Will the World Cup be an orgy of petty-minded nationalism? Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman doesn’t seem to think so.
In between the matches from Russia over the next few weeks, here’s a Trivial Pursuit question to test your mates’ footballing knowledge. Which is the only World Cup squad with the entire list of players playing in their own country’s domestic league?
Easy! Easy! Easy! I hear the chant go up. The answer is England, of course, except it’s not just a knowledge of football that provides the answer, but politics, history and culture too.
Firstly, and most importantly, the political economy of the game. In other words, English clubs pay heaps more dosh than most overseas outfits.
Secondly, Anglo-superiority complex. Who in England’s 2018 squad would make it as a certain first team starter at a top German, Italian or Spanish club? Precious few – there’s a number who aren’t even regular starters at their own clubs, edged out by Johnny Foreigner’s talent.
Thirdly, the domesticity of our players betrays a certain very English parochialism. More comfortable at home than abroad, Europe after all is a foreign country.
England’s second most successful World Cup campaign remains Italia ’90. Of England’s starting line-up in that year, Lineker had played for Barcelona, and Waddle was then playing for Marseilles in France. Gazza, Des Walker and Platt all went on to play for Italian clubs.
As for the victorious West Germany side who went on to win the trophy, none of them played in England, though Klinsmann would end up being snapped up by an English side – but that was in 4 years’ time, in 1994.
The lesson that was drawn from Italia ’90 was that English football had the potential to recover its reputation and popularity, following the ban on our club sides from European competitions post-Heysel, and the human tragedy of Hillsborough.
This, like so much else after Thatcher’s election in ’79 – until Jeremy Corbyn came along to break the spell of its appeal – was down to neo-liberal deregulation. The FA effectively gave up its right to govern the elite level of the game by floating off the First Division, now the Premier League, to be run by the clubs themselves.
With Murdoch in hot pursuit following the dawning realisation that broadcasting live football was the only way to save his fledgling satellite TV company, Sky, the deregulation accelerated via the vast wealth generated by TV contracts.
Neoliberalism isn’t the same as globalisation, but they are intimately connected. Globalisation, which has involved the shifting of capital investment – and the jobs that go with it – from the West to the East, has produced a counter-reaction.
In the U.S. of Donald Trump, this is his populist America First nationalism. Across Europe movements for independence, from Catalonia to Scotland. And throughout the same continent anti-migrant movements have been resurgent, too.
In the case of football, we see the counter-reaction in the persistent influence of racism and worse amongst certain fan subcultures, co-existing with the huge influx of foreign players.
Again, the World Cup illustrates this. Consulting once more my handy pocket-sized World Cup Squads ‘guide for reference, a tasty looking English Premier League eleven out in Russia would line up like this: De Gea in goal, Mendy, Monreal and Christensen providing three at the back; Pogba, Eriksen, Hazard and De Bruyne packing the midfield; and up front Firmino, Aguero, and Salah. And there’s plenty more where that lot came from too.
Yet precious few fans in their right minds are going to complain about these particular migrant workers, over here, nicking our players’ jobs, with their foreign ways and the like. Racist attitudes to that extent are thankfully fairly marginalised.
Another Trivial Pursuits question for you: what is the most globalised public institution in English society and culture? Again, easy – the football club, up and down the divisions, even stretching down into non-league football, is easily the most globalised public institution in English society. The owners, the management and coaching staff, the aforementioned players, the fan-base, the sponsors and advertisers , the TV viewing public – all are globalised, and few would object to that.
This doesn’t mean the process is entirely unproblematic. Football mythologises itself as the People’s Game, although it has never been thus, clubs have always been owned by the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker. In Manchester United’s case, quite literally, as the Edwards family were butchers who sold the club they owned off to the Glazers, US sports moguls. Local business elites have nearly always owned the game and ran it in their own local interest. The only difference now is that it’s a global business elite running it, in their own trans-national interest. Corporate monopoly capitalism has replaced small businesses, in football as in everything else.
Resistance to absent owners erupts from time to time, though home-grown owners are often not much better – just look at West Ham. But what frames modern fan culture most of all is a popular cosmopolitanism. While England agonises over how and when it will exit Europe, every football club’s ambition is to get into Europe. This is our cultural barricade against the hateful rise of the Football Lads’ Alliance. Their values, founded on division, are the complete opposite to the way the modern game is consumed and supported.
For every fan cheering on England over the next few weeks there will be others keeping an interested and supportive eye on how their club’s foreign players are doing, and most importantly many are fully capable of doing both. One nation, thirty-two nations, for the next three and a week under the same groove. For this precious moment, nothing could be more powerful as a resistance to racism and division.
What’s more, despite FIFA’s worst efforts, it’s broadly equitable too. My last Trivial Pursuit question is this: what have the superpowers of the USA, Russia and China got in common? They’ve not got one World Cup between them. And that’s because international football is regulated, no country on earth however rich is ever going to persuade Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo to sign for them. If that’s not neoliberal globalisation turned on its economic head into something a tad better, I don’t know what is.
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Mark Perryman is a writer and the co-founder of Philosophy Football.