Growing into your sense of defeat
But if Gareth Bale looked past-it – the 37 year old Croatian Luka Modrić (four years Bale’s senior) looked anything but. Modrić’s life story is like something out of Roy of the Rovers (or maybe Tiger and Scorcher). When he was wee his family became refugees in a war-zone. He grew up to the sound of grenades exploding. As with Messi, in early years coaches said he was too weak and too shy to play football. But Modrić was to lead Croatia to its first-ever World Cup final, won the Ballon d’Or, five Champions League titles with Real Madrid and many more trophies. Now he has led Croatia (population 4 million) to the semi-finals of World Cup 2022.
But if this bizarre winter world cup has intensified the idea of each team having some talismanic world-class player, it also means that there is a single-point of failure. This phenomena of the single mega player (worth hundreds of millions) stands uneasily alongside the idea of ‘national aspiration’.
If Neal Stewart has asked the perennial question of why Scotland can’t emulate such success as similarly small-sized countries here, Croatia’s success does raise the question of yearning, nation-building through symbolic acts and moments. In this sense Scotland and Scottish football is a strange beast. At our (apparent) height of the 1970s, the Tartan Army would descend and take-over London, a sea of flags (then Lion Rampant) would reflect what you would imagine to be a huge nationalistic fervour. Yet at this time, nationalism, in the sense of any serious movement for independence was a marginal affair.
I suppose national identity has different outlets now, and with the demise of the Home Championships, the annual fixture with the Auld Enemy is gone. In some senses, the roles are reversed and the English national team is now the bearer of the (repressed? misdirected?) aspirations of national identity. England doesn’t get to be England a lot.
This is all about expectation. For large European countries like France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, or countries with a success-pedigree, like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay or others the expectation is to reach quarter, semi and finals. England is a bit of an anomaly, a large European country with a football history and culture, but no real track record of winning anything. This contributes to the difference in approaches to the national game, north and south of the border. If England have a fear of failure, Scotland have a fear of success. What would it look like for us to change the narrative from glorious (and often heroic) failure to workaday functioning-level ‘success’?
“England ticked all the boxes here, and in so doing generated about as palatable a tournament defeat as it is possible to conceive. But of course these expectations and judgments do not occur in a vacuum. They create the emotional weather around a team, who can sense on some deep subconscious level what the reaction to success or failure will be. England players of the past have talked of playing in tournament games and being able to envision the public and media uproar even before it happened.”
“And so is it possible that on some deeply unconscious level, the very concept of a palatable defeat can somehow self-prophesy it? Or, put more bluntly: did England’s players and Gareth Southgate need to win this World Cup enough? Did they need to win it like Lionel Messi so clearly needs to win it? Wanting it, striving for it, trying your hardest, is one thing. But should England be more than simply proud and disappointed?”
But the problem is not wanting to win, the problem for England is expecting to win.
Liew again: “If you are a five-time champion such as Brazil or a smaller nation such as Wales, perhaps this is an easier call to make. But for England, whose self-image is wrapped up in all sorts of contradictory motifs – colonial heritage and postcolonial angst, nationalism and internationalism, Premier League wealth and local tribalism – it has often been the very source of their confusion.”
This is where the post-Qatar debate meets the wider political culture.
Strangely, the current English team and management do not reflect a post-Brexit nation characterised by xenophobia and separatism but a contemporary multi-cultural one that stands in opposition to many of the ideals and values associated with England’s ascendant right. Gary Lineker, Gareth Southgate, Marcus Rashford and Alex Scott have become a sort of lightning-rod for regressive culture, they have become unlikely cultural warriors. Now the footballing debate about England and Southgate is less about tactics and selection issues and more about what kind of England they represent. From the debate about taking the knee, to defending the young black players abused after the Euros final, to raising £396 million for school-meals, to speaking out on LGBTQ rights in Qatar, the manager, the players and the pundits have become symbols of a different football culture and a different national culture, one that is more contemporary, liberal, multicultural and progressive.
But the limits to the liberal media front have also been exposed. Despite a lot of froth about LGBTQ rights and migrant workers conditions, the FA, or the squad did nothing at all in Qatar, not even the performative German photo. Alex Scott wore an armband.
Part of this shift is the feminisation of football that has developed rapidly with the massive breakthrough of women’s football in the last few years. ITV featured an all-female lineup for their coverage of Poland–Saudi Arabia last Saturday, with Karen Carney and Eni Aluko joined by host Seema Jaswal. ITV has three female pundits – Aluko, Nadia Nadim and Carney – the BBC has presenters Gabby Logan, and Kelly Cates, and female pundits Alex Scott and Laura Georges plus four female commentators. This is mirrored on the pitch. Last week the first all-female officiating team at a men’s World Cup took to the pitch for the match between Costa Rica and Germany, with French referee Stéphanie Frappart the first woman to referee a match in the men’s World Cup.
This is a long way from Vinnie Jones and Gazza, or a football dominated by lads culture or casuals, but it’s catnip to those for whom England’s imagined Greatness is a totemic idea – undermined by the imagined liberal hegemony, the terribly woke BBC and ‘bloody women!’
But if the shift to greater inclusivity is to be applauded there is something odd also about the emphasis. It is estimated that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago, primarily in the building of stadia, roads and construction. Very little was said about this brutal fact during the tourament. In the light of this the focus on whether you could wear a rainbow bucket hat or that there was another woman pundit seems strange.