On football and nation in the 21st century
So you may have heard, there’s a World Cup of football going on. At least until Sunday. There is a particularly odd feeling on the streets of London, as through what has surely been the easiest route to Moscow since the Wehrmacht in 1941, England are in the semi-finals, with a genuine chance of winning the whole thing for the first time in over half a century. England fans can be seen nursing their tepid pints in pubs across the land during an unusually warm summer, vacillating between euphoric disbelief, and full-on nationalistic pomp. Chants of “It’s coming home” are being heard non-ironically on the streets of England for the first time since David Baddiel was relevant. And that’s a long time ago. Every four years, it rolls around, and even for the firmest disbelievers, it’s hard to avoid. It’s the ultimate spectacle, the greatest show on earth to distract ourselves from the everyday struggle and the ticking of the doomsday clock to gather around screens in pubs and bars and offices and living rooms to cheer and cry as if it means something. Surely the concept of 11 men wearing national colours, singing the national anthem with hands on hearts battling it out over the proverbial pigskin as millions around the world watch on is more than slightly antiquated in the year 2018. However, as easy as that might be to say in the intervening years, every time the world cup comes around, even for nationless cynical leftists like me, it’s impossible to stop watching. And all the while the same questions keep recurring. What does nation even mean in the 21st century? What is its place in modern sports, particularly football? And even though many would surely like to see it otherwise, can football ever be non-political?
The current tournament being played in Russia has added many layers of intrigue to the way it has been perceived and reported here in Britain. Given the backdrop of strained diplomatic relations in the wake of Novichok poisonings, allegations of collusion over the Brexit referendum and the clusterfuck that is Syria, the right-wing press in Britain have discovered a new-found fervour in peddling old Cold War rhetoric and hysteria when discussing Russia. This was perhaps no more evident than in Newsnight’s handling of a story regarding allegations of Jeremy Corbyn selling state secrets to a Czech spy in the 80s, during which they depicted his image standing in front of the Kremlin, in true Red Scare fashion. During the ongoing tournament, barely a game goes by without the commentators making some kind of snide remark towards Russia and its Soviet past. For several months, if not years, leading up to this world cup, there has been fearmongering of Russian football hooliganism, and the threat of violence between fans. Not only is that a more than slightly hypocritical stance to take from the British press, given the track record of English football violence, particularly on European soil, but quite contrary to the forecasts, the atmosphere, at least as reported, has been altogether something more akin to scenes from the music video of a charity single crossed with all the pageantry of a pride parade. National pride, that is.
Some of the jubilant mood seen on the ground can perhaps be attributed to the host nation’s unexpected success. Having opened up the world cup with a resounding 5–0 thrashing of Saudi Arabia, they proceeded to qualify from their group with relative ease and to the shock of all watching eyes, knock out Spain, one of the tournament favourites, in the first knockout round. The Russian team were finally felled after a truly dramatic encounter with Croatia in the quarter finals, after 120 beleaguered minutes of staunch resistance, galvanised by the noise of a buoyant home crowd. Added to that has been the number of major upsets in the early stages of the competition, which has meant a whole new level of enjoyment, especially for those of us nationless rooting for the underdogs. Argentina took part in a shocking 1–1 draw with Iceland, a country with the same population as the supermarket chain on an average Saturday, Spain was firmly held to a draw, and then knocked out by the hosts, and the current holders Germany even failed to make it out of their group, putting an end to the old adage that football is a game where 22 men kick the ball about for 90 minutes and in the end the Germans win.
No one has revelled in the schadenfreude of Germany’s woes more than the English, who perceive a fierce rivalry with their Teutonic counterparts, which is embarrassingly not reciprocated. This has of course been all the more exacerbated by England’s own overperformance. Ever the underachiever, England has always seen itself as a footballing powerhouse, even though history would seem to suggest otherwise, having won the world cup once in 1966 when they hosted it, off the back of home support once again, as well as a certain questionable refereeing decision in the final. Recent tournaments have witnessed a repeating cycle of hype, underperformance and inevitable disappointment, which is gleefully seized upon by the vultures in the media. Perhaps the same could be said of the press in most sport-crazed nations, but the English seem to take special relish in building up their boys with unrealistic expectations, and when those are not met, running unending column inches dedicated to breaking them down. And sometimes, particularly before a major tournament, there is an especially odd tendency to orchestrate the character assassination of a player or manager as if to anticipate their fall from grace, and readying them as the landing pad of all of the nation’s rage. This time round it was Manchester City star striker Raheem Sterling who was the subject of a classic Daily Mail and Sun smear campaign when he was photographed with his new tattoo of an assault rifle on his shooting (geddit?) leg, choosing to ignore the fact that it was an homage to his late father who was gunned down when he was a young boy. Of course this has nothing to do with him being a young wealthy and successful black man.
Living in a diverse area like Harringay in North London, something funny happens when trying to stream the world cup games on your computer (we don’t have a TV in our house). Because of the minute and a half broadcast delay, regardless of whether Germany or Argentina or Spain or Portugal are playing, cheers can be heard from some household or another in the neighbourhood, letting you know in advance that a goal has been scored. I’ve lived in London on and off for 20 years now, and while I consider myself a Londoner, I don’t consider myself British, and most certainly not English. The London that I know and love isn’t at all determined by race or ethnicity or language, which is one of the things that really makes it a special city. Perhaps it’s the imagining of my urban lefty mindset, but the concept of insular nation-states ought to be rendered meaningless in the era of global interconnectivity that we live in today. However, whenever major sporting competitions come around, that fervour of patriotism and flag-waving rears its ugly head time and time again.
There is generally a social amnesty in place for the St. George’s cross during these times from its usual demarcation of far-right nationalist politics, having been historically appropriated by fascists of all forms. However, even then there is something deeply disconcerting about displays of triumphalistic nationalism, wherever in the world that may be, and English football fandom is no exception. Especially at a time when the utter shitshow that is Brexit continues to unfurl, and the great rage that the referendum tapped into manifests itself in ever-increasing displays of racism and xenophobia, these moments of nationalistic outburst prove to be deeply problematic. As the English press builds up hype for the semi final against Croatia and dreams of winning the world cup with a nostalgic yearning for ’66, we are reminded of the politics of nostalgia that the Brexit campaign employed, harking back to a time when Britain ruled the world. It goes to further illustrate how pitifully lacking Britain’s attempt has been in reconciling with its colonial past and the loss of its empire, as well as the realisation that it is no longer a major global player.
In December 1945, a few months after victory in World War 2, the famed Dynamo Moscow football team went on a four-game tour of Britain. Although they were heavily decorated in their domestic league, the visitors from the USSR were barely known by the British. However, to the great surprise of the many thousands who showed up to watch the matches, they drew against Chelsea and Rangers and beat Cardiff City and Arsenal. When they returned to the Soviet Union, they were given a reception reminiscent of the heroes coming home from triumph in war a few months earlier, and the tour became symbolic of the ideological loggerheads of the Cold War that would typify Anglo-Russian relations for many decades to come. George Orwell wrote a famous essay about the tour, in which he is also deeply disturbed by the nationalistic sentiments evoked by the tour among a public freshly fatigued from war. The histories of both nationalism as a dominant political force and the of competitive sports as a cultural force are inextricably interwoven, as he observes.
Around the late 19th century, when the concept of the nation state was spreading like wildfire throughout the world, fuelling independence movements in the various European empires around the world, the great modern sporting institutions were born. From the first modern Olympic games in 1896 to the founding of many of the current Premier League clubs, big money began entering sports for the first time in history, first in Britain and America, and very soon after the rest of the world. The pride and honour of a collective of people was to be placed on the shoulders of selected individuals to vie for the glory of victory and primacy in a similar manner to war, and even when the context was not explicitly political, like in the case of domestic competitions, the same tribal urges would be evoked along some other lines of division, whether religious, territorial or otherwise. And when nations meet, the moment is definitionally political. This year marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, the culmination of the force of nationalism, a cauldron of unimaginable human suffering from which the modern world as we know it was forged. The immense loss of human life during both it and the Second World War has perhaps changed the dominant cultural perceptions of war, and military action is now probably more likely to draw protest marches than crowds whipped up in a patriotic frenzy queuing up to volunteer at the enlistment office, however sport has in many ways replaced it as the catalyst for that same social phenomenon today. One need only to look at instances such as the USA v USSR ice hockey match at the 1980 Winter Olympics, or any time India and Pakistan play each other in cricket, as well as innumerable other examples from around the globe to see the centrality of politics in sport to this very day.
Last month, there was another football world cup that took place here in London, organised by the Confederation of Independent Football Associations (ConIFA), representing the world’s stateless nations. Teams such as Tibet and Abkhazia, many of which were comprised of diaspora citizens due to their persecuted status, participated in the tournament’s third edition, held across various local grounds in the city. I went to watch the final between North Cyprus (the Turkish part) and Karpatalja (a Hungarian minority in the Carpathians currently in Ukraine) in what was a thoroughly enjoyable day out at the Queen Elizabeth Stadium in Enfield. There was a crowd of a few thousand, many from North London’s sizable Turkish Cypriot community, many bucket hat-wearing hipsters off the Time Out listing, many families with kids, and all having a good old time amid the lukewarm beer, rainy skies, smell of friend onions despite the relatively low-calibre football on display. The game ended 0–0, with thankfully no extra time, and Karpatalja won on penalties. The small Carpathian contingent invaded the field and began celebrating with the winning team as my friend and I made our way out. It was an extraordinary event really, one which can only be possible in the 21st century and our globalised world. The kind of nationalism at stake here was different to the usual fare, more akin to the struggles for self-determination and freedom from oppressive rule which ended the empires of yesteryear. Yet while in the globally interconnected world of today the concept of borders should, and in some cases do, mean little, there is an insidious politics on the rise around the world that is determined to keep those borders as firmly guarded as possible.
England’s date with destiny, the world cup semi-final with Croatia, came and went. For all the grandstanding and pre-emptive triumphalism before the game, the sheer physical engine as well as adroit skill of the Croats proved too much for the young English side to handle, and the better team won on the day. The final score was 2–1 to Croatia after extra time. So far, the immediate reaction from the press and public has been overwhelmingly positive, praising the team’s achievement which at least looks good on paper (let’s be honest, they folded against the first quality side they faced). However, now that there are expectations again, we will surely be subjected to the same cycle of self-loathing and perennial disappointment that is the English footballing press by the Euros in 2020. Who knows, after Brexit, maybe England won’t even be allowed to play in it. Speaking of which, after either France or Croatia lift the trophy on Sunday, the rest of us plebs go back to our bad acid trip darkest timeline of a reality. And maybe that’s why we need these distractions after all.
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