The open rift between the England Football team and 10 Downing Street, with the team refusing to allow the Prime Minister to cash in on their popularity after his failure to condemn the “fans” who booed them when they took the knee, is a challenge to the government’s monopoly hold on notions of “Englishness”. A diverse team full of people whose families come from all over the world, and often from poverty, whose members have campaigned for free school meals, and who collectively turn the previously one dimensionally retro patriotic pre match ceremonials (national anthems) into a challenge to racism as well; have refused to be used as window dressing by the most reactionary government of my lifetime.
Suddenly, there’s a price to be paid for blowing racist dog whistles, especially if you do it on trombones. When even the Sun prints photos of the three black players who were abused with the slogan, “we got your back”, the same slogan used by Stand up to Racism, you know where the popular sentiment lies. People look at the team, then they look at the government, and think who is more like they are. Boris Johnson has 1.4 million Twitter followers. Marcus Rashford has 11.4 million. This is not a competition thats going to penalties.
Like the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, a Conservative government finds itself a bit beyond the right wing fringe of popular sensibility about what’s good about the country they are trying to lead. As do the tiny minority of bitter and twisted racist fans who did the booing, abused fans from other countries, including children, and sent the racist tweets. The PM was slim enough to formally condemn this once he realised how strongly the wind was blowing- rather than saying they were “very fine people” – but this was too little, too late. People are starting to know who he is and what he’s about. The Teflon is looking scraped.
This is also challenge to the worst aspects of football fan culture for the last half century or so.
If you look up at the statue of Bobby Moore standing in splendid isolation outside Wembley stadium – in memory of a time when men were men and balls were made of leather in more ways than one – the epic treatment of it shows that there is something going on that’s not just about football. The heroic but modest man of destiny posture, half Roy of the Rovers, half Alexander the Great, head slightly bowed by the weight of responsibility, the ball under his foot not going anywhere without his say so.
The only time England ever won the World Cup – at home at Wem-ber-lee – was in 1966, at a point of turmoil and ferment in which all that had previously seemed solid was melting into air.
The preceding 20 years saw the British Empire shrink from direct rule over a quarter of the world to a residual global archipelago of tax havens and military bases – the Falklands, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and so on – with a series of brutal late colonial anti insurgency campaigns in Kenya, Malaya and Aden to add a bitter late coda to its passing. These would also be “coming home” to the North of Ireland – the weakest link of the UK’s ramshackle constitution- soon enough.
A sense of bewildered loss of status – along with a nervous sense that the countries that had lost the Second World War were – terribly unfairly – doing rather better economically than Britain was – was widespread. Morris and Austin were losing out to Volkswagen, and BSA was going under because Honda made better motor bikes. The last of the big ships were being launched and the slipways would lie empty within ten years. The obsessive concern with “the balance of payments” was not so much an economic consideration as one of standing and prestige. The phrase “who won the bloody war anyway?” was quite common, and carried with it the presumption that having done that, other countries should know their place. After all we did for them too.
At the time, this went along with a mockery for the upper class, and the old, who had lost all our places in the sun and could therefore no longer be respected, and a desire for modernity; to simultaneously erase the loss of past status while maintaining the benefits of it. The Satire wave lampooned old and feeble politicians, while films like Oh What a Lovely War and Charge of the Light Brigade sent up the ruling class as useless, incompetent, carelessly murderous, rather dense and possibly inbred chinless wonders; certain of the little they knew and oblivious to all else in a world that had moved beyond them and out of their time. This was double edged. A negation of the negative, but was not able to look much beyond it.
Winning the World Cup in the middle of all this came as a sort of compensation for it – still top of the world in something – which gave it a weight and significance that it could hardly bear. The world was no longer under our boot, but a ball was. The losses ever since confirm that even this is out of reach, but this has, if anything, deepened its hold in a manner that is almost masochistic. “We’re shit…and we know we are!”
When you look at the newspaper headlines, the phrase “55 years of hurt” from Skinner and Baddiel’s “Three Lions” song, is featured again and again. There is something so self pitying about this phrase that it is faintly nauseating. The “hurt” comes from not winning. That is the common experience of every team in every competition bar one. The notion that not being that one team is particularly hurtful implies a view of national standing that assumes that “we” are somehow better by birth. It also underlies the rather previous habit of the Newspapers of running headlines and graphics on the day of the big match that simply presume a win. The montage of the current teams heads on the photo of Moore and his team mates holding the World Cup – “Jules Rimet’s still gleaming” -is a classic in its way.
The blending with World War Two themes – “Two World Wars and One World Cup – do-da do-da” – is a mixture that is toxic for those that take it too seriously; as it locks them into a frozen narrative of who they are capable of being and a state of suspended childhood. “Achtung! Surrender!” a headline from Euro 96 was obviously written by editors who had read too many copies of the Victor and Valiant at an impressionable age. But this reflects the overall national mythology that World War 2 – with its themes of fighting Nazism and being the good guys – was our defining historical experience. This is the dominant view here. The Washington Post pointed out a couple of years ago that no other country has that impression. The view in every other country in the world is that the defining experience of British History was the Empire. Not the good guys. Hard to think that we’re the only ones in step. Britain is, after all, the country that forced a war on China so that our merchants could sell their people Opium. The promise of what Billy Bragg called a “New England” can only be realised by coming to terms with all that and rejecting it – which means internationalism, recompense, reparations and repair; and treating football as a game not a metaphor for national triumphalism. It will probably be more enjoyable that way.
On Monday morning my neighbour, who was still wearing his face paint from the night before – called out from the steps outside his flat about how well they’d done and how much they were in with a shout at the World Cup next year. Hope springs eternal. Maybe Bobby Moore will get some company. Maybe it’ll be Marcus Rashford. It won’t be Boris Johnson.
Two points on terminology. The confusion between “Britain” and “England” – reflecting the dominance of the latter within the UK -was common enough for England fans to wave Union Jacks at international football matches until Euro 96. The self conscious wallowing in WW2 themes is peculiar to England fans. The Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish fans don’t spend a lot of time singing “10 German bombers”.
When I write “we” this does not imply equal culpability for historic imperial crimes. The ruling class were – and are – in charge and are therefore directly responsible. The guilt or otherwise of subordinate classes reflects the extent to which they challenged or colluded.