Wednesday, 11 July 2018 08:07

Fields of Play

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in Sport
Fields of Play

As England prepare for their first World Cup semi-final for 28 years, Mark Perryman joins the dots between pitches and politics and makes a practical suggestion to the Labour Party about developing a 'football for all'.

It seems like almost yesterday that ‘Football’s Coming Home’ became England’s national anthem, an England shirt our national dress, and not being able to move for St George’s Cross Flags. 2018 is fast becoming the new ’96, and English hope springs eternal that this time there might be a happier ending too.

Football’s coming home is the cry, and one of those fronting it is comedian and writer David Baddiel – born in New York, his father Welsh, and his mother a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Baddiel neatly sums up the patchwork of identities most modern, and some ancient, icons of Englishness are constructed out of.

When it was originally written, the song was wrapped up in the mildly imperious idea that England is somehow the home of football. It was a message that framed the disastrous English bid to host the World Cup in 2006, an arrogance that resulted in a humiliatingly low vote. And irony of ironies who got it instead? Germany.

Twenty-two years later the song seems more of a joyful lament than back then. Willing the return of the World Cup to good old Blighty’s shores, it’s been away for too long, far too long. Oh, and it’s got a catchy and easy to remember chorus, that helps.

Does any of this matter very much? Well actually, in the big wide world outside of both Westminster and Planet Placard, yes it does. The South African academic and activist Prishani Naidoo wrote this about football, whilst her country was hosting World Cup 2010:

The field of play it produces stretches far beyond the boundaries of its goal posts and pitches – fields of play that sometimes bring into question the ‘taken-for-granted’, ‘the natural’, the ways in which ‘we are meant’ to be in society.

For many the most important event this week will be the very public falling-out of Tory ministers with each other over Brexit. For others the event they are most looking forward to is Friday’s march against Trump. Both are hugely important, but for millions of others it is all about England v Croatia and the sniff of a World Cup final appearance for the first time in 52 years.

Yes some have a stake in all three but a Left that aspires to be popular should be effortlessly making the connections, joining the dots between Wednesday night’s ‘field of play’ and that process of ‘bringing into question’. The football writer Barney Ronay has located the link superbly well:

The FA neither owns nor controls the mechanics of grassroots football. It has no power to dictate what Premier League clubs do with young players. It isn’t the nation’s PE teacher. It is instead something of a patsy. One of the FA’s significant functions is to act as a kind of political merkin for the wider problem. Which is, simply access for all: the right to play, a form of shared national wealth that has been downgraded by those in power for decades.

These extremely wise words were written several years before World Cup 2018, following yet another earlier-than-we-hoped-for exit . The first part of Barney’s argument has been addressed as far as possible by the FA. Unable to regulate the Premier League clubs’ treatment of young players, they have invested heavily in their own youth teams with startling success.

The core of Southgate’s squad has been playing for England junior teams since their teens, travelling away to tournaments, learning to get on with each other as well as play alongside each other. And Southgate for a period was their Under 21s manager too, with a watching brief on younger squads as well. His appointment has proved to be inspired, but one that within the constraints of ‘free market football’ went alongside the FA re-asserting its role as a governing body, the game’s regulatory authority, if you like.

But the second part of the argument remains as sharply evident now as ever. Those England players who before the tournament revisited the primary and secondary schools where they first learnt their football would have found those institutions with hard-pressed PE departments. In plenty of cases school playing fields have been sold off, and those that remain struggle for the finances to be kept properly maintained.

The youth football set-ups, where these players developed their talent before being spotted for bigger things, struggle to find public pitches to play on and are deprived of the resources to build their own facilities. This is the austerity-driven reality for all those inspired by Russia
2018, young and old, to lace up their boots and drag themselves away from the sofa – sport as not simply something to watch, but to play.

A radical commonsense politics connects the popular with the political. So here’s an idea. On the day of England’s biggest game in 28 years Jeremy Corbyn gives Brexit a rest, leaves the Trump-bashing until he arrives on our shores tomorrow and instead pops down his local park. Not to make the rather trite current Labour party offer of a national (sic) holiday should England win the World Cup, though this does have the added bonus of getting the Scots and Welsh behind the team. Nor a New Labour style photo-opportunity, y’ know the one Blair doing the keep-uppies with Kevin Keegan.

No, to make a serious-minded speech about playing fields, their selling off by successive governments and how a politics of football for all is how we make this most wonderful of World Cup summers actually mean something. 1-0 to Labour and England to win: that will do me nicely.

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

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