Here we go, here we go......again: the cultural struggle in football over Englishness
Thursday, 22 November 2018 10:52

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, 22 November 2018 10:52

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.

England expects........the World Cup, anti-racism, and Corbyn's Labour Party
Thursday, 22 November 2018 10:52

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, 22 November 2018 10:52

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