Euro 2016: A Free Kick for Nationalism
Friday, 15 December 2017 04:39

Euro 2016: A Free Kick for Nationalism

Published in Sport

Tony Collins outlines the historical background to the recent European Cup debacle.

It’s summer. It’s an even-numbered year. So it must be time for another festival of media angst about the fortunes of the England national football team. After yet another failure in Euro 2016, the bi-annual handwringing over England’s lack of success in one of football’s major tournaments is again underway. And this year it is given added importance by the nostalgia generated by the fiftieth anniversary of England winning the World Cup in July 1966.

But whether it’s the overt nationalism of the ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’ chants or the rose-coloured memories of Bobby Moore and Swinging London in 1966, the starting point for the debate about the England team is always the idea that England is not living up to its status as a global soccer power and that the ‘home of football’ has been eclipsed by lesser nations.

The discussion is not so much about the state of football as it is the state of English nationalism. But that should not be surprising, because when we look at its history, the story of the England football team has never been really about football. It has always been about English nationalism.

The England team began as a reflection of Victorian Britain’s rigid class structure. Until 1900 the captain of the England side was always a middle-class amateur (as it was in cricket until 1952) who generally only met his working-class professional team-mates on the day of the match.

Before the First World War the England team had little of today’s national prestige. Football was primarily club-focused, not least because the Football Association (FA) was disdainfully uninterested in football outside of Britain.

Totalitarian Football

It wasn’t until the inter-war years, when international sport became politically and diplomatically important, that the England football team acquired the national prominence so familiar today. And the FA and the England side had no qualms about lining up alongside Europe’s fascist regimes.

In 1935, England played Germany for the first time since Hitler had come to power. The FA egregiously chose to play the match at White Hart Lane, the home of Tottenham Hotspur, a club even then closely associated with London’s Jewish community.

Amid protests from the labour movement and Jewish organisations, the match went ahead despite the fact that a few weeks earlier the Nuremberg laws had deprived Jews of German citizenship and banned marriage and sex between ‘Aryans’ and Jews. Sport came before politics, insisted the FA hypocritically, despite its self-consciously political role.

Most notoriously, in May 1938 the England side gave the Nazi salute before their international against Germany in Berlin, barely two months after Hitler had marched into Austria. Although after World War Two it was claimed the team was reluctant to raise their arms in the Seig Heil salute, there was no evidence at the time - and a year later the team again gave a fascist salute before their 2-2 draw against Mussolini’s Italy in Milan’s San Siro stadium.


England team give Nazi salute in Berlin, 1938

1966 And All That

After the Second World War, the England team was enrolled on the side of the West in the Cold War. But this did not go to plan. In 1953 England hosted Olympic champions Hungary at Wembley. Far from demonstrating their supremacy, the team was destroyed 6-3. Anyone who thought that this was an aberration was sorely disabused in the return match six months later, when the Hungarians once again eviscerated England 7-1.

The mythology of English football sees the defeats to the Hungarians as the turning point that led to the sport reinventing itself and winning the World Cup in 1966. Yet that triumph was not all it seemed.

Uniquely England were allowed to play all their World Cup matches at Wembley, their ‘home’ stadium. They narrowly defeated Argentina in the quarter-final only after Angentine captain Antonio Rattin had been controversially sent off, and then had their semi-final against Portugal helpfully switched from Everton’s Goodison Park to Wembley. The final also saw a dubious Geoff Hurst goal allowed despite the ball not appearing to cross the goal line.

The fallout from the 1966 England-Argentina quarter-final continues to reverberate today, demonstrating to South Americans that ‘Perfidious Albion’ applied as much to English football as it did to British diplomacy. It was during the 1960s that the roots of many of the present controversies in FIFA can be found.

FIFA Hypocrisy

Stanley Rous, the Englishman who was FIFA president from 1961 to 1975, was a well-known supporter of football in apartheid South Africa, helping to readmit its soccer federation into FIFA in 1963 at a time when most sports were expelling apartheid sporting bodies. As African and Asian nations joined FIFA, the discredited record of Rous and his English supporters allowed Joao Havelange and later Sepp Blatter to take control of FIFA.

Indeed, the recent campaign against Blatter and FIFA corruption is strongly motivated by nationalist revenge on the part of the British football authorities, who are arguably no less prone to corruption than their Swiss counterparts.

Yet despite the constant complaints about the undemocratic nature of FIFA, it is actually British soccer that is the sole beneficiary of FIFA’s most undemocratic feature - the International Football Association Board, the sport’s rule-making body, which gives the four British nations a built-in veto over any rule changes.

The Main Enemy Plays at Home

Nationalist arrogance runs from top to bottom through English football, from the highest officials to the fascist hooligans at England matches. And with nationalism comes racism. Count the number of black British managers in the Premier League or listen to the vile anti-semitic chants directed against Tottenham Hotspur.

And male chauvinism and homophobia is woven into that culture. The Premier and Football Leagues have no women in coaching positions and not a single gay player feels comfortable to come out in soccer’s toxic, homophobic atmosphere.

Whether expressed as right-wing rage or appeals to a supposed ‘left-wing’ patriotism, support for the England football team is a major vehicle for English national chauvinism today. The enjoyment of football’s sublime artistry should not blind us to the fact that, to paraphrase the great German internationalist Karl Liebknecht, when it come to international soccer, the main enemy plays at home.