On Facebook one friend scolds the English for going completely OTT after beating Pananama and Tunisia then being made to look very ordinary by Columbia and Belgium. In a world of such relentlessly negative news though, who can blame them? Another more sanguine observer asks:
“If England win the World Cup, I’m wondering if it’s time for English independence? Already free from continental Europe, then released from the shackles of Scotland, Wales and NI. Why not? I’d support them.”
The mood in Scotland seems to be far more sympathetic and less hostile to our oldest rivals than in previous championships, probably because of the relative lack of swagger going into this World Cup and the self-obvious decency of their young inexperienced manager, Gareth Southgate. If the ‘Football’s Coming Home’ meme is intensely irritating for a variety of reasons, it is still less grating than the idea of “Fifty Years of Hurt” with it’s in-built sense of entitlement. The endless excuses and sort of self-pitying behind the idea is a bizarre exercise in self-deflection, exceptionalism and grievance culture.
Why can’t England just be an ordinary football team from an ordinary country, sometimes good, sometimes not so good? The whole ‘football’s coming home’ idea is based on an idea of specialness that is exacerbated by a period of perceived national decline. The ever-present mantra of ‘1966’ has acted as a way of channeling back to bygone days when England was great and everything was in order in the world (just don’t mention the fact that VAR would have disallowed the goal!). This heightened sense of post-war decline has allowed football to fill the vacuum of political leadership and acted as a salve to a fractured social order.
But the excitement is too fever-pitched, the expectation’s way too-high and the projection on to the national team is over-loaded. We know about such things.
More than that the narrative England is telling itself is really confused. For liberalish England this young team ‘represents Britain’ like never before, or so we’re told: “This is the most multiracial England squad to represent its country at a major tournament, with 11 players of colour. It is also a young squad: the average age is just 26.”
But apart from the ongoing England-Britain-England jumble, this itself is deeply problematic.
As Steve Bloomfield writes: “There’s a hypocrisy to the warm embrace that has been granted to this England team by parts of the media and the population. These are not people they normally like. It is only a month since the government was illegally deporting people who could have been the grandparents of Raheem Sterling or Jesse Lingard. Young men like Dele Alli and Danny Welbeck, with parents from Nigeria and Ghana respectively, are routinely told they should be grateful for the opportunities Britain has given them – a reminder that while they are British, they are not the same class of British as white Brits. And while England players are famous enough not to be stopped and searched, they will have friends for whom that is a depressingly regular occurrence.”
While Bloomfield is right of course he and many other pundits are really confused about what’s going on here. Bloomfield, who is the deputy editor of Prospect and the author of Africa United: How Football Explains Africa, writes of the understanding of how people are seeing this: “The England team and Brexit Britain were one and the same: victory for one was success for the other.”
This notion of ‘an entire nation’ being unified by the World Cup is undermined by a) us not being one nation and b) Britain not being at the World Cup c) Scotland voting Remain by 62%.
This desperate search for unity through football is Not Going To Work. The very fact that journalists don’t get this proves the point.
You could be more optimistic and generous and say that if Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland were the only UK countries present, the ‘entire nation’ would get behind them as representing Britain and such national visions would be projected onto them, but we all know that’s not just not true, its not possible.
But if the new mood of euphoria sweeping England in a heatwave is surely a good thing, it was undermined by the coverage of Germany’s departure. Newscasters, commentators and pundits everywhere couldn’t help themselves. The unbridled glee tipped over into something else entirely as journalistic standards were just thrown away. “Don’t mention the VAR” laughed the Telegraph. Schadenfreude innit? It all seemed to point to a terrible sort of fragility of self-identity – over-compensating for some deep sense of inadequacy.
It’s already been decided that England can win the World Cup, and maybe they can, though the obstacles are more likely to be Brazil, France or Uruguay than a muscular Sweden with their flat-pack four.
The idea of Southgate’s England mirroring Didier Deschamps’ World Cup winning team and bringing a new sense of multicultural enlightenment is a lovely antidote to Brexit xenophobia. It may well be a useful counter-narrative to the stereotype that anyone with a St George’s Cross is a card-carrying UKIP racist – and the fan base of lots more visible women on telly is completely refreshing. But the reality is that the England team doesn’t have the depth and quality of Deschamps team with Evra, Umititi, Sissoko, Paul Pogba and others.
In amongst the football frenzy very real problems lie ahead this coming week as Britain potentially crashes out of Europe and the government falls apart. The contrast between Southgate’s composed reasonableness and the Brexiteers fundamentalists couldn’t be much more stark. I can cheer England on but I fear for the political consequences if they win, or if they lose.