‘Norway is the country that loves football the most.’ (Simon Kuper, Soccernomics)
The late 1930s and early 1940s had seen the political landscape of Europe dramatically altered. Having swept to power in Germany, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party had undertaken an aggressive military campaign which had precipitated the invasion and annexation of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Belgium, Holland, France, Romania, Denmark and the Baltic States by the summer of 1940.
This rampant spread of vitriolic fascism had deeply scarred Europe, civil societies being torn apart by the brutal and uncompromising German occupiers.
Of course, football was just as susceptible to disruption as other socio-cultural institutions, leagues and teams across the continent being suspended, investigated or dissolved in their hundreds. In France and Holland the Nazi approach to the game had been particularly savage, Jewish clubs and referees being prevented from taking part in competition, explicitly denied access to the game which had sustained them.
Indeed, there is still a degree of bitterness about the perceived lack of opposition to the administrative and anti-semitic measures the Germans took with regard to football in Western Europe. In his exhaustive history of football, The Ball is Round, David Goldblatt writes of an almost quiet complicity with Nazi policies amongst the football community in Holland, little being done to prevent the rounding up of hundreds of Jewish footballers and officials as the Final Solution got underway.
Of course, to resist would have been highly dangerous, but there were other European countries who used sport as a figurehead of a strong resistance movement. A focus of the community and facilitator of social mobilisation, football clubs took a prominent role in a number of anti-Nazi actions around Europe. The prime example of this, after being swiftly invaded in the spring of 1940, was Norway.
The Germans may have invaded Norway with relative ease, but they had great difficulties in keeping its population under control. The students of Oslo University quickly organised demonstrations against the invaders, encouraging people to wear paper clips on their clothes to symbolise being “bound together” as well as instigating an “ice front” against German soldiers. Refusing to speak or even sit next to Germans was commonplace and so infuriated the Nazis to the extent that legislation was passed to counter such measures.
The casual resistance was so successful that the Germans gave up on their attempts to establish total Nazi control, instead allowing a local dictatorship to be formed. The government was essentially an institution at the beck and call of the Third Reich, but it was afforded slightly more autonomy than the administrations in the rest of Europe. It was a moral victory for the resistance.
That said, the Norwegian government (fronted by the country’s own branch of the Nazi Party) appointed its own Sportsführer whose job it was, amongst other things, to control all of Norway’s football teams. Unwilling to be forced to tow the Nazi line, sportsmen and women up and down the country went on strike, refusing to participate in activities administered and organised by the German occupiers.
Shortly after the appointment of the Sportsführer, over 800 members of FK Lyn – one of Norway’s most popular clubs – resigned in disgust at the Germans’ attempts to bring the club “in line” with their policies. Oslo’s Ullevaal stadium, the capital’s major sporting hub, became deserted as only those sympathetic to the Nazi cause continued to engage in athletic pursuits. Where the arena had once hosted crowds as big as 40,000, some of the most significant games in Norwegian football were attracting gates of 30 people or less by 1942.
As the ‘Heroes of the Telemark’ fought to sabotage Hitler’s attempts to create nuclear weapons in the mountains, the general population refused to take part in any facet of society that was run by the Nazis. Undermining German rule of law, illegal football tournaments and other sporting events were arranged in more rural areas, the Norwegian resistance using them as opportunities to spread the word of their work and recruit new militia.
With Nazi power being disregarded in a fashion that was not seen in much of Europe, Heinrich Himmler visited the country in a bid to shore up security and prevent any potential embarrassment to the regime. However, despite his efforts to arrest the organisers of the rebel sporting organisations, the enterprising people of Norway continued to defy their occupiers and flaunt the rules that had been imposed upon them.
It was a truly stunning display of unity from a people in the midst of unprecedented repression, a sign of the power sport can have on people’s lives even in adversity.