The History of Football Against Fascism with Chris Lee

Chris Lee is a content marketer and copywriter based in the United Kingdom. He launched the football history, travel and culture blog and podcast, Outside Write, in 2015. He has written two books on the history of football (what us Americans call soccer), Origin Stories: The Pioneers Who Took Football to the World (2021) and The Defiant: A History of Football Against Fascism (2022), with a third on the way in 2025. You can follow him @OutsideWrite on X and Instagram. In this interview, we discuss The Defiant and the history of football against fascism.

Enter the giveaway below to win a copy of The Defiant (U.S. and U.K. residents only).

The Defiant by Chris Lee, a book about the history of football against fascism

Greg: What inspired you to write a book about football and fascism?

Chris: Back in the late 1990s, I wrote my university dissertation on Spanish regional identity and how that manifests through football. The main case study was the ‘El Clásico’ rivalry between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona. Some of that related to the era of Spain under the Franco dictatorship (1939-75). This opened my eyes further to the close relationship between football and politics. 

In my first book, Origin Stories: The Pioneers Who Took Football to the World, (2021) I explored football and national identity and class. That led to my second book, The Defiant: A History of Football Against Fascism (2022). There have been several books exploring fascism within football, but none seemed to focus exclusively on the opposition to fascism within football—the players, officials, clubs, fans etc.—so I majored on that.

Greg: The Defiant covers the history of football resistance to several dictators, but I’ll ask about the big one: how did footballers and fans resist Hitler and Nazism?

Chris: Each fascist dictatorship experienced different types of resistance. Within Nazi Germany itself (1933-45), footballing opposition was most subtle, as the government apparatus was so repressive and effective. The first notable state activity was the banning of Jewish and Marxist officials, which impacted clubs like Bayern Munich, Karlsruhe, Eintracht Frankfurt and Borussia Dortmund. Some officials left the country, while some actively resisted. For example, former Dortmund player Heinrich Czerkus, was arrested for producing anti-Nazi literature, and was executed in the last weeks of the war.

Outside of Nazi Germany, opposition was more overt. In 1935, Nazi Germany visited England—then seen as the most prestigious opposition, as the traditional inventors of the game. However, England rotated internationals between London grounds at this point (Wembley was not yet the national stadium) and the chosen venue was Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane ground. This choice was problematic because Tottenham was traditionally home of a large Jewish population. There were protests before the game, with one man even scaling the main stand roof to slash the rope hoisting the swastika. 

Similarly, at the France 1938 World Cup, Germany’s side—which had by now absorbed Austrian players—were booed by the locals, which included anti-fascist Spanish and Italian diasporas fleeing fascism in their countries. Germany were eliminated early but fascist Italy went on to win the tournament, so faced vocal opposition everywhere they went.

During the war itself (1939-45), Nazi Germany occupied much of Europe. Within France, Greece, Poland, Czechoslavakia and the Netherlands (where more than 400 footballers died in the Dutch resistance), we see footballers as part of the wider local resistance movements—helping hide Jews, running messages and weapons, sabotaging assets, etc. In Poland—the only country under Nazi control where sports were banned—clandestine leagues took place in Warsaw and Krakow parks, where spotters would look out for Nazis and alert the players and fans to disperse. Some footballers took part in the Warsaw Uprising in 1944.

Chris Lee, author of The Defiant
Chris Lee

Elsewhere in occupied Eastern Europe, we see football matches between locals and the Nazis as a distraction. The most famous example is the infamous ‘Death Match’ of Kyiv in the summer of 1942, when local Ukrainian side FC Start beat a Nazi team, despite apparent intimidation to lose. Four of the Ukrainian players died later in Nazi detention for reasons unrelated to the match, but post-war Soviet propaganda sowed the myth that all the FC Start eleven were executed because they dared to win. The story is said to have inspired the film Escape to Victory.

Greg: Do you think there’s something special about football compared to other sports that makes it conducive to organizing resistance?

Chris: Football/soccer is the most followed and high-profile sport in the world. It has been political since the very start, when working-class men in northern England wrested sporting control away from the upper classes that dominated the early game and opposed its professionalisation in the 1880s.

The mass mobilisation of people around an identity—for example, the football club—makes football perfect for mass movement. It’s very hard even for a militarised dictatorship to arrest tens of thousands of people. This is why it was possible for the Basque and Catalan languages to be spoken in stadiums in the Basque Country and Catalonia at a time when the language was suppressed by the Franco regime, for example.

It’s important to note that most people just go to watch a football match for the unscripted drama of the sport, rather than any conscious political reasons. This may differ for fans of clubs with a pronounced ultrà (hardcore fan) culture or clubs that have acquired a distinct political identity over the years, like FC St. Pauli in Hamburg, Germany, or Rayo Vallecano from Madrid, Spain.

Greg: What role has football-related activism played in the twenty-first century culture wars?

Chris: Plenty! At a macro level, we can see individual footballers make a real difference. Take Manchester United and England forward Marcus Rashford, for example. He has done a lot of great work in the around free school meals for children, which often becomes a target from the right, who deem it ‘woke’. Rashford also received racist abuse after missing a penalty in England’s Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy, but he also became a rallying point for those who wanted to stand against racism in both football and society.

Then we see the whole issue of the taking of the knee, which has been divisive. Kneeling during the national anthem is an anti-racism statement that started in the United States with American football player Colin Kaepernick. It’s become fairly commonplace in soccer since.

However, there are some great political grassroots movements across the world. In England, there’s significant social activism at non-league level, for example, at London clubs Dulwich Hamlet or Clapton CFC, among others. FC St. Pauli was a real trailblazer in this regard and has inspired many movements around the world. Their fanbase has been active since the early 1980s, at least.

Greg: What most surprised you as you were researching and writing this book?

Chris: I was worried I may not have enough material for my 75,000-word target, but as it happened, I could have gone on. There are so many stories that hadn’t yet been told in English—like the Italian and Greek partisans—but the story that I found most intriguing was the Portuguese cup final of 1969. The country was under the longest-running dictatorship in western Europe, but—buoyed by the movements in 1968 and with Portugal’s colonial wars seeing many students conscripted to fight in Africa—the university side Académica de Coimbra made it all the way to the final. 

They played the mighty Benfica and even led late on but eventually lost to a Eusébio goal in extra-time. The result was largely insignificant, as thousands of students made their way to Lisbon singing anti-government songs and waving banners. They spooked the authorities so much that no government officials went to the match and the live TV transmission was halted. However, even those listening on the radio could hear the students’ chants. 

The ‘New State’ dictatorship fell in the Carnation Revolution of 25 April 1974, and some people credit the 1969 cup final as giving the Portuguese people the confidence to stand up to authorities. Football can a powerful change agent.

Visit Chris Lee’s Outside Write website to learn more about him and his work. And for more interviews like this one, check out The KineSophy Library.

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