Fields of play – joining the dots between pitches and politics

English World Cup hopes rest on Gareth Southgate’s young team’s shoulders. But Left politics needs to address the lack of facilities for youngsters and the grassroots game.

Mark Perryman
10 July 2018

Image: Football pitch in the village of Fakenham Magna. Rights: Bob Jones, CC 2.0.

It seems like almost yesterday that ‘Football’s Coming Home’ became England’s National Anthem, an England shirt our national dress, not being able to move for St George’s Cross Flags. 2018 is fast becoming the new ’96 and English hope springs eternal that this time there might be a happier ending.

Football’s coming home – and one of those fronting it is comedian and writer David Baddiel, born in New York, his Dad Welsh, his mum a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. Baddiel neatly sums up the patchwork of identities most modern (and some ancient) icons of Englishness are constructed out of.

When originally written the song was wrapped up in the mildly imperious idea that England is somehow the home of football. It was a message that framed the disastrous English bid to host World Cup 2006, an arrogance that resulted in a humiliatingly low vote, and irony of ironies who got it instead? Germany.

Twenty-two years later the song seems more of a joyful lament than back then. Willing the return of the World Cup to good old blighty’s shores, it’s been away for too long, far too long. Oh, and its got a catchy and easy to remember chorus, that helps.

Does any of this matter very much? In the big wide world outside of both Westminster and Planet Placard, yes it does. The South African academic and activist Prishani Naidoo wrote of football, whilst her country was hosting World Cup 2010, “ The field of play it produces stretches far beyond the boundaries of its goal posts and pitches – fields of play that sometimes bring into question the ‘taken-for-granted’, ‘the natural’, the ways in which ‘we are meant’ to be in society.” For many the most important event this week will be the very public falling out of Tory Ministers with each other over Brexit. For others the event they are most looking forward to is Friday’s march against Trump. Both are hugely important, but for millions it is all about England v Croatia and the sniff of a World Cup final appearance for the first time in 52 years.

Some have a stake in all three of course – but a Left that aspires to be popular should be effortlessly making the connections, joining the dots between Wednesday night’s ‘field of play’ and that process of ‘bringing into question’ something more. This is going to take a bit more than Labour’s current promise of a national (sic) holiday should England lift the World Cup (though this policy does have the added bonus of getting the Scots and Welsh to back England’s cause, if only for the sake of a day off work).

A much better political starting point however would be the physical version of those ‘fields of play’, our ever declining stock of public playing fields.

The football writer Barney Ronay locates the source of the problem thus:

“The FA neither owns nor controls the mechanics of grassroots football. It has no power to dictate what Premier League clubs do with young players. It isn’t the nation’s PE teacher. It is instead something of a patsy. One of the FA’s significant functions is to act as a kind of political merkin for the wider problem. Which is, simply access for all: the right to play, a form of shared national wealth that has been downgraded by those in power for decades.”

These wise words were written several years before World Cup 2018, rather, following yet another earlier-than-we-hoped-for exit . The FA has addressed the first part of Ronay’s argument as far as it could. Unable to regulate the Premier League clubs’ treatment of young players, they have invested heavily in their own under-age group teams – with startling success. The core of Southgate’s squad have been playing for England junior teams since their teens, travelling to tournaments, learning to get on with each other as well as play alongside each other. And of course Southgate for a period was their Under 21s manager too, with a watching brief on younger squads as well. His has proved an inspired appointment, albeit one that within the constraints of free market football went alongside the FA re-asserting its role as a governing body, the game’s regulatory authority, if you like.

But the second part of the argument remains sharply evident. Those England players who before the tournament revisited the primary and secondary schools where they first learnt their football would have found those institutions with hard-pressed PE departments, school playing fields sold off or short of finances for maintenance. The youth football set-ups where these players developed their talent struggle to find public pitches to play on and are deprived of the resources to build their own facilities.

This is the austerity-driven reality for all those – young and old – inspired by Russia 2018 to lace up their boots and drag themselves off the sofa, not simply to watch, but to play.

A radical commonsense politics connects the popular with the political. A week ago Jeremy Corbyn surprised both the Prime Minister and the professional commentariat by using PMQs to ask about buses. My advice to Jeremy? This week , after the obligatory good lucks to England tonight from both PM and leader of the opposition , never mind Brexit or Trump, ask Theresa May about our ever-declining playing fields.

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