Don’t smoke ’em if you got ’em | Coming ban in England stadia another blow to terrace nostalgia

Recto and verso of the early 1920s cigarette card of goalkeeper Jerry Dawson, who played more than 700 games for Burnley FC. Cigarette companies worldwide “issued card sets in an encyclopedic range of subjects,” according to the website of the New York Public Library digital collection, from which this image comes. (Humanities and Social Sciences Library | George Arents Collection)

London | Commercial marketing of cigarettes has a brief history relative to thousands of years of tobacco use. Yet within 10 years of the first machine-rolled tobacco sticks dropping from the production line on 30 Apr 1884 at W. Duke and Sons in Durham, North Carolina, the first image of a footballer had appeared on a cigarette card, a mid-18th-century promotional tool that also acted as a pack stiffener. Writes Hunter Davies in his material history of the sport, Boots, Balls, and Haircuts:

The earliest cigarette cards in the UK featured actresses, soldiers, ships and sportsmen—topics deliberately chosen because most smokers at the time were men. It was in fact small boys who did most of the collecting, swapping the cards or sticking them in albums which the cigarette companies were soon providing. (120)

Such began the long cultural fusion between athletes and smoking, progressing from the cigarette card to tobacco companies’ sponsorship of athletic competition through advertising, then, when this became illegal in the United States and elsewhere, through underwriting of motor racing, women’s tennis, women’s golf, cricket and so on.

Connections between smoking and football likewise have been persistent, with the relationship only in the past 10 years or so, influenced by anti-smoking lobbies, having moved to one of antipathy rather than bonhomie. Any traces of the UK terrace culture after which nostalgists now pine may be snuffed out permanently as of Jul 1, at 6 a.m., when a nationwide public smoking ban comes into force. (The ban is being phased in throughout the home countries and is already in force in Scotland. Northern Ireland and Wales come on board in April.) Ambiguity about whether the Health Act 2006 applies to football stadia was erased following consultation with football supporters; just 10 percent opposed extending the ban.


Naturally, a bastion of satirists and advocates for civil liberties within the UK has been offended, few more so than acerbic Sunday Times columnist Rod Liddle. The one-time BBC producer turned fiction writer, a Church of England attender and champion of a human’s right to vice, he once authored an essay that carried the headline “Resist the Tobacco Taliban” (Sunday Times, 25 Jun 06). His earlier Guardian column referred to a “sententious medical clergy” emphasizing to the public the dangers of passive smoking: “The British Medical Association recently voted by an overwhelming majority to press for a ban of smoking in public places, as if it were smoking, rather than themselves, which posed the greater threat to mankind” (“Health Warning: Doctors Kill,” 16 July 03).

Regarding the Jul 1 ban, Liddle calls on his credentials as a Millwall supporter to champion the working-class pastime of smoking at football. He is, he boasts, good at smoking, “far, far better at smoking than the current Millwall team is at playing football.” Smokers will not be able to vent their frustration outside the ground or in the car park. Millwall management says smoking is banned there, too. So, instead of calling it the Health Act 2006, Liddle renames this Act of Parliament the Vindictive Curtailment of Working Class Pleasures Act.

Bolton supporters at Burnden Park, in this image by Humphrey Spender (see 12 Sept 06), circa 1937, demonstrate the simple pleasures of standing and smoking at football. Now both practices will be prohibited with anti-smoking legislation taking force in England on Jul 1. (Bolton Museums Art Gallery and Aquarium; see

[S]uccessive administrations have sought to make football more middle class by stripping it of all those things that once made it vital and compelling. It is the passion and fervour and partisan loyalty—dangerous things!—that the middle class find most threatening about football, and so, gradually over these past 20 years, they have been eradicated from the game almost entirely. Football is a congenial entertainment best viewed through the medium of some kind of box (the directors’ box, for the chosen few, or the box in the corner of your living room for the rest), seems to be the attitude. (“Our Simple Pleasures Go Up in Smoke,” Jan 28)

Liddle taps into a yearning for authenticity, calling up the image of the terrace dweller of literary fantasy, the northerner seeking brief delight in a Saturday afternoon, a respite from miserable routine. A standard evocation might be that of Alan Sillitoe—author of The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, the “English 101″ staple—in his short story “The Match.” The protagonist, Lennox, punctuates world-weary commentary about the home side, Notts County—“They’d even lose at blow football”—with tugs at a cig. “Hardly knowing what he was doing Lennox pulled out a cigarette, lit it.” “He threw his cigarette end to the floor and, with a grimace of disappointment and disgust, made his way up the steps.”

Such were the audiences coveted by the tobacco brands of yore, with names like Ogden’s (see above), Churchman’s, Player’s and Gallaher’s. Davies reckons that several billion cigarette cards depicting footballers ultimately were produced, with more than 10,000 separate football-themed designs having been distributed between 1900 and 1939. The cards, ingeniously, came in series to prompt brand loyalty. Academics Michelle McQuistan and Christopher Squier, in a 2001 study, mention a 50-card set that Ogden’s issued in 1908, “Pugilists and Wrestlers.”

Tobacco companies in the United States developed a similar affinity for athletes. Piedmont Tobacco in 1910 issued a card of Pittsburgh Pirates star Honus Wagner, “famous for his love of cigars and chewing tobacco,” write McQuistan and Squier. Wagner, however, insisted that the card be withdrawn in order not to entice children to purchase tobacco products. U.S. tobacco advertising extended its pitch to growing crowds of spectators, men and women, with a 1929 Camel ad focusing on a female American football supporter, standing and cheering. The caption, according to McQuistan and Squier, reads:

More genuine pleasure … more hearty cheer … Camel gains on every play, Go into a huddle with yourself and a pack of Camels … and you’re all set! (105)

Before the links between smoking and lung cancer, before the elimination, in the United States, on 1 Jan 1971 of cigarette ads on TV and radio, smoking by athletes themselves was not a shocking sight. Arsenal players puff away in the 1940 feature The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. UK poet Simon Armitage crafts verse in heroic terms of the goalkeeper who smokes in seeming defiance of mainstream images of professional fitness and discipline. “Goalkeeper with a Cigarette”—published in The Shout: Selected Poems (Harcourt, 2005)—lauds the man “who stubs his reefers on the post / and kicks his heels in the stud-marks and butts, / lighting the next from the last, in one breath / making the save of the year with his legs …” This goalkeeper of the imagination seems allied with those who take a “sideways view” of life. He has “no neat message for the nation” and lacks in histrionics, unlike captains and coaches

effing and jeffing at backs and forwards,
talking steam, screaming exhausting orders,
that’s not breath coming from my bloke, it’s smoke.

Pro-smoking group Forest, according to the Guardian‘s Simon Hattenstone, has compiled an all-smoking fantasy team, including Brazilian legend Sócrates with Paul Gascoigne on the bench (“He Shoots, He Scores, He Lights Another Fag …,” 7 Jul 06). Forest might also have included France midfield artiste and new UEFA president Michel Platini, an “enthusiastic smoker” sometimes seen puffing at Juventus training sessions at the height of his playing career. Hattenstone alludes as well to Zinédine Zidane‘s surreptitious tokes at the 2006 World Cup finals, captured via telephoto lens before the semifinal with Portugal: “Eyes closed, cheeks squeezed in tight, index finger stroking his upper lip, he seemed to be in heaven.”

Fir Park, home to Motherwell in the Scottish Premier League, includes anti-smoking messages such as the one above. The full text reads, “Keep Cigarettes Away from the Match.” Another sign, according to “Tartan Red on Tour,” asks, “Is this the closest you have got to exercise all week?” On 16 Apr 06, Tartan Red “perused these health-conscious signs as I polished off my scotch pie.” (

Such earthy pleasures likely will not be able to counteract the turns in attitude toward smoking, especially in public. France, too, has passed legislation banning smoking in schools and offices; in 2008, the ban broadens to bars, restaurants, cafés. Turkey, home to the cliché “smokes like a Turk,” in 2006 strengthened hodgepodge anti-smoking laws, causing writers at “The Round Ball in Ankara” to mourn loss of the blissful trifecta of “Efes beer, Tekel 2000 cigarettes and football” (“Civilization Going to Pot,” 5 Mar 06).

At least in the UK, stadium authorities are not playing around. Glasgow Rangers has tossed more than 100 fans since the Scotland ban came in force in Mar 06 (“Sneak Smokers Face Football Ban,” BBC News, Mar 14). Nationwide, smokers caught flaunting the law in banned areas face fines of £50 per infraction.

Tobacco’s influence has even been challenged in emerging markets such as China and India. Newscasters in China as of 1999 no longer could refer to football’s top division in that country as the Marlboro Chinese Premier League. Sponsorship was acquired by Pepsi.


Hunter Davies, Boots, Balls, and Haircuts: An Illustrated History of Football from Then to Now (London: Cassell, 2003), 119–21; Robert McElroy and Grant MacDougall, Football Memorabilia: Evocative Artefacts of the Beautiful Game (London: Carlton, 1999); Michelle McQuistan and Christopher Squier, “Tobacco, Health, and the Sports Metaphor,” Culture, Sport, Society (summer 2001): 101–20; Joyce Woolridge, “Mapping the Stars: Stardom in English Professional Football, 1890–1946,” Soccer and Society 3 (summer 2002): 51–69. We were not able to locate another volume, cited by Woolridge: D. Thompson, Football and the Cigarette Card, 1890–1940 (London: Murray Cards International, 1987).

Wikipedia maintains a lengthy list of smoking bans worldwide. Allan Brandt in The Cigarette Century (Basic, 2007) writes about the American habit—up to 350 billion cigarettes per year—as a “drama of consumer desire.”

For more on the situation in Turkey, see our post of 9 Mar 06.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (4)

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  1. [...] always excellent Global Game blog this week covered the topic of smoking in soccer. Apparently, the British government has passed a law to ban smoking in stadiums. Having attended [...]

  2. Oz Kanka says:

    By the way, they haven’t yet banned smoking at stadiums here in Turkey … but we are still scared that they will.

  3. [...] for football collectibles dates to the 19th century and cigarette cards (see Mar 16), but volumes of glue-backed or, in the Panini tradition, self-adhesive stickers purchased at [...]

  4. [...] other locations across Europe, are obliged to extinguish their fag ends outside the turnstiles (see 16 Mar 07). One of the best expositions of the end of the era of fans’ disgruntled toking is that [...]

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