Football Coaching and Military Science
"Concerning Football [Soccer] playing, I protest to you may rather be called a friendly kind of fighting, rather than recreation." ~Anonymous
Taking a shot on goal is not the same as pulling a trigger on an AK-47 assault rifle. Despite the precision of the foot to the ball which is rifled into space, dependent upon the trajectory, the ball may or may not enter into the net-- a maneuver which calls for a quick instinct, but does not require the science and emotional stability in the same way a soldier would use a weapon to send a bullet into the body of an enemy. However, there are some similarities between the nature of International Football (Soccer) and the art of war in general which should be studied by modern armies. Football can be a way of creating comradeship among masses of troops. Football also is a dance in civilian life as much as it is a dance of discipline in physical exercise and teamwork that can be transferred into tactical battle experience.
Actually, Football has its roots in military history, according to the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA). Indeed, as their official website proclaims: “The very earliest form of the game for which there is scientific evidence was an exercise from a military manual dating back to the second and third centuries BC in China. This Han Dynasty forebear of Football was called Tsu' Chu, consisting of kicking a leather ball filled with feathers and hair through an opening, measuring only 30-40cm in width, into a small net affixed onto long bamboo canes. In one variation of this exercise, the player was not permitted to aim at his target unimpeded, but had to use his feet, chest, back and shoulders while trying to withstand the attacks of his opponents. Use of the hands was not permitted”.
Football in the ancient way, as it has also revealed itself in modern times, was not just seen as a form of recreational sport for the masses, but a discipline used as a military form of conduct or exercise. Although many nation-states throughout the world have Football teams within their army systems, it became a more significant form of sport and military discipline with the advent of the Soviet Union. Thus, it was the Soviet military system that saw the potential for Football being utilized as a powerful political weapon and military sport that could generate martial enthusiasm among the Russian working class, and even beyond the borders of the Soviet Union itself.
The military aspect of Football in the Soviet Union is important to understand in order to give any modern military theories on how to develop such a sport into an activity that will bring about not only physical fitness but also serve as a discipline of team-work and drill that can be a subtle contribution to battlefield cohesion in terms of comradeship and tactical flexibility under stressful fighting conditions.
But before, I undertake to discuss such a way of transforming Football into a military program or military discipline, a brief history of the game as embedded within the Soviet system is of value. After the Russian Revolution in 1917, the Dynamo Moscow Football Club (FC) eventually found itself under the authority of the Interior Ministry and its head Felix Dzerzhinsky, chief of the Cheka, the Soviet Union's secret police, and a statesman and revolutionary nicknamed "Iron Felix." The team's roots went back even further to the Football club Morozovtsi Orekhovo-Zuevo Moskva, founded as a factory team in 1887.
Therefore, the Soviet authorities understood how workers and internal security could be unified within an early revolutionary tradition and also be linked up with military ability. Russian military's CSKA Sports Club, a Soccer team actually founded in 1911 after the 1905 Revolution, was a political apparatus for Soviet soldiers and officers alike, not excluding high Soviet officials.
Although CSKA is no longer a part of the Russian military, the Russian Ministry of Defense is a PFC CSKA shareholder, however, and the central club claims them as their own (see CSKA Moscow). Therefore, one can state that Football is never far from the military tradition of the Russian Army, and that much of its leadership, tied to the history of the club, is symbolic of army dedication, its heroism and its own fitness programs -- which is not always apparent, for the Russian soldier like the former Soviet soldier loves Football as a way of life.
The People’s Republic of China, like the former Soviet Union, also have a history of combining Football within its own modern, military history. August First Football Team (Chinese: 八一; pinyin: Bāyī) or its full name The People's Liberation Army Bayi Football Club which can be simplified in Chinese as 中国人民解放军八一足球俱乐部 was a Football team under the sport branch of the People's Liberation Army (Simplified Chinese: 中国人民解放军) that played in China's Football league system between 1951 and 2003 where they were predominantly based in Beijing.
The club was formed on August 1, 1927 by the People's Liberation Army and chose the name of Bayi (八一) meaning Ba (八) for eight and Yi (一) for one. Initially they started out as an amateur team which occasionally participated in multi-sport events until they took part in the 1951 inaugural Chinese national Football league tournament. The Liberation Army high command was strategic in their outlook as seeing Football not only as a discipline sport within the framework of their military, but also as a propaganda weapon among the Chinese masses and the world at large. They therefore scoured mainland China for as much Football talent among the various army teams as they could find and brought them into the Bayi Club, thereby establishing themselves as one of the top teams within the league, winning five national league titles in their history.
When the Chinese Football league became a fully professional unit in 1994, the “Bayi” club was given special dispensation to remain as semi-professional as possible by having all their members active in the military while abstaining from foreign players and sponsorship.
The Chinese military leadership were cognizant of understanding how creating an army Football team that could win championships in an all-China professional league would raise the morale not to mention the public adulation for the People’s Liberation Army.
Unfortunately, because of the changing contemporary world in terms of economic globalization, the Bayi Football team fell victim to the corporate competition within the Chinese economy itself, since it could not hold on to its most creative Footballers, and eventually the team was abandoned.
By understanding the history of the People’s Liberation former Football team “Bayi”, one can also draw serious political lessons of how military history like Football itself plays itself out in the dialectical process of a nation’s larger ongoing history. Keeping a tradition of Football within the framework of a military armed forces is a difficult task that requires constant modification and creative thinking, for as an army changes so too does its sports programs, such as Football, mirroring the élan of team spirit or even various physical disciplines of the army.
Conversely, other military institutions have used Football as a form of direct repression of the people’s cultural aspirations. Consider the way General Francisco Franco invested much time, not to mention governmental support, to the Real Madrid Club following the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. it was not just Franco’s overwhelming support for the fascist-oriented Real Madrid Club, but it was the general’s intent on making football in Spain a rallying cry for his nationalist, fascist agenda for all of Spain.
Indeed, as the sports writer Jimmy Burns observed: “The new regime moved rapidly to take control of all football institutions across the country. A super-sports ministry with overarching power over the Spanish Football Federation was staffed mainly by right-wing Falangists. Its chief was General Jose Moscardó, one of Franco’s most loyal officers. Major sporting events, including football competitions, resonated to the sound of the old Civil War rallying cries, ‘Arriba España’ and ‘Viva Franco’" iii Thus, we see through sports manipulation regarding football by General Franco how football can fall into a farcical submission of political intent and propaganda machinations which only dilutes the spectacular of the game.
It was FC Barcelona whose history was interrogated and challenged, part of the Catalan culture that would suffer under Franco's 36-year dictatorship. The history of the humiliations and the team's resistance on the pitches in Spain are legendary and to this day give inspiration to many oppressed peoples throughout the world.
So, we see therefore civilian Football teams which resist dogmatic forms of militarism like FC Barcelona, Spartak Moscow and the Kiev city team Start (Cyrillic: Старт) which represented the city Bread Factory No.1 and played several Football games in World War II. The FC Start were involved in controversial matches with Nazi Footballers, who were part of the occupied forces. Indeed, the Germans arrested nine of the Start players, but the first among them was nine days after the match. Five, not four, players were murdered by the SS, three among them half a year after the match.
Although there will never be a historically objective account of the Kiev Football team in its affair of Football combative nature against the fascist German footballer, it nevertheless reveals that the nature or essence of Football itself is never far from the potent nature of military history.
Now in this discussion of "Football Coaching and Military Science," it is only natural to approach the realm of differences or similarities between a Manager of a Football club and an officer who leads a company, division, or larger military units. As a former high school Football (Soccer) coach and then a referee of high school Soccer matches, I came away with the following conclusions over the years:
The average Footballer is more of a rebel than a revolutionary in spirit or in critical thinking, and therefore lacks the understanding of overall strategy.
The majority of Footballers from high school club level to professional Football leagues acquire the instincts for tactical positioning, while developing through technical training the implementation of the offensive attack, defense and the counter-attack.
A few of the forwards or strikers in the process of being a Footballer develop the ‘killer instinct’ no different than a sniper in a military special forces.
Overall, a Football team learns the concept of team maneuvers, tactical cohesion and the steadiness of an offensive attack being linked together by a formation on the pitch. However, it is the Football coach or manager who gives the Football team the necessary guidance in terms of overall technical skills to shepherd the ball, dribble the ball forward and distribute the ball with the ultimate strategy to score as many goals as possible and defeat the other Football team at will, if possible.
If the coach or manager is astute and has the strategic skills, let us say, of a general, then he will create different kinds of tactical procedures for the many scenarios that can possible take place on the pitch. Victory, a stalemate or even an obvious defeat must be considered, and thus the coach must maintain a comradeship within the team collective regardless of the final outcome, so as to able to play another day.
What one can learn from Football and apply to military science is about not falling into a rigidity of strategic and tactical stagnation. In other words, there is always a need to grow and learn from others in the ever-creative realm of military science, the way a Football trainer or coach can learn from his own coaching mistakes and be willing to adapt to a greater vision than his own.
This understanding of parallels between Football and military science and how they can complement each other in terms of creating a theory of practice would be palpable to a socialist-democracy way of thinking.
I deeply admire Gustav Sebes, the great Hungarian Football coach, and I remember what the Football critic and writer Amlan Majumdar wrote about Sebes: “Gustav Sebes’ political ideology not only affected the administration of Football in the country, but it also bore upon his Footballing tactics with the national team. He was a tactician who believed in ‘Socialist Football’ – where every player has equal responsibilities both in attack and defence and everyone can play in any position across the field. That essentially took out any form of rigidity in a formation. It enhanced the movements of the midfielders and attackers as they interchanged their roles on the pitch”.
The essence of ‘Socialist Football’ is that everyone can be democratic in their responsibilities on the pitch, and that there can be fluidity in terms of the intertwining of the offensive attack and defending one’s goal from a counter-attack. Such tactical fluidity can be a metaphor on the way troops in combat situations can also be innovative and creative in their field position, although in the deeper sense it is not about attainting a victory without bloodshed, but about survival and defeating the enemy through the process annihilation.
In my own humble managerial life, I achieved an undefeated season coaching a girls’ Soccer team in Vermont, where I used a 4-2-4 formation which I had learned from watching Brazilian Football in the early nineties. What I discovered about the girls and myself was that we were successful because we were in concert with a vision of strategy and tactics that were practiced over and over again on the pitch as the way a ballet team would practice in a ballet studio their foot movements day after day in syncopation.
Another important element to mention about that important period in my life, was when I was coaching that girls Football team, I was also reading Clausewitz’s strategic masterpiece, On War. I was aware the girls I was coaching were mostly working-class girls with a few middle-class girls on the team. I had to convince them that although they came to Football from humble beginnings, as young women they could be as good as boys’ team in the school - through daily hard drills and understanding the formation patterns I required from them, we could win and not come away defeated.
Because of their own family’s adversities and their struggle as women in America, they knew instinctively what was required of them, even if they did not always agree on all my coaching methodologies. I worked with them using a socialist ideology in my theory and practice as a coach. Such a professional attitude can be applied in an army environment as well.
One cannot escape political struggle even on the pitch, and the conflict is carried on as war by another means, in this case, Football. Therefore what the Hungarian goalie Gyula Grosics wrote about his coach Sebes holds true even in our era: “Sebes was very committed to socialist ideology, and you could sense that in everything he said. He made a political issue of every important match or competition, and he often talked about how the struggle between capitalism and socialism takes place on the Football field just as it does anywhere else.”
When one kicks a Football across a pitch, one should remember those workers who created the pitch, the factory workers who made your Football and kit, and that being a dedicated Footballer is no different than being in the ranks of an army. Football and military science are both arts in the same struggle of human emancipation.