Here we go, here we go......again: the cultural struggle in football over Englishness
Tuesday, 18 January 2022 13:40

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