What do they know of cricket, that only cricket know?
Thursday, 20 January 2022 10:29

What do they know of cricket, that only cricket know?

Published in Sport

 Mark Perryman criticises the exclusive way some sports are managed, and suggests some progressive policies to bring out all the benefits of sport – for the many, not the few.

Cricket’s version of the ‘years of hurt’ – 44 in this case – came to a spectacular end early last Sunday evening. Thrilling, eventful, and glorious – no wonder the front pages the following morning were full of it. The sub-editor who came up with the headline ‘Champagne Super Over’ is surely in line for a hefty bonus.

For a certain version of a miserabilist leftism, all this amounts to is a concocted, nationalistic, distraction from more important matters at hand. For others, it’s hip-hip-hooray! The world has changed at the flick of a super over and superior number of wickets taken! The nation will take up bat and ball! Obesity crisis, what crisis! The truth lies somewhere in between, or as CLR James famously put it ‘What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?’

The hoo-hah over the tournament’s TV broadcasting rights sold off to the highest bidder, a Sky TV subscription channel, illustrates this perfectly. The England and Scotland women’s World Cup campaigns attracted record-breaking viewing figures, with over 12 million for England’s semi-final. But until the final was after much pressure shared with Channel 4, the cricket World Cup scraped by on a few hundred thousand viewers.

The contrast couldn’t be more obvious. Ever since the birth of satellite TV, hyped-up claims have been made about the virtue of its ‘generous purchase’ of TV rights. Yet in every single case numbers following the sport on TV have plummeted, popular interest has been squandered, and participation levels have declined.

It’s been a disaster. Why on earth would any host nation allow the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a domestic World Cup to be be squandered in this way? Yet this summer we have had not one but two examples, in cricket and netball.

MP 2

Netball in particular has wasted the biggest chance it has ever had to grow the sport. Most women in this country have played the game during their schooldays, but the overwhelming majority promptly gave it up when they left school, never to return to the court. There’s been a modest reversal of this depressing trend following England’s gold medal in the Commonwealth Games, but nothing like the kind of platform a World Cup offers.

These sports’ governing bodies, and there are plenty of other examples, clearly cannot be trusted with the wider interests they are charged with. Of course most are hard-pressed for funds, but when participation is sacrificed for the short-term injection of cash, and to boost profits of privately-owned media companies, then something is clearly amiss. Some – though not enough – of the broadcasting rights to sporting events are regulated. They are not available to the satellite channels, and have to be broadcast on terrestrial TV. As a first step, an incoming Labour government should significantly extend that list, to include any domestic World Cup or World Championship for starters, and the Ashes too.

Nanny state? No! It’s standing up for the nation’s sporting interests. Those interests are centred on two roles sport performs like no other cultural activity – encouraging participation and framing a common-sense nationhood.

Sport is socially constructed

On the same weekend as that epic cricket World Cup final, terrestrial TV also treated us to the Wimbledon finals and the British Grand Prix. Both attracted huge audiences, yet neither will lead to many viewers taking up driving round Silverstone as a hobby, or picking up a tennis racquet for the first time.

That is because participation isn’t just about what we can watch on TV from the comfort of our own sofa, it is about providing the means to get us off that sofa too. Sport is socially constructed. A local go-kart track for the child inspired by Lewis Hamilton’s 100mph derring-do might do for starters, but the numbers who can afford to enter this hugely expensive sport at a competitive level are minuscule.

And tennis? The annual platform Wimbledon provides tennis frames it as an intensely upper middle-class pursuit, from the Royal Box guest list to strawberries and cream followed by a glass of Pimms. A revolutionary reinvention of tennis would reframe it as an urban, inner-city sport. A network of concrete tennis courts would not only be vandal-proof, they would require virtually zero maintenance. Add on an army of local authority coaches providing the much-needed structure to encourage those who pick up racquet and ball, and the whole sport could become about mass participation

It could become a sport for the many, not the few – ring any bells? And the few who made it up the ranks to play at Wimbledon would be a pleasant surprise and a welcome side effect, not the sum of our ambition. Having regulated the broadcasting rights, an incoming Labour Government should run an audit of every sport’s governing body’s finances. Those that failed to meet tougher objectives around mass participation would be deprived of the generous state support they receive, from taxpayers and Lottery players. Totalitarian? Not at all, it’s just common sense – these sports have lost the right to be trusted with the organisation and management of cultural activities which are so important to people’s health, happiness and well-being.  

Participation in physical activity is key to the nation’s health. But sport can deliver even more than that. A World Cup, in any sport, reaches the parts of a sporting nation like nothing else. When Liverpool won the Champions’ League the blue half of Merseyside looked away with studied indifference, while they were hardly dancing in the streets of Manchester, North London and elsewhere either.

A World Cup win is of a different scale. The casual observer is mobilised to become hardened fan for a month at least. In Eric Hobsbawm’s brilliant phrase ‘An imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’

But of course that ‘imagined community’ is hugely contested, never more so than in this era of the Brexit impasse. Jacob Rees-Mogg clearly hadn’t spent very long on the playing fields of Eton if he could in all seriousness tweet after England’s World Cup victory, ‘We clearly don't need Europe to win.’


Yet this was an England team with an Irish-born captain, an opening batsman born in South Africa, a man of the match born in New Zealand, and wicket-takers born in Barbados and the grandson of a Pakistani immigrant. It was diverse, multicultural, and all the better for it. Of course this isn’t enough to roll back a resurgent popular racism – but it’s a start, an unrivalled platform for a very different imagined nation to the one of Rees-Mogg’s elitist and xenophobic imagination. Nothing reveals faux-populism like a politician’s ignorance of sport.

What do they know of cricket who only cricket knows? Not enough! The failure to understand the social impact and construction of sport leaves the political left incapable of contributing to the kind of national conversation that Sunday’s World Cup win has ignited.

Fortunately, what CLR James also taught us is that sport matters for its own sake too. For many millions of people, sport is not a distraction from the real world, but an invaluable and central part of that world. Let’s join them, savouring without apologies the victories of England and Wales – and along the way, hopefully learning lessons for the next Labour government’s more progressive policies around the ownership, control and regulation of sport.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football. Their World Champions T-shirt, celebrating the diverse and multicultural England team is available here. Illustration is by Hugh Tisdale/Philosophy Football.

Here we go, here we go......again: the cultural struggle in football over Englishness
Thursday, 20 January 2022 10:29

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

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party
Thursday, 20 January 2022 10:29

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party

Published in Sport

As England prepare to take on Colombia tonight, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman outlines what we can look forward to. He discusses the potential of modern football for communicating anti-racist messages, and offers some advice to Jeremy Corbyn's Labour Party about developing a cultural struggle to run alongside the labour movement's political and economic struggles. This involves adopting a political practice which is rooted in popular culture, where ideas are formed – and changed.

The last time England got to this stage at a World Cup there was no happy ending. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany at South Africa 2010. Well at least we know that isn’t going to happen, Auf Wiedersehen before the postcards, ouch!

Though it might not do to be too cocky. England have a decent record in the last sixteen, when not up against a top tier football nation. Beating Ecuador at World Cup 2006, Denmark in 2002, Belgium in 1990, Paraguay in 1986. But out of that lot the only time we then made it past the quarters to the semis was when at Italia’90 after beating Belgium in the last 16 we faced Cameroon, rather than a higher-ranked team.

This is what makes the Russia 2018 campaign so mouth-watering a prospect. Beat Colombia and the quarter will be against Sweden or Switzerland. And with Spain dispatched England’s semi-final opponent would be Russia or Croatia. Arguably there has never been a World Cup like it for sending well-fancied former tournament winners home early, Germany now joined by the last sixteen exits of Argentina, Spain, and reigning European champions, Portugal.

But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance 28 years ago, quite a few non top-tier football nations - Bulgaria, Sweden, Croatia, Turkey, South Korea, Portugal, who have never won the World Cup or played in a final - have made it this far. England’s world standing never moved on after 1990. In the almost three decades since then, we have fallen behind others, and in the recent past have slipped back still further. Thus Columbia, Sweden, Switzerland, Croatia and Russia can’t be taken as lightly as some might assume.

All those fancied teams going home early has certainly opened up the tournament, but something else has happened too. No African team has made it into the last 16. Pelé’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 looks as far away as ever. And with only Japan making it through to the last sixteen, despite their plucky performance against Belgium, their eventual defeat means the same goes for Asia too. Football is a truly global game, but the very top level remains a European-Latin American cartel, with little obvious sign of that changing.

Since the beginning, the World Cup has been won by a remarkably small number of teams. Apart from Brazil, Germany and Italy plus Uruguay’s rather ancient 1930 and 1950 tournament wins following England’s one and only triumph, newcomers Argentina have won the trophy twice, in 1978 and ’86.

Three tournaments later, host nation France lifted the trophy for the first and only time in ‘98, and another three tournaments later Spain did the same in 2010 but not again since. After the exits of Germany and Argentina, and the failure of either four-times winners Italy to qualify or Holland - who hold the unenviable record of making the most appearances in a World Cup Final without winning it - the best possible outcome from Russia 2018 would be for a nation that’s never won the World Cup to lift the trophy. Or England, of course!

World Cup winners may be more or less unchanging yet something else has changed, for European teams in particular. When England won the World Cup in 1966 the team was all white. 24 years later and the team that lined up once again to face West Germany in the ’90 semi-final included just two black players, Des Walker and Paul Parker. Another 28 years on and of the England team to face Columbia tonight more than half the line-up will be black or mixed race. And what is true of England is also true for France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal too - all teams made up of a patchwork of the nation’s migrant communities .

Of course the meaning and effect of all this can be overstated. At France ’98 Zinedine Zidane led arguably the greatest multicultural team of all to World Cup triumph, and two years later the same at Euro 2000. But in 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen makes it into the final round of the French Presidential Election for the first time ever, polling almost 20% of the vote. And in 2017 Marine Le Pen achieved the same, this time attracting a third of the popular vote.

But the point is that a St. George Cross draped in the colours of multiculturalism has at least the potential for the beginnings of a journey away from racism. It has a reach and symbolism like no other, touching the parts of a nation’s soul no anti-racist placard thrust in our faces is ever going to.

This is the meaning of modern football, and when England begin to scale the heights of 2018 World Cup ambition the reach of that message is amplified still further on a scale and in a manner that ’66 could never have done, and ’90 barely began. A popular Left politics must surely connect with such episodes as metaphor, to translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline that we require to become a more equal and socialist society.

So here’s my advice for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues. If Labour cannot explain the meaning of the World Cup why should I listen to what the party has to tell me on how they’re going to fix the mess the NHS is in? A World Cup provides an unrivalled opportunity to illustrate occasionally hidebound points on race, nation and globalisation that touch upon the lived experience and emotions of millions who otherwise might not give such issues a second thought at best, and who might adopt a reactionary position at worst. Corbynism has this kind of popular communicative potential but to date has scarcely even begun to make these kinds of connections.

That doesn't mean the flimsy populism of Blair, when he adopted the ‘Labour’s Coming Home’ message after England’s last tournament semi, Euro ‘96. It means a political practice rooted in popular culture, because it's in popular cultures like football, more than anywhere else, that ideas are not only formed, but also changed.

Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their England Expects T-shirt is available from here

England Expects 2018

Thirty-two nations under a groove: World Cup 2018
Thursday, 20 January 2022 10:29

Thirty-two nations under a groove: World Cup 2018

Published in Sport

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.

WC 2018 32 teams tee shirt

The Thirty-Two Nations Philosophy Football T-shirt is available from Philosophy Football