simply a game. It may not be more important than life or death, as the Liverpool FC manager Bill Shankly once famously claimed, but it can be a window through which we can view society.

When England won the World Cup in 1966, the nation as a whole was on a high. The Beatles were revolutionising popular music, the miniskirt was making London the fashion capital of the world, there was a popular and populist Labour government in power and the economy was on the up. England's triumph at Wembley seemed to confirm that the nation had found its destiny again after the painful transition that followed World War II and the dissolution of the Empire. Since 1966 the World Cup win has become a symbol of a nostalgic nation trapped in past glories and trying to redefine itself and its 'rightful' place in the world. The memory of the triumph may not last as long as William's victory at Hastings but it remains a powerful illustration of the symbolic importance of sport and its place within English national identity.

Yet it is only in the last 20 years that sport has been appreciated as the stuff of serious history and even today it struggles for recognition in some of the more traditional echelons of the subject. Nonetheless, sport's contribution to our understanding of the past extends beyond both symbolic importance and entertaining, but essentially trivial, footnotes. Nor is sports history a matter of just looking at how sport reflects society. Sport itself is an active agent in the world we live in.

Class and History

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