Image: England Expects t-shirt, Philosophy Football.
The last time England got to this stage at a World Cup – in 2010 – there was no happy ending, but a 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany. Well at least we know that isn’t going to happen, this time. Auf Wiedershen before the postcards, ouch!
Though it might do not to be too cocky. True, England have a decent record in the last sixteen when not up against a top tier football nation, beating Ecuador at World Cup 2006, Denmark in 2002, Belgium in 1990, and Paraguay in 1986. But only in Italia’90 did we make it past the quarters to the semis, by beating Cameroon.
This is what makes the Russia 2018 campaign so mouth-watering a prospect. Beat Colombia and England’s quarter-final will be against Sweden or Switzerland. And with Spain dispatched England’s semi-final opponent would be Russia or Croatia. Arguably there has never been a World Cup like it for sending well-fancied former champions home early, including Germany, Argentina, Spain, and Portugal.
But again, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Since England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance 28 years ago England’s world standing has slipped rather than moved on. Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland, Croatia or Russia can’t be taken lightly.
And – whilst fancied teams depart – so have all the African teams (with Japan the only Asian survivor). Pelé’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 looks as far away as ever. Football is a truly global game but the very top level remains a European-Latin American cartel with little obvious sign of that changing. World Cups have been won, since its inception, by a remarkably small number of teams. Following England’s one and only triumph, newcomers Argentina have won the trophy twice, in 1978 and 1986, while host nation France lifted the trophy for the first time in ‘98, and Spain did the same in 2010.
After the exits of Germany and Argentina, and the failure to qualify by both four-time winners Italy and by Holland (who hold the unenviable record of making the most appearances in a World Cup Final without winning it), it is wide open. The best possible outcome from Russia 2018 would be for a nation that’s never won the World Cup to lift the trophy – or, for me, England, of course!
World Cup winners may be more or less unchanging yet something else has changed, for European teams in particular. When England won the World Cup in 1966 the team was all-white. 24 years later and the team that lined up to face West Germany in the 1990 semi-final included just two black players, Des Walker and Paul Parker. But the England team facing Columbia on Tuesday evening more than half the line-up will be players of colour. Indeed, the first time this was the case (at the World Cup 2002) it seemed so natural a development it barely merited a mention.
And what is true of England is also true, more or less, for France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal, teams made up of a patchwork of a nation’s migrant communities .
Of course the meaning and effect of all this can be overstated. At France 1998 Zinedine Zidane led arguably the greatest multicultural team of all to World Cup triumph and two years later repeated the feat at Euro 2000. But in 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen made it into the final round of the French Presidential Election for the first time ever, polling almost 20% of the vote. And in 2017 Marine Le Pen achieved the same, this time attracting a third of the popular vote. But the point is that a St George Cross draped in the colours of multiculturalism has the potential for the beginnings of a journey away from racism. It has a reach and symbolism like no other, touching the parts of a nation’s soul no placard is ever going to This is the meaning of modern football. When England begin to scale the heights of 2018 World Cup ambition the reach of that message is amplified still further on a scale that ’66 could never have done, and ’90 barely began.
A Left politics if it is to be popular must connect with such episodes as metaphor, to translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline we require of a more equal society. So here’s my maxim for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues. If Labour cannot explain the meaning of the World Cup why should I listen to what the party have to tell me on how they’re going to fix the mess the NHS is in? Not the flimsy populism of Blair when he adopted the ‘Labour’s Coming Home’ message after England’s last World Cup semi, Euro ‘96 , but a political practice rooted in popular culture because here, more than anywhere else, ideas are formed and changed.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their England Expects T-shirt is available from here.