The French, English and Scottish football seasons have all started during the last few weeks and this has got me thinking about differences in attitudes to football and the two sides of the Channel. For example, I recently realized that I knew of the favourite football teams of all but one of the UK prime ministers from during my lifetime but could only name the preferred club of one French president from the same period.
When it comes to UK prime ministers, it makes sense to start with Thatcher as her arrival at 10 Downing Street occurred in the same year as my own arrival in the maternity wing of Ninewells Hospital in Dundee. Her successor as prime minister, John Major, once said that Thatcher “dutifully turned up to watch great sporting events, but always looked rather out of place”; London 2012 chairman Seb Coe argued that ”she never really understood sport until it migrated – and sometimes mutated – beyond the back page, or impacted on other areas of policy”.
The favourite teams of her successors as prime minister are as follows: Chelsea (John Major), Newcastle United (Tony Blair), Raith Rovers (Gordon Brown) and Aston Villa (David Cameron). Tony Blair has talked of his childhood memories of watching Newcastle United at St. James’s Park and the mis-reporting of these recollections once sparked debate over Blair apparently having allegedly claimed to recall watching a famous player who had in fact in retired before Blair started watching Newcastle.
Gordon Brown, like Tony Blair, grew up supporting a local team. In Brown’s case, it was Raith Rovers, a team who play in the Fife town of Kirkcaldy. As a Scottish politician with aspirations in the UK parliament, Brown at times faced criticism for underplaying his Scottish roots in order to appeal to a predominantly English UK electorate. A prime example came when he talked of his fond memories of seeing Paul Gascoigne score for England against Scotland at Wembley in the 1996 European Championships.
Current UK prime minister David Cameron claims to support Aston Villa as they were one of the teams who played in the first match that he attended. As Cameron was brought up in Berkshire, he cannot claim that this choice involved following his local team or represents his roots in the same way that Blair or Brown have at times sought to. However, those who see Cameron’s Conservative party as being dominated by a rich elite might feel it appropriate that the prime minister supports a team whose name includes the word ‘villa’.
When it comes to French presidents from 1979 onwards, until recently I only knew that Nicolas Sarkozy was a fan of Paris Saint-Germain. Sarkozy’s presidency, and that of current head of state Francois Hollande, show that publicly demonstrating enthusiasm for sport as a French politician is not always well received. Sarkozy’s enthusiasm for jogging was criticized by right-wing intellectual Alain Finkielkraut for being somewhat unpresidential.
During this summer’s World Cup, Francois Hollande’s enthusiasm for football was criticized by Luc Ferry who – like Sarkozy – is a member of the centre right UMP party that is currently in opposition. Ferry complained about a generation of politicians who he claimed ‘prefer football to the economy or philosophy or history‘ and accused Hollande of abandoning his responsibilities to the French nation by organizing a screening of one of France’s World Cup games in the Elysee Palace, the official residence of the French president. Ferry was not alone in criticizing Hollande for his interest in following the World Cup as this article shows.
In a situation that some would say has parallels with his private life, it appears that Hollande has not been a faithful to a single football team. He has talked of having initially been a fan of FC Rouen due originally being from the Normandy town and having played for their youth teams. However, he has also evoked his liking for Breton sides Nantes and Guingamp as well as his long-held interest in Monaco. Elsewhere, it has been reported that he is a fan of both Monaco and Barcelona.
These attitudes to supporting a football team are in stark contrast to the notion that being a supporter is about remaining loyal to a single team no matter how they are performing. However, it is generally much rarer for public figures in France to show an interest in football and it seems that a lot fewer French people than Brits actually have a favourite team.
Although the size of the French and UK populations is very similar, France is a much larger country in terms of area but has many fewer football teams. While there are 92 league teams in England (and a further 24 teams in a national non-league division immediately below the football league) and 42 in Scotland, there are only 58 teams (of whom no more than 46 can be professional) in France’s three national football leagues.
Consequently, the size and number of teams in France means that it is possible to be quite far from a league football team. As demonstrated by this map of where Ligue 1 teams are located, this is particularly likely to be the case for people living in central France. Additional maps show that this trend is somewhat less prevalent where Ligue 2 teams are concerned but is certainly true when it comes to the teams who compete in Le Championnat National (the third tier of French football).
Although the criticism of French politicians’ interest in sport in many ways points to differing attitudes towards football on the different sides of the Channel, it is nevertheless the case that politicians in both countries are also happy to exploit the sport when it suits and when their national team is doing well. It may be more acceptable for British rather than French politicians to show an interest in football, but France’s 1998 World Cup victory showed that politicians on all sides are happy to exploit football when it can be held up as a positive symbol of French society and the French nation.
How important is it what football team a politician supports? To what extent should politicians take an interest in sport and do they always do so in a sincere manner? Feel free to let me know via the comments box below, I’d really welcome feedback on what I’ve said here.