Here we go, here we go......again: the cultural struggle in football over Englishness
Thursday, 28 October 2021 02:43

Here we go, here we go......again: the cultural struggle in football over Englishness

Published in Sport

Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman dares to hope for victory for an ethnically diverse, working-class England team, and for a progressive outcome to the cultural struggle against a xenophobic, racist populism. The England team's success so far offers an entertaining, enjoyable metaphor for a more co-operative, collective approach to life  – so c'mon England!

For fans of a certain age we’ve been here before. World Cup 2002, England v Brazil in the quarters: first Rivaldo equalises on the cusp of half-time, then just after the break Ronaldinho scores what proves to be their winner. English hopes dashed! Never mind, no disgrace going out to the eventual champions.

Four years later and it’s all about Rooney’s sending off, Ronaldo’s knowing wink to the Portuguese bench, and another dismal English showing in a long list of failures in penalty shoot-outs. Unbeaten with 10 men over 120 minutes, this one we could put down to a mix of bad luck and continental skulduggery.

In between, Euro 2004, England v Portugal. Rooney this time is tearing the opposition to shreds, goes off injured, and after battling their way to a 2-2 draw it was yet another English exit on penalties.

That little lot is all of 14 years ago now. Sven was the manager, Becksmania ruled, Michael Owen, who’d burst on to the international scene four years earlier at France ‘98 was world-class, when he wasn’t injured, and the teenage Rooney at Euro 2004 looked to be even better.

The latter, when compared to his contemporary Ronaldo, never came close to fulfilling his world-beating potential however. Wayne’s first tournament, Euro 2004, was also his best. As for Owen, injuries robbed him of his best moments, at World Cup 2006 going off injured in the first minute of England’s final group game versus Sweden – a most unfortunate international swansong.

Sven did his magnificent best to manage England, exceeding all our expectations. In the two previous World Cups we’d gone out at the last sixteen stage, ’98, and failed to qualify, ’94, at Euro 2000 we’d exited at the Group stage. Sven’s was the era of our last so-called golden generation.

Yet the team was fatally unbalanced by the overwhelming popular fixation with Beckham and all that Becksmania brought with it. It’s hard to know without being privy to their respective changing rooms, but it seems that Southgate’s 2018 squad has a collectivity that England 2002-2006 sorely lacked.

This idea that the team is greater than any single individual has an echo of an era before the consumption of football, along with so many other popular cultural activities, became soaked in celebritification.

Of course this isn’t entirely new – before Beckham there was George Best after all, aka ‘the fifth Beatle’. But perhaps the better reference point is the last time England won a World Cup quarter-final, Italia 90. The huge TV viewing figures, the street celebrations, an England football shirt as our national dress, days organised around World Cup kick off times, it had the lot. And Gazza.

Only five years earlier, after the Bradford fire disaster The Sunday Times had infamously described football as “a slum sport ,played in slum stadiums, increasingly watched by slum people who deter decent folk from turning up.” Thanks a bunch!

English club sides were banned from European competition indefinitely following the lethal trouble at the Heysel stadium, and the post-Hillsborough disaster presumption was that the fans were guilty. It’s easy to blame the Sun and their ilk for the awful coverage, but people at the time largely believed the kind of stuff that those papers printed. Football looked dead on its feet in the 80s.

Italia ’90 transformed how football was perceived. The trouble our fans were part of at the start of the tournament was entirely forgotten, thanks to evening after glorious evening with Gary Lineker. And to top it all, Thatcher was out by the end of the year, thanks principally to the catastrophic unpopularity of her poll tax.

But Thatcherism, and the Tory government, remained intact. What Thatcher had created during her 11-year premiership was a neoliberal consensus founded on the market being king, and de-regulation the swashbuckling way to manage both economy and society.

Football wasn’t immune to any of this – the idea that it was a ‘people’s game’, as a description of the way it was run, was no more than a quaint, reassuring fairy story. In the space of just two years following Italia ’90, the top division of the English game had effectively been sold off by the sport’s governing body – de-regulated, in other words.

The broadcasters’ billions would govern the sport’s elite level best interests from now on, while a similar sell-off of the European Cup to become the Champions – or more accurately rich runner’s ups – League would distort the domestic game still further towards the interests of the wealthiest clubs and their transnational ownerships. Free market football was the direct consequence of England’s Italia ’90 success.

One England World Cup campaign won’t change all that. Italia ’90 reignited the popular appeal of football, despite the preceding tragedies, the hostile attitudes, the attendant hooliganism – only for it to be commodified and marketised.

Perhaps Russia 2018 might help remind us of the possibilities of liberating the game from capitalist culture. No single club can ever achieve this in the way a national team can. No club has the universal appeal across our nation that England has. And none will spark the flying, wearing, painted on a face of St George either.

This is a mass, popular culture we dismiss – but also build up – at our peril. Some, such as Jason Cowley in this week’s New Statesman see it as the reawakening of a progressive English nationalism or as he waggishly dubs it, “Gareth Southgate’s England.”

Others such as Stuart Cartland, reflecting on England’s penalty-shoot out triumph in his piece on this website yesterday, dismisses an over-enthusiastic draping of the progressive in the St George flag: “I can’t help but dread how any English success only serves to embolden a sense of Englishness of the Conservative right.”

The point surely though is to mobilise our resources of hope to shift the balance from Stuart’s pessimism towards the most progressive version of Jason’s optimism. Both views are right, and both wrong.

Football produces “ninety-minute nationalists” as Jim Sillars, then an SNP MP, put it way back when Scotland was qualifying for World Cups. Now, with Scotland amongst the international footballing also-rans, Scottish nationalism is an infinitely more potent political force than in the 1980s and 1990s, a civic nationalism that is broadly social-democratic too.

Political forces and circumstances shaped this, not Scottish football’s Tartan Army. Scottish nationalism is about a place, not primarily about a race. It isn’t hung up on the martial and the imperial in the way Little Englandism is, with no sign at all of getting over that, post-Brexit.

The England team represents – in both senses of the word – a nation that is the worst possible nightmare for a right-wing, racist populism. And when we're doing well, the games unleash a street carnivalesque culture that only a miserabilist version of socialism would want to disavow.

Yes, there are on occasion brutish, xenophobic elements but for the most part they’ve gone. So a Left politics which ignores such an opportunity for a cultural struggle over the meaning of England and Englishness is surely making a huge error.

The question shouldn’t be whether, but how. A win on Saturday against Sweden is as good a place to start as any other. No need to apologise – C’mon England!

Mark Perryman is co-founder of Philosophy Football, aka ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their World Cup and other T-shirts can be found here

Will England’s World Cup success embolden nationalist Brexiteers? You better believe it......
Thursday, 28 October 2021 02:43

Will England’s World Cup success embolden nationalist Brexiteers? You better believe it......

Published in Sport

Stuart Cartland responds to Mark Perryman's article with a more cautious assessment of the potential for extracting progressive cultural meanings from the success of the England team.

As much as I want to believe in the positive force of seeing a strong and unified young multicultural English team do well at the Word Cup, as a symbolic metaphor for a modern, inclusive and progressive nation, I can’t help but dread how any English success only serves to embolden a sense of Englishness of the conservative right.

The metaphor of England beating other nations (and all nations that England play have some sort of symbolic ‘other’ about them) only serves to embolden a sense of English doggedness, separateness and fleeting superiority. In the current times of post-Brexit anxiety and continual economic and political crisis, the England team is used to represent a fantasy of England fighting against the odds and determining their own future.

Take a stroll into your nearest newsagents and see how the ever-reliable tabloids lap up these metaphors with gleeful jingoism. Time and again the tired old cliches and fetishes of war, empire and isolationism are dusted off when the England team play in major football tournaments. It’s as inevitable as a rail replacement bus, a hosepipe ban or the Germans doing well…Ooooh errrrrr.

Maybe, just maybe this time it will be different though – a faint hope I always have in times such as these. Never before has the England team represented such a youthful and multicultural image of England, a beacon of inclusivity, modernity and a last bastion of meritocracy in a society corrupt with nepotism and inequality.

However such obvious and strong metaphors, are quickly over-looked for the more familiar tub-thumping we are all familiar with and can expect or rather, have already witnessed. Regardless of who is playing for England, what dominates is the nationalistic default attachment of England’s glory to the good-old-days, a blitz spirit, bulldog spirit and how England needs only itself to determine its own future irrespective of the outcome – sound familiar?

How though can Labour or the left in general disrupt the dominant conservative narrative around cultural identity? Watching the now viral clip of Danny Dyer speaking about Brexit last week on the new Piers Morgan fronted TV show with fellow guest Jeremy Corbyn looking on, I couldn’t help but feel how his simple yet perfectly worded rant made Jeremy Corbyn look out of touch with a general mood, in that it’s left to someone like Danny Dyer to articulate genuine frustrations that politicians can’t or are unable to – and when they do attempt to it, it often looks contrived or off the mark.

In a similar way, if Corbyn and Labour tried to focus upon sport as a means to articulate a political or cultural struggle it is in very clear danger of ending up like the example that Mark Perryman gave of New Labour from 1996. Political manoeuvring around national teams often ends up looking like cheap and contrived bandwagon-jumping. In a wider sense ‘Cool Britannia’ and New Labour’s very purposeful rebranding of Britishness in the late 90’s also only served to solidify concepts of Englishness as the preserve of the conservative right. People are very wary of politicians trying to purposefully exploit sporting events, however sporting events are often used to manifest ideological sentiment – just think of Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony. This is a good example of very clear inclusive and egalitarian sentiment expressed through a sporting occasion – but is a very rare and relatively successful example from the left.

The crux of the issue is that it is assumed and taken for granted that England (and it is particularly England for many reasons) doing well at sport (particularly football) is automatically linked to and co-opted by a particular and paradoxical type of nationalism. It’s a sort of default preserve of the right, a struggle that inclusive and radical concepts of national identity have always struggled with and against. This is clearly a deeper issue within our society, identity and dominant national narratives however, one that is constructed and can change. There is nothing natural about nationalism being inherently conservative or right wing,

How football is consumed and engaged with today has massively changed, it is the global game. Anyone watching the vibrant and good-natured mix of fans in Russia (yes, the place where we were warned not to go due to threats of extreme xenophobic violence) couldn’t help but be struck by the cosmopolitan feel of it all.

But even this international utopia of good will and the very clearly overwhelmingly working class and multicultural make-up of the England team is lost within the hubbub of England doing well (so far) at a major football tournament. Who the England team are what they can represent does have the potential to be a most powerful metaphor for the nation and a new sense of identity within a time of crisis and anxiety, but much like the potential of the team itself it never seems to be realised.