Here we go, again


With a World Cup quarter-Final on Saturday Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman dares to hope for England

For fans of a certain age we’ve been here before. World Cup 2002, England v Brazil in the quarters, 1-0 up then first Rivaldo equalises on the cusp of half-time before just after the break Ronaldinho scores what proved 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 the like 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 twelve years, and more, 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. Unarguably his first tournament, Euro 2004, was also Wayne’s 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 effectively his most unfortunate of international swansongs.

Sven did his magnificent best to manage England to exceed all our best expectations. 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.  Without being privy to their respective changing rooms it’s hard to be certain but every impression is that Southgate’s 2018 squad has a collectivity that England 2002-2006 sorely lacked.

The team being greater than any single individual has an echo in an era before the consumption of football, and just about everything else, wasn’t 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 Liverpool v Juventus European Cup Final, the post Hillsbrorough disaster presumption was that the fans were guilty, its easy to blame the Sunand their ilk for the awful coverage but people at the time largely believed the kind of stuff, the paper printed. Football looked dead on its feet, and for 96 Liverpool fans at Hillsborough that was precisely the tragic consequence. 

Italia ’90 transformed how football was perceived. Any trouble our fans were part of at the start of the tournament entirely forgotten thanks to evening after glorious evening with Gary Lineker.  And to top it all, by the end of the year, thanks principally to the catastrophic unpopularity of her Poll Tax, Thatcher was out. 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 much fabled ‘people’s game’ as a description of the way it was run, a quaint fairy story to reassure ourselves with.  In the space of jut two years following Italia ’90 the top division of the English game had effectively been sold off by the sport’s governing body, the FA, de-regulated in other words. The broadcaster’s 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, and worse, only for this to be marketised.  Perhaps Russia 2018 might help remind us of the possibilities of a game liberated from what it has become. 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 for Culture Matters  dismisses an over-enthusiastic draping of the progressive in St George  “ 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 progressively possible of Jason’s optimism. Both views are right, and both wrong. 

Jim Sillars, then an SNP MP, put it way back when Scotland was qualifying for World Cups that football produces  “ninety-minute nationalists”.  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 race, it isn’t hung up on the martial and the imperial in the way Little Englandism is, with no sign post-Brexit of getting over that, at all. If football can provide a space for contesting such ideas then why on earth forsake, or even worse surrender, that space. A Left politics which ignores that opportunity is surely making a huge error. The question shouldn’t be whether but how. A win on Saturday against Sweden as good a place to start as any other.  C’mon, and unapologetically, England. 


 Mark Perryman is co-founder of Philosophy Football, aka ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ our  World Cup and other T-shirts can be found here