In this edited extract from 1966 and Not All That, Sanaa Qureshi discusses the relationship between football and nationalism, and whether football can be used subversively to achieve social justice.
1966 and Not All That (paperback + free ebook and free shipping to the UK) is currently half price as part of our World Cup sale, which runs until England are knocked out of the tournament!
“I enjoy making revolution! I enjoy going to football!” — Antonio Negri
Despite an increasingly globalised world, where in the last ten years, football clubs such as Manchester United, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have become global brands, international football remains understandably pinned to the idea of triumphant nation states. Thus state orders are reinforced and a popular nationalism is commodified. As part of this, England’s World Cup win in 1966 remains, justifiably, a great source of national pride. The memories of that victory continue to fuel contemporary ideas of what success for the national team looks like.
In 1996, thirty years after the famous win, England hosted the European Championships and St George’s flags, for the first time in my short life, were inescapable. Perhaps it was because England were facing Scotland in the group stages or because England were hosts, but somehow, the Union flag, with all those colonial traumas stitched into its fabric, was replaced by the St George’s flag as the English patriot’s symbol of choice.
However, somewhere amidst the fervour of late 1990s “Cool Britannia” and New Labour, the St George’s flag also became the divisive symbol of the bullish, racist nationalism of the British National Party. Virtually no broadcast or news story about the BNP came without the familiar sight of the red and white flags or supporters adorned in England football shirts. With the far-right party picking up council seats and their candidates contesting parliamentary elections and holding on to their deposits, their rhetoric became mainstream. Thus, the St George’s flag became synonymous with modern English fascism. Moreover, the formation and subsequent rise of the English Defence League (EDL) was closely linked to a subculture of football fans coming together against their imagined enemy of Islam. Members often seen draped in football paraphernalia, specifically England shirts, routinely take part in violent street demonstrations.
It is undeniable that English nationalism, footballing or otherwise, is viscerally bound up with an aggressive racism that demarcates who belongs and who is the unwanted Other. Invariably, there are groups of people, particularly those who have been targets of the BNP or EDL, that are reluctant to embrace the English national team and the associated aggressive patriotism.
Yet despite, or perhaps because of, how vigorously England, the St George’s flag and the support of the national team has been hijacked by the isolating politics of nationalism, people believe the potential for subversion is even greater. Individuals and groups from minority communities in Britain have sought to reclaim the idea of Englishness from the far-right and to broaden the understanding of what it means to identify as English. Progressive ideals have been situated underneath a banner of nationalism that purports to be inclusive, welcoming and multi-cultural. England shirts have been worn proudly, the red and white a signal of support for a new, refreshed demonstration of Englishness.
Movements to reclaim and rebrand words and cultural associations have been favoured as a means of asserting alternative theories and ideas, albeit incrementally. However, it is difficult to assess how useful or sustainable this attempted reclamation can be without the accompaniment of the wholesale reframing of the issue, in this case, the concept of the English nation state. Further, can it be considered realistic for people of colour to reform an identity whose values are intrinsically bound up with whiteness?
Feelings of alienation are often exacerbated when international football tournaments come around and the success of the nation state appears to be so heavily hinged on the success of the national football team. Fifty years on England’s famous victory football has irrefutably shaped what English national success looks like and at the same time continues to provide a tool to interrogate what Englishness looks like. The commodification of nationalism through international sporting events thus serves as a useful means to understand how collective identities are fractured, formed and expressed through football.
The relationship between nationalism and football is complex and often fraught with reactionary politics. However, the sport also serves an important role in the formation of collective national identity in post-colonial states. Famously, Algerian players in the French league formed the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in 1958, a team that exported the desire for Algerian self-determination and liberation from the French throughout North Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe and Asia. Similarly, the Iraqi national team’s achievements in the 2007 Asia Cup were set against a backdrop of continued violence, occupation and logistical difficulties. Victory brought together an often fragmented country and a sense of Iraqi national pride was keenly felt throughout.
French success in the 1998 World Cup, which was also held on home turf, was heralded as a defining moment in the previously difficult narrative of integration. With a team led by the inimitable Zinedine Zidane, French-born to Algerian parents, and composed of players whose backgrounds told a story of French colonialism, this was supposed to be a turning point in French race relations. Instead, it has come to signify the shallow understanding of racial, economic and social inequality that continues to plague French society. The World Cup victory of a multi-cultural France allowed the French state and media to temporarily plaster over deep fissures without addressing the root causes of discontent. Owing to the universal nature of the game, the cohesion and success of a football team can be very easily translated into populist notions of unity and togetherness. Likewise, these concepts are often inspired by the collective spirit integral to team sports.
Despite its limitations, international football is situated in a unique position, where individual relationships with the state coalesce into either a collective sense of belonging or unbelonging. To be able to understand how people and communities relate to their national football team is to gain an insight into how they relate both to themselves and where they live.
The burgeoning cultural and financial potency of world football has benefited from an increasingly networked, globalised world. Football has grown in stature as a worldwide game, transcending borders, languages, races and religions. The simplicity and the aesthetics of play have contributed to its ascendant popularity, whilst free-market economics have encouraged both the corporatisation and commodification of the game.
Investment in stadium infrastructure in England was kick-started by the birth of the Premier League and the virtual end of live-televised league football on free domestic channels. Ultimately, the transformation of how the sport was both accessed and managed lay in the increased exposure provided by Sky TV. Principal income streams switched from match-day takings, including tickets and merchandise, to the ever-growing sums from TV deals, while the football stadiums became sites for executive boxes, naming rights and touchline-to-touchline advertising and sponsorship.
In line with neoliberal economics, the influx of new money did not remove inequality but instead exacerbated it. Well-established football clubs that already had money were able to tighten their financial grip on professional football, whilst those at the lower end of the spectrum continue to drift further away, facing administration and a future of financial uncertainty. As television money pours into the English Premier League, the maldistribution of wealth is a salient reminder of the society it is situated in.
Alongside the increase in capital flows, labour flows have also predictably broadened, bringing players from all over the world to the top European leagues. This mobility of labour not only diversified talent but also undoubtedly improved the standards of football across the world, especially Europe where many of these players sought to forge careers. However, with this movement arose ample opportunity for exploitation, particularly of young Africans, who were trafficked on false promises to jobs that didn’t exist. With such vast quantities of money thrown around at the highest levels of professional football, the potential for injustice is amplified, particularly in the search for social mobility and economic security. From countries still in recovery from the economic and social destruction suffered under British colonialism, professional football in Europe is considered a viable route out of poverty for many young men in Africa. Not dissimilar from the movement of migrant labour into often precarious, low-paid work in bad conditions in Western Europe, football is not exempt from its role in oppressive labour practices, nor is it very far removed from the spectre of colonialism. Flows of labour from the African continent also mirror neo-colonial resource-extraction models, with players viewed as raw materials that have their value added in the European academies. With fortress-Europe recklessly weaponising borders as a means of deterrence to incoming migrants, it is likely that this will only worsen in coming years, with only the most economically profitable allowed entry.
In England, the very foundation of the Premier League is the well-functioning football club, complete with the consistent exploitation of the lowest-paid workers, from club cleaners to catering staff. Despite the millions pocketed by star footballers, those at the other end of the spectrum, those who make matches possible, often scrape by on minimum wage. The astronomical increases in player wages and commercial revenues have not yet trickled down in any meaningful manner. After a lengthy and well-fought campaign by the Living Wage Foundation, the Premier League committed to ensuring all top-flight clubs will pay workers a living wage. However, this was stipulated to just include directly employed workers, excluding contracted staff, who are also often on precarious, zero-hour contracts. This short-sightedness on the part of Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore demonstrated a real lack of desire to effect lasting change in labour policies not just in football but as an example to all employers. With burgeoning social and cultural influence both in England and the rest of the world, campaigners should use the football industry as a soapbox from which broader social change can be encouraged. Furthermore, for football to remain the most popular sport in the world, it should be willing to recognise its complicity in upholding systems of oppression, especially those from which it directly profits.
Amongst all the debates about whether football can be subverted to achieve social justice or if there is even a space for radical politics in a multi-billion-pound industry, one key thing stands out. Belonging. Whose game is it? Who should be most invested in the redemption of this beast? Those who are the architects of the spectacle or those who watch on, delighted? Numerous campaigns and movements speak about returning football to its roots, nostalgic for a time when football was the preserve of the working classes. Although it is true that football has been made successful through working class labour, the sport has always been controlled by the wealthy, capitalist classes. Codified in public schools, football was initially introduced to working class men as a means of civilising them. It is clear therefore that any reclamation of the game cannot take place at the top level — community-focused, fan-owned clubs are outliers, exceptions. To accept that this global game is too powerful, an uncontrolled monster, is not to give up on it. Instead, it allows us to focus on our communities, our local teams, our supporters groups, to direct our resources where we find utility. It offers up the potential for strength and solidarity beyond tribalism, to join up movements of resistance, from Palestine to Algeria to the militarised borders of Europe. It gives people a space in which to create a game in their own image.
Football is not separate from the society that supports it; rather it is irrevocably tied up with the most unjust systems of racism, patriarchy, homophobia, transphobia and capitalism. This, however, is precisely why the potential for resistance is so huge and necessary. The collective spirit in football, whether it’s on the street or in the stadium, is unparalleled. This is what must be harnessed to unsettle and destabilise systems of power, to liberate occupied peoples and to imagine a game that we can be proud of.
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon’s classic account of colonialism, he wrote:
If sports are not incorporated into the life of the nation, in the building of the nation, if we produce national sportsmen instead of conscious individuals, then sports will quickly be ruined by professionalism and commercialism.
If it is too late for football to be used to build, we must be willing to use it to destroy.
1995 may have been the year that Britpop burst through, but 1996 was the year in which it loomed largest and was most overbearing, Oasis in particular, despite not releasing an album that year. 1996 was still a year of Conservative g overnment, but so commanding was Tony Blair’s lead in the polls it was clear he was Prime Minister elect. It was possible, in 1996, for him to bask in the unspoiled glow of his triumph in bringing the long Tory nightmare to an end, untarnished by the many compromised decisions he would make almost immediately on taking office in 1997, beginning by accepting a £1 million donation from Formula 1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone, only months later to grant exemption to the motor racing organisation from a general ban on cigarette advertising. All of that was to come; in 1996, he was still practically an honorary Oasis band member.
1996 was also the year of Euro ’96, in which English footballing hopes were bound up with the worlds of both comedy and music. It wasn’t just Baddiel and Skinner’s collaboration with The Lightning Seeds, “Three Lions”, but the sanguine, laddish, retrograde mood engendered by Britpop and Loaded. It wasn’t just football that was coming home, but the general sense that after the dark Seventies and the fragmented Eighties, Britain (led by England, of course) had rediscovered its mojo, the spring in its step, the spirit of Hurst and McCartney, the white heat of a bygone era.
“Sport is a battle” is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. The club must survive and prosper at the cost of everything else. However, this formula changes somewhat in international football, where the “need” for victory is often sutured unquestioningly to the national cause. Curiously, this relationship seems to intensify even as the sense of common purpose between clubs and communities fades. This came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international “duty” without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he tacitly insists on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.
While one does find the occasional player, such as Serbia’s Siniša Mihajlović or Croatia’s Zvonimir Boban, for whom patriotism is obviously a very real and visceral thing, it seems plausible and even likely that the average international player uses it as a motivational tool, a way of rationalising responsibility to the footballing cause. There’s a ludicrous misrecognition on the part of the right-wingers doing their Queen-and-country act in the stands who think the men on the pitch automatically share their blood-and-soil mentality: footballers, like most sportspeople, tend to focus themselves out of any formal political identification and even, in some cases, vaguer political affects. Presenting footballers as exclusively patriotically motivated is a form of fantasy about working-class politics, which is to say that it suits certain agendas to treat the “proles” as intrinsically nationalistic, thus implicitly turning anti-nationalistic (typically socialist) politics into an illegitimate bourgeois charade. And here lies the true equivalence between footballers and soldiers. The majority join the military because of the route it offers out of poverty, regardless of the narrative which states that they do so through an unmediated love of the patria. This narrative has, both in the UK and the US, a double function, simultaneously masking socio-economic inequality and lending affective “credibility” to those countries’ ridiculous joint-enterprise neo-imperial wars. The linking of footballers to soldiers, then, has as its ultimate outcome an intensification of the militarisation of British society, the same phenomenon, in fact, that we witness when, on the occasions when England score a goal at an international tournament, the footage cuts away to show soldiers watching the game from whichever theatre of operations they have been sent to in the latest stage of the quixotic War on Terror.
That said, the determinations of an intensified seriousness in the visual language of the football media are not limited to society’s broader militarisation. One thinks of the way that various England internationals from the present and the recent past, such as the aforementioned Gerrard, John Terry and new captain Wayne Rooney, seek to present themselves to the nation. The media consensus around the England team emphasises their surfeit of passion, which supposedly exists in inverse proportion to a shortfall of technical ability and tactical nous, but to actually watch an England game is, very often, to be struck by the cowed performances and expressions of players we are supposed to think of as possessed of leonine bravery and aggression. These are rarely performances full of sound and fury but lacking in signification: in fact, they are bereft of all these attributes.
Gerrard’s career is almost precisely coterminous with the Blair – Brown – Cameron era in British politics. In this period, the affective aspect of politics has intensified in counterpoint to a more generalised “waning of affect”: being seen to “care”, or to share in spuriously “common” desires which have replaced genuine collective purpose, seems to be regarded as a far safer bet electorally than possessing either proven competence or the potential for developing it. At the same time, and this is something which takes us once again to those portentous kit advertisements, the tenor of branding has changed significantly, with the governing maxim no longer “this product is great” but “this product is invested with passion”. We’re passionate about conservatories! We’re passionate about crisps! We’re passionate about dog food! However much it cloys with us, it is hard to believe in an individual who is not to some extent invested in aspects of these values, for who would want to be perceived as not caring?
To be regarded as wrongly or cynically motivated is something which footballers must deal with constantly: no wonder Gerrard, Terry, Rooney and the like must seek not only to play football well, but to come across as adequately invested, when they and the rest of their profession are subject to constant slights about the essential worthlessness of what they do. For all the substantial material recompense playing the sport earns them, there are few jobs which invite more clamorous accusations of social irrelevance and metaphysical inanity. This is an issue which comes up every time there is a big international competition. Of course, football becomes unpleasantly ubiquitous during the World Cup, with the main sufferer of this ubiquity being not those who don’t enjoy the game but, counterintuitively, those who do. The unpleasantness is a consequence of ubiquity’s tendency towards dilution, which has the consequence of football being turned into “footie”, that abstracted version which lends itself to all kinds of dismal exercises in masculinist and nationalistic identity formation. Watch the footie on telly last night, mate? Well, no, I went to the football last night. If you spend every weekend of the season following a team, it is pretty easy to come to feel alienated during the World Cup or European Championships, when the sport becomes the preserve of geezerish dilettantes and the themed ladvertising kicks in. It’s at this stage that I usually start to feel sympathy for people who dislike football entirely.
That’s until things turn up like the irritating 2014 meme imagining an alternate reality in which archaeology, rather than football, dominates the media and archaeologists are paid thousands of pounds a week. In the weeks leading up to the World Cup in Brazil, this became the definitive plaint on the behalf of the non-believers, the document tasked with articulating to football fans just what it means to be on the outside of the festivities. Despite the fact that I can imagine what it must be like, for the precise reason that I largely feel the same, for the non-football fan to be bombarded with “footie” for a whole month every second summer, I couldn’t identify at all with the meme.
Let’s think, first of all, about why it is specifically archaeology which replaces football in this ostensibly harmless thought experiment. Why not, say, “shopping” or “military history”? I have no score to settle with archaeology – who would, honestly? – and appreciate the discipline’s substantial, if not politically unproblematic, contribution to the sum total of human self-understanding. However, the field does have certain connotations which are useful in particular forms of self-presentation. Archaeology carries with it an image of wistful past-gazing, of laudable knowledge-foraging, of being the kid who ignored football in the playground because they were too busy digging away in the corner looking for clay pipes or Neolithic man. For all of its fascinations, it is also a realm in which the humblebragging, self-anointed geek enjoys considerable social capital.
In other words, it’s just the kind of thing which appeals to that online constituency Jacques Lacan anticipated when he said that thing about how les non-dupes errent, how the non-dupes are mistaken. That it is the not-fooled, the people who “see through stuff”, who are the most taken-in ideologically, has always had a considerable degree of appeal, but never more so than in the era of internet atheism, an age in which meme factories like the smug I Fucking Love Science pour out quotable rationalism seemingly by the second. Lovely archaeology coming on as a substitute for aggressive, alpha-male, avaricious, irrational (and, though the piece would never dare mention it, largely working-class) football seems to me the kind of notion that really speaks to the aren’t-bees-more-fascinating-than-Jesus, calling-Valentine’s-Day-Hallmark-Holiday, Stop-Kony crowd.
But, lest we fail Practical Criticism 101, let’s go back to the text itself. The point of the meme, remember, is to induce some sort of artificial parity between football and archaeology – to ask us to imagine if archaeology, presented without additional ideological freight, and football, presented likewise, swapped places in the cultural imagination. However, the writer cannot resist the opportunity to start introducing other elements into the equation almost as soon as it has been established, finding subtle ways of embedding value judgements. Here, it’s imagined that archaeologists acquire the same, “worst possible” behavioural traits that the media at large attributes, with consummate dishonesty, to all footballers. The rationale for doing this is not, as it purports to be, to get us to imagine archaeologists on an alcohol-fuelled rampage in Mayfair, but to remind us that football players are uncouth (working-class) louts who provoke “scandal”.
Then there’s another dig. Having hypothesised an archaeologist who would “act” like a footballer, the writer reminds us what an archaeologist would be doing when they’re not up to no good, namely “searching the past for answers”. That’s to say that their professional activity would still be of considerable value, inviting a comparison to the implied “pointlessness” of football. Such purported pointlessness is a classic canard of a hypocritical utilitarianism which locates value (or “point”) in, say, BBC4 documentaries about archaeology or Scandinavian crime dramas, but not in competitive sport. This, I suspect, is an aspect of that classic piece of political equivocation by which utilitarianism is good for the working-class goose, but not appropriate for the middle-class gander, one which seems to be reserved largely for football.
The World Cup starts today ! ! Which means that for the next four weeks, football is going to be everywhere. Or as Joe Kennedy sums it up so well in his Games Without Frontiers:
Football becomes unpleasantly ubiquitous during the World Cup… The unpleasantness is a consequence of ubiquity’s tendency towards dilution, which has the consequence of football being turned into “footie”, that abstracted version which lends itself to all kinds of dismal exercises in masculinist and nationalistic identity formation… The sport becomes the preserve of geezerish dilettantes and the themed ladvertising kicks in. It’s at this stage that I usually start to feel sympathy for people who dislike football entirely.
And to celebrate the “unpleasantly ubiquitous” nature of football over the next month, we’re offering 50% off our football books (including Joe’s), plus one on Russia, from today until England are knocked out of the tournament.
Check out the three titles below:
Is football inherently political? What does “football” actually mean today?
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A unique 50th anniversary collection of superlative writing and new football thinking.
“… an enjoyable collection of essays by a cadre of distinguished football writers […] that examines the tournament from many angles, with the informal but informed tone of the best fanzines.” – The Guardian
To mark the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, John Medhurst trashes Leninism to show us the way forward for a non-authoritarian left.
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An entertaining history of politics, culture, music and sport in 1996 – an era of confidence, prosperity and retrograde optimism, that looks, in hindsight, extremely complacent.
Mark Perryman previews England v Wales as competing versions of nationhood
The traditional ‘Battle of Britain’ match is of course England v Scotland, the very first recognised international football match dating back to 1872 and the most intense of rivalries ever since. The last time two ‘home’ nations met in a major tournament it was again England v Scotland at Euro 96. The spark in so many ways for the break-up-Britain agenda that was to follow the Blair government devolution referendums a year later and latterly transformed into the SNP ‘tartan landslide’. Once derided by Jim Sillars as ‘ninety-minute nationalists’ Scots today are so busy building a nation they can call their own they haven’t much time left over for their under-performing football team, ouch!
Instead it will be the Welsh who will take the field on Thursday against Scotland’s ‘auld enemy’. An encounter inevitably affected by the ugly scenes the weekend before in Marseille. It was the historian Eric Hobsbawm who once observed, “ The individual, even the one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of the nation himself.” This was sadly true of those brutalised encounters in the south of France. Though as my friend Julie Nerney who was there has pointed out the habit of most travelling England fans is to “learn where to go and not to when you travel to games. Avoiding the places where it was obvious there was a chance of things kicking off. Knowing what the signs of a flashpoint were and extricating yourself from any situation where you might simply end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.” And thus in Marseille as Julie reports “Bars in the main square of any town are a magnet for trouble. Many sensible fans give them a wide berth.” This is the hidden story behind the headlines about an episode like Marseille 2016. Meanwhile in another part of town I’d helped organise a fans’ mini tournament England v Russia, another mate, John Lunt, who played describes the experience, “Had fun, we may have lost all our games, but made a few friends when others were doing their best not to.”
Little of this features in how most would think of the Englishness on parade at Euro 2016. Britain is a mix of contradictions, at home right now. Bathing in the collective and transnational experience of being European via the Euros while according to the referendum polls more than half the country couldn’t exit the continent fast enough For the English such contradictions are exacerbated by a very particular identity crisis. When England and Wales line-up for kick off each set of players, and fans will belt out their respective National Anthems. The Welsh, Land of our Fathers, while the English, like the Northern Irish, have to sing somebody else’s. Eh? That’s right us and the Northern Irish don’t have an anthem as every other country does, instead we have to sing an anthem that belongs to somewhere else, Great Britain. Yet the English tenaciously cling to an anthem which isn’t even ours as a source of great comfort. “Long to Reign Over Us, Happy and Glorious ” in those two lines the English contradictions of subjecthood neatly summed up.
American author Franklin Foer in his book How Soccer Explains the World points to the range of forces of globalisation which threaten this settled subjecthood founded on an unchanging notion of what it means to be English. Take a look at the players on any Premier League pitch, in the technical area the managers, coaches and backroom staff, the ownership of the bigger, and some smaller, clubs, the audience in the stands and via TV, the exchange of playing styles and tactics. There is very little left about our football which is precisely English.
Despite these forces of Europeanisation and globalisation however Foer makes a key point about soccer(sic) and culture; “ Of course, soccer isn’t the same as Bach or Buddhism. But it is often more deeply felt than religion, and just as much a part of the community’s fabric, a repository of traditions.” This is why England v Wales is always going to be about more than a football match.
An Englishness subject to imperial and martial tradition helps explain the ugly saliency of immigration as an issue in the Euro referendum non-debate and this reminds me of Satnam Virdee’s description of 1970s Powellism.
A powerful re-imagining of the English nation after empire, reminding his audience it was a nation for whites only. In that historical moment the confident racism that had accompanied the high imperial moment mutated into a defensive racism, a racism of the vanquished who no longer wanted to dominate but to physically expel the racialised other from the shared space they occupied, and thereby erase them and the Empire from its collective memory.
The make-up of the England team might appear a powerful antidote to these forces of reaction. But unlike the Welsh, and most particularly the Scots, the English barely possess a civic understanding of nationhood, instead it is mired in the racial. A football team may project some kind of alternative sense of being English but in the absence of political forces to make that argument it’s not enough. In June 2016 that couldn’t be more obvious.
None of this will help us predict the score when Bale’s Welshmen take on Rooney’s Englishmen but it certainly helps us understand how such an encounter is framed, consumed and understood. Performance isn’t something restricted just to the pitch y’know.
Mark Perryman is the editor of the new book 1966 and Not All That published by Repeater Books and available from Philosophy Football.
There was a point about four or five years ago, a point I’m not bothered about confirming archivally but which nonetheless definitely occurred, at which football clubs almost uniformly, if you’ll allow the pun, changed the way that they marketed their new kits. Not so long ago, you’d have found a posed shot of a star player rehearsing some fabulous piece of technique or even, where the club had a meagre branding budget, a simple team photograph which could create other revenue streams from calendars and similar items. What superseded these more traditional forms of marketing was a style of image which offers the contemporary student of semiotics much to consider. Now, the background will be an electrolysed Blade Runner gloom, perhaps with little serifs of smoke indicating some recent conflagration or catastrophe. Against this will stand three to five players, one of whom will be a goalkeeper, another a winger or attacking midfielder, and yet another a looming centre half with a backwoodsman’s beard and sleeve tattoos. Their arms are crossed and resolute; they are indomitable. The language used to sell the kits will be pared down to abstraction: ‘[Club Name] 2015 Home Kit: We Are One.’ The general tone is a seriousness so ascetic it detonates into camp, unable to withstand the internal stresses on its structure of plausibility.
Nevertheless, for some it must have the appeal of gravitas or it would simply not work as an incentive to purchase. How, then, can it be explained? First, perhaps, with recourse to a certain type of pop-cultural hetero-masculinity which (re-) emerged in the early twenty-first century, initially – if I had to pick a particular moment – with the success of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptations, but more lately underwritten and refocused with HBO’s preternaturally successful Game of Thrones. In these programmes’ fantasy second worlds
, manhood, if done properly and honourably, is a matter of disenchanted seriousness, a saddened and reluctant understanding of the inherently conflictual nature of existence. Any levity here can only manifest itself as grim irony – one does not simply walk into Mordor, remember – and all time between battles must be occupied with sorrowful renditions of stories of the travails of Good. The bearded, tattooed centre-half on the kit advert, then, is supposed to connote the fantasy version of ordeal, the effect of which is not limited to football’s contemporary image-system. Think, for example, of how car advertising has departed from its nineties staple of secure glamour to its present mood of quasi-military exertion, its stubbled protagonists surging through sodden Scandinavian or Scottish gloom in order not, as the case would once have been, to seduce, but to be reunited with family.
The last item in this chain of images is, of course, the military recruitment film, which has become, after a fashion, more honest and explicit about the danger and brutality of conflict in the period that I’m describing. In Britain, the army are no longer particularly reticent about depicting ‘live’ skirmishes in their propaganda, in part because they suspect that computer games are not far from offering a comparable intensity of experience anyway, but also because of a gathering idea which automatically associates soldiering with virtuousness. Ideally, the film prompting its audience to enlist in the Marines or for the Territorial Army shows a gunfight in Helmand, or on a generically be-jungled ‘African’ coastline populated by similarly generic ‘rebels’, before portraying the hero returning to the family that his actions have (somehow) safeguarded.
What I’m trying to get at here is how advertising aimed at men has undergone an elemental shift in how it desires, and in how it seeks to channel desire. The old, but not really that old, male utopia was one of ease, of frictionless libido cruising through a collage of Eurocentric sophistication, waking in Venice amidst the accoutrements of one erotic encounter and falling asleep in Monte Carlo amidst another’s. This no longer holds: it is perceived, understandably, as inauthentic and insufficiently austere for our times. Instead, the dream-work is of extended periods of sexual and romantic isolation in the still largely homosocial realms of military conflict or extreme exploration, interspersed with brief unifications with family. This is the logic to which football advertising in Britain increasingly appeals.
Clearly, nobody seriously thinks that the players of, say, Scunthorpe United visiting, say, Leyton Orient for an awayday is remotely comparable to a six-month tour of Helmand. Nevertheless, enough sticks from this metaphorical equivalence to make us think that footballers fulfil some kind of existential duty, something which exceeds the rubric of paid work, when they play for a team. It has long been the case that disloyalty has been the most atrocious crime a footballer can commit, but the economic insecurity of the historical moment seems to have amplified the notion that we have particular responsibilities to increasingly local social units. There is something especially interesting here in the way that football clubs now seem to be regarded as ends in themselves on this front, as entities more demanding and deserving of loyalty than the broad communities which they inhabit. One concrete example of the contrasting fortunes of club and community is Liverpool fans’ continuing failure to resist the acts of social cleansing taking place on behalf of the club in the vicinity of Anfield: evidence that This Football Club is regarded as a point of social allegiance in almost direct tension with its area. The player, in this case, is asked to behave as an avatar of that unit’s struggle in an increasingly atomised, conflictual world, and asked to buy wholesale into the ‘values’ of the ‘project’ even when those values and that project are things that have been conjured ad hoc by recently installed owners and managers whose heads have been turned by the jargon of ‘smart thinking’ books and TED talks.
‘Sport is a battle’, then, is the metaphor we are now required to live by as football fans. It came to light in a peculiarly candid way during the predictable period of recrimination following England’s equally predictable early exit from the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Even before the players had set off for home Harry Redknapp, the geezerish and journalist-friendly cockney who had been passed over for the England manager’s job in 2012 because of a pending court case, turned up in the press claiming that a number of English internationals were in the habit of begging their club managers to withdraw them from the national squad for friendly games. The allegation was stark: that some English players regard playing for their country not as an honour, but as an annoyance. England coach Roy Hodgson and his outgoing captain Steven Gerrard cannily took the sting out of Redknapp’s comments by asking him to name names, but the matter did not drop entirely. Former England striker and current light-entertainment go-to Ian Wright wrote in his column in the Sun newspaper that any player found to have shirked international ‘duty’ without good reason should be required to phone the parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to drop out.
This was imagined on Twitter in plenty of bleakly funny versions of how the transcript of such a call might read. Palpably, the suggestion was a piece of attention-seeking on the part of Wright, who has never, it seems, got over his early-career rejections or his marginalisation in the 1990s England team by more rounded strikers such as Alan Shearer. However, it spoke to something in England’s present-day ideological make-up, namely a resurgent patriotism of symbols which regards Englishness, whatever that might mean, as somehow under threat. The role the football player takes in this set of beliefs is intriguing. Wright was playing to the idea that the default setting for footballers is a patriotic one, that they feel a sense of pride in national symbols which extends beyond their utilitarian, team-bonding value. By linking this version of patriotic obligation to that of the soldier’s, he insisted tacitly on the relative unanimity of nationalistic sentiment amongst the working-class communities that both footballers and the rank-and-file military are drawn from.
Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football is unconvinced by English football’s occupation of any moral high ground vs FIFA Corruption
“I’m incredibly disappointed with the timing of what the BBC seem to be proposing with Panorama. To do it the week before the vote—I don’t think it’s patriotic.” —Andy Anson, Director England World Cup 2018 Bid, November 2010
That’s right, on the eve of England’s doomed bid to host World Cup 2018, the bid director took time out to lambast the BBC for investigating FIFA corruption. Five years later, with FIFA headquarters raided by police and arrests made, the smell of English football’s hypocrisy in adopting the role of the game’s moral guardian should border on the overpowering. But most of this context is lost in the soft-target discourse of Blatter-bashing.
Even a cursory look at England’s bid reveals the lows it was willing to sink to. Not all England friendlies are pointless, but an early summer trip to play Trinidad and Tobago for a match certainly was. The sole purpose—to buy up the island FA’s valuable executive vote, the notorious Jack Warner. The sheer awfulness of this kind of practice was cruelly exposed when the planned friendly in Thailand was cancelled after Thailand failed to vote for England’s bid. No vote? No game. A transaction as corrupt as they come.
I’m no fan of the Royal Family or the Tories, but when Cameron and Prince William were joined by David Beckham to do some some serious last-minute lobbying the days before the 2018 vote, we were asking a future king, the Prime Minster and a former England Captain to play footsie with some of the most corrupt individuals in world football. Just how low would England sink in the process of scrambling around for votes? As low as required.
One of my favourite memories of South Africa’s World Cup 2010 was the South African fans chant ‘FICK FUFA’. Africa’s first World Cup, a showcase for post-apartheid South Africa left a nation fleeced to the limit by FIFA tax breaks, profiteering and sponsorship spivs. ‘FICK FUFA’ is the default position of football fans the world over. Another footballing memory: the Women’s Football Gold Medal match at London 2012. Sepp Blatter’s face appears on the big screen as he prepares to walk out to present the medals, prompting near universal boos all around Wembley. He looked shocked, shaken…don’t these people know what he’s done for world football? Yes, we do. Thats why we booed. He didn’t bother coming back to do the medal presentation for the Men’s football Olympic Final.
Football has grown enormously since the England team’s one golden moment, winning the World Cup in ‘66 (49 years ago this July). It’s gone global, but that international spread has been overwhelmingly shaped by a corporate model of globalisation. Taking the World Cup to the USA, Japan and Korea and South Africa; seeing the rise of the game in Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East; newly formed nations post ‘89 finding their identity on a football pitch—all of these are essential goods of human liberation. But those positives have been squandered by the drive to turn territories into markets, commercialising the goodness of the game out of existence, stitching up inter-continental TV and branding rights to enrich those who run the game in their own interest and nobody else’s.
The earlier period of European imperial patronage that once ran world football has been replaced in the post-modern era by a nakedly-monetised patronage. Football’s governing class is now almost exclusively drawn from the world of commerce, and even when individuals don’t fit that particular background, their values and ambitions are still entirely dictated by the commercial imperative. Of course, modern football is an increasingly expensive enterprise, though we might well ask why costs are ever rising with no obvious benefits to the supporters who follow the game, the non-elite players who form its cultural and sporting backdrop, or the development of children and youth players to create a future for the sport. Where are the supporters’ voices and experiences in this organisational culture? Where are the coaches and players providing any kind of meaningful input to how the game is run? How are those who staff the game at its base (mainly voluntarily) to provide the breadth of participation—though this is in headlong decline—provided with the channels to influence the future of football?
That’s the problem, a universal one. Football’s bosses simply don’t reflect any kind of image of the game of this sort. Blatter the soft target—however legitimate our utter contempt for the man—symbolises the ugly inside of what was once proud to be not only the beautiful but also the people’s game. Simple rules, no expensive kit required, playable on almost any surface, played by any shape of the human body, male or female, and, for the lucky few, a professionalised route out of poverty the world over. No marketing plan was needed to create football’s global appeal, its these values and traditions that provided it with an entire planet of fans and players. FIFA has lost all touch with this most basic appeal of football but then so has the entire sport. Cry no tears for Blatter and his cronies—they deserve every bit of ignominy we would wish upon them. But the power brokers most likely to usher Blatter out the back door are the corporates, the sponsors, the suits who see their careers and cash cow threatened, diminished by his illicit actions. These are no saviours of any remnant of the game because they remain people with next to no understanding of its popular beauty .
Mired in hypocrisy football won’t be cleaning up its act any time soon. We need to turn the game upside down to do that, governed by its grassroots, internationalism replacing patronage. A first step would be the England team, and English club sides too, touring Africa in the pre-season not to flog shirts or hoover up FIFA Executive votes but because this continent has given the world game so much and been rewarded with next to nothing in return. For ninety minutes the world of football is at loggerheads with one another, its the same all over, but the essence of FIFA should be what unites us once the final whistle has been blown. The love of the game, a loyalty to what it represents, which no transfer fee on earth can buy, is an emotion that few who run modern football have any kind of recognition for, any understanding of, any affection because it stands in total opposition to the monetisation of our sport, our fandom, that they crave. While enjoying Blatter’s and FIFA’s tribulationsand hopefully trial—we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that football’s problems won’t be solved until this salient fact begins to be addressed.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football. 66 And All That, the book he is editing on the 50th anniversary of England’s World Cup victory, will be published by Repeater in 2016. .