When most writers agree on a subject, it is usually the case that the subject is more complex than they think and often the case that the editorialists have the wrong end of it. So it is with the debate over whether England should play a World Cup match in Zimbabwe.
In England, despite The Sun stating that ‘the issue is simple’ and The Times talking of a ‘clear moral case’, I find the whole thing arduous and ambiguous, both as to what may be the right thing to do and as to the possible consequences of doing so. Not the least of the problems is that a quick examination of sporting relations with despotic regimes shows that to refuse to play with them would be unprecedented.
The first time that the British Foreign Office, Home Office and Parliament discussed whether a sporting fixture should be played or not was in 1935. The Germans had been invited to play England at White Hart Lane by the Football Association. Questions were asked in the House and objectors cited the alleged murder of a Jewish footballer by a crowd at Rabitor in German Upper Silesia.
Sir John Simon, the Home Secretary, declined to intervene. The match went ahead. The German players held aloft small flags with swastikas on them. Their shirts were embossed with a picture of an eagle holding a swastika in its claws.
Ten thousand German fans attended and heiled Hitler as they sang Deutschland über Alles. They also, at their delegation’s insistence, were allowed to sing Horst-Wessel-Lied , the semi-official hymn which glorified a Nazi who had been killed by political enemies in 1930.
The English responded by singing God Save the King more lustily than usual. England won 3-0. The Daily Sketch wrote: "We don’t think there has ever been a more noble demonstration for the understanding between two peoples."
The surprise was not that the FA should have invited a team described by Germany’s press officer Guido von Mengden as the ‘political soldiers of the Fuhrer’, but that they should have invited anyone from outside the United Kingdom. The FA were obstinately isolationist.
Only seven years previously, FA member Charles Sutcliffe had said: "I don’t care a brass farthing about the improvement of the game in France, Belgium, Austria or Germany.
The Fifa (world governing body) 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 me to be a case of magnifying the midgets."
Britain kept up its close sporting links with unmagnified midgets in Nazi Germany, sending a team to compete in the Berlin Olympics in 1936. According to Roland Allen, who was present: "The eyes-right of the British party was coldly misunderstood. Nobody seemed to know, or pretended they did not, that it was intended to be a polite salute from people who were not used to having international politics mixed with their sport."
Two years later, the football team corrected their lapse in manners when they agreed to a pre-match Nazi salute. Or so thought Sir Stanley Rous.
At the time, these actions attracted little adverse comment. The Times reported that the England team "immediately made a good impression by raising their arms in the German salute." An interesting take on what one might have thought was an occasion offering ‘a clear moral case’ for keeping one’s hands in one’s pockets.
A year later, the England team, playing in Italy, gave a fascist salute to all four corners of the Milan stadium both pre and post-match. No one complained.
Yet, should Nasser Hussain refuse to shake Robert Mugabe’s hand, he will be vilified by many for having visited the country to deliver the insult.
Now a case can be made that Hitler in 1938, having invaded Czechoslovakia and Austria and on the cusp of stomping into Poland, was less obviously a ‘bad guy’ than Mugabe is. But, even factoring in hindsight, I find it a weak one.
Nor does the argument that sport and politics have depressingly and inevitably and uselessly become more blurred in the intervening years assist those who believe our cricketers should stay rather than go.
The last time the Government requested that sports people refrain from participating in an event was the 1980 Moscow Olympics. They hoped that this would serve as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. The athletes disregarded their wishes. Within a decade or so, the Soviet Union had crumbled. Within two decades or so, the prime movers behind the boycott, the United States of America, were themselves invading Afghanistan. Sebastian Coe’s gold played little or no part in either development.
Sporting boycotts — aside, perhaps, from those directed at the South African apartheid regime — rarely make any political difference. Vile as Mugabe is, a slither of comfort can be drawn, in a purely cricketing sense, from the fact that sport in his country is free of all racial prejudice.
And while racism directed against whites is as abhorrent as racism directed against blacks, matters are further complicated when the country suggesting a boycott, in part on the grounds of the former, has a history of the latter.
For whatever the England Cricket Board and Hussain do or say in the coming months it is unlikely to be as boneheaded as the words and actions of James Angus Graham, the seventh Duke of Montrose.
A man who played his part in the election of Ian Smith as Prime Minister of Rhodesia in 1964, received the post of external affairs minister as his reward, and once wrote in an official report: "It is a common observation that the African is a bright and promising little fellow up to the age of puberty. He then becomes hopelessly inadequate and it is well known that this is due to his almost total obsession with matters of sex."
Those sins were committed a while ago and may have no bearing on the present decision, but were the English cricket team to refuse to play as an expression of protest at the prevailing regime, a precedent would be established that would impact on the future of sport.
Which other countries would join Zimbabwe on the unwelcome list? Under what circumstances would they be removed from it?
Are there any grounds for distinguishing individuals from teams, or clubs from countries?
Such questions are better left to lawyers within government rather than people who happen to be good at sport.