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Thirty-two nations under a groove

Will the World Cup which opens today be an orgy of petty-minded nationalism? Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman doesn’t think so.

2018 World Cup 32 Nations - Original illustration by Hugh Tisdale

In between the matches from Russia over the next few weeks here’s a trivia question to test mates’ footballing knowledge: Which is the only World Cup squad with the entire list of players playing in their own country’s domestic league?

Easy! Easy! England, of course. Except it’s not just a knowledge of football that provides the answer but politics, history and culture too.

The domesticity of our players betrays a certain very English parochialism, more comfortable at home than abroad. Europe after all is a foreign country.

It also tells us about the political economy of the game, and how English clubs pay heaps more dosh than most overseas outfits.

And it tells us about an Anglo-superiority complex. Who in England’s 2018 squad would make it as a certain first team starter at a top German, Italian or Spanish club? Precious few. There’s a number who aren’t even regular starters at their own clubs, edged out by Johnny Foreigner’s talent.

England’s second most successful World Cup campaign remains Italia ’90. Of England’s starting line-up Lineker had played in Spain, for Barcelona, Waddle was then playing for Marseille in France. Gazza, Des Walker and Platt all went on to play for Italian clubs. And this was by no means unusual. As for the victorious West Germany side none of them played in England (though 4 years later Klinsmann did end up being snapped up by an English side).

The lesson drawn from Italia ’90 was that English football had the potential to recover its reputation and popularity following the post-Heysel banning of our club sides from European competition and the human tragedy of Hillsborough.

How? Like so much else in that era, through neoliberal deregulation. The FA effectively gave up its right to govern the elite level of the game by floating off the top division (formerly the First Division and now the Premier League) to be run by the clubs themselves. With Murdoch in hot pursuit, having realised that broadcasting live football was the only way to save his fledgling satellite TV company, Sky, the deregulation accelerated via the vast wealth TV contracts were to provide.

Neoliberalism’s sister project, globalisation, produces counter-reactions - from Catalan and Scottish independence movements, to Donald Trump’s populist America First nationalism, and anti-migrant movements across Europe too. In football we see the persistent influence of racism amongst certain fan subcultures, co-existing with the huge influx of foreign players.

Again the World Cup illustrates this. Consulting my handy pocket World Cup squads guide, a tasty looking English Premier League eleven out in Russia would line up like this: De Gea in goal, Mendy, Monreal and Christensen providing three at the back, Pogba, Eriksen, Hazard and De Bruyne packing the midfield, up front Firmino, Aguero, and Salah. And there’s plenty more where that lot came from. Precious few fans in their right minds are going to complain about these particular migrant workers, over here, nicking our players’ jobs, with their foreign ways and the like. So racist attitudes are to that extent marginalised.

In every division, and even down into the non-league clubs, a football club is easily the most globalised public institution in English society we can think of. The owners, the management and coaching staff, the players, the fan-base, the sponsors and advertisers , the TV viewing public - all are globalised and few but the most embittered object.

This doesn’t mean the process is entirely unproblematic. Football mythologises itself as the people’s game, but it has never been thus. Clubs were owned by the local butcher baker and candlestick maker, in Man Utd’s case quite literally. The Edwards Family were butchers who sold the club they owned off to the Glazers, US sports moguls. A local business elite owned the game in their own local interest, the only difference now is that it’s a global business elite running it in their own trans-national interest. Resistance to absent owners erupts from time to time, though homegrown owners are often not much better - just look at West Ham.

But what frames modern fan culture most of all is a popular cosmopolitanism. While England agonises over how and when it will exit Europe, every football club’s ambition is to get into Europe. This is our cultural barricade against the hateful rise of the Football Lads Alliance. Their divisive values are the complete opposite to the way the modern game is consumed and supported. For every fan cheering on England over the next few weeks there will be others keeping an interested and supportive eye on how their club’s foreign players are doing, and most importantly many are fully capable of doing both. One nation, thirty-two nations, for the next three and a week under the same groove.

For this precious moment football can be a powerful resistance to racism and division.

And despite FIFA’s worst efforts it’s broadly equitable too. What have the superpowers of the USA, Russia and China got in common?

 They’ve not got one World Cup between them. And that’s because international football is regulated. No country on earth, however rich, is ever going to persuade Messi, Neymar or Ronaldo to sign for them. If that’s not neoliberal globalisation turned on its economic head into something a tad better I don’t know what is.  

The Thirty-Two Nations Philosophy Football T-shirt is available from Philosophy Football

About the author

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest, The Corbyn Effect, is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available here.


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