What we’ve learned from the World Cup phoney war

In the first of his World Cup columns, spiked’s editor-at-large tackles some truths behind the ceaseless chatter before the big kick-off.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

The ‘phoney war’ was the name given to the period between Nazi Germany’s attack on Poland in September 1939, and its invasion of France in May 1940. During those months Britain, France and Germany were formally at war, though not a shot was fired in anger. Instead all was propaganda and politics.

In recent weeks we have been going through the World Cup equivalent of a phoney war, with the PR and spin and bullshit flying on all sides long before a competitive ball has been kicked in South Africa. Much of this will quickly be forgotten once the action gets underway on Friday, and England kick off their campaign the next day. But there are things we have already learned from the phoney war that might be worth remembering.

That we’re not racist, but… there is more than one way to patronise black Africans. The endless news coverage, commentary and documentaries about the ‘new’ South Africa hosting the competition have strained every politically correct sinew to avoid using the old contemptuous stereotypes. Yet the media have largely broadcast modern right-on prejudices that are just as patronising as the imperial notions of yesteryear. Either we are lectured by worthy Western journalists about how Africans need money to be spent on bread and houses, not football competitions, thus imposing their own fashionably miserabilist outlook on the masses of the continent. Or else we are invited to clap along with the ‘vibrant’ colours and culture of black South Africans, as they supposedly dance for the tourists like the tame natives of old. Where Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The White Man’s Burden’ branded colonial peoples ‘half devil and half child’, now they are depicted as ‘half helpless victim and half grinning idiot’. Enough with the Afro-nonsense, time to treat them as equals off the pitch in the way other teams now have to do on it.

That ‘soccerism’ is now the universal language of politics – and the scourge of the game. Football arguably touches people all over the world like nothing else today – it is a ‘universal language’, as even President Bill Clinton acknowledged at the 1994 World Cup in the US. This quality has been seized upon by isolated and unpopular elites who have sought to use football as a sort of substitute for politics, a vehicle to promote their own fantasy agendas. The phenomenon, first dubbed ‘soccerism’ on spiked around the Euro 2004 finals, has been in evidence again in the run-up to the World Cup.

On one hand, experts and authorities have lined up to blame the tournament for an imagined boom in social problems ranging from domestic violence and sex trafficking to binge drinking and heart attacks. On the other, an alternative team has praised football as a potential solution to everything from racism and global inequality to obesity and national identity crises. Like the game of fantasy football, such fantasy politics bears little relation to the real thing on either side. Soccerism cannot save the world – but it can mar our enjoyment of the World Cup. Let’s defend football for football’s sake.

Why Wayne Rooney unites and divides the nation. The debate about ‘the Rooney question’, which has arisen again over him telling a referee to fuck himself, captures the ambiguity of contemporary attitudes to football in British society. Many alleged converts who now profess their love for ‘the beautiful game’ really hate the ‘ugly’ working-class people who play or watch it. In a soccer-centric age when even posh boys such as David Cameron feel obliged to pretend they like ‘the footie’, everybody has to acknowledge Rooney as our hero in waiting and England’s great white hope in the World Cup. However, many also see Rooney the Scouse scally as a symbol of uppity overpaid scum footballers – and of the vulgar offensive drunken mass of football fans. The hypocrisy of respectable attitudes towards Rooney reminds me of another Kipling poem, about how British society viewed the roughhouse working-class soldier or ‘Tommy Atkins’: ‘For it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Chuck him out, the brute!” / But it’s “Saviour of ’is country” when the guns begin to shoot…’ The same two-faced attitude is evident in the way the authorities are celebrating the Shared National Experience of supporting England, while laying special policing plans to keep overexcited proles in order. Football is still a game of two halves – us and them.

How easy it is to forget that form is temporary but history is forever (perhaps). On the subject of the football itself, there has been much excited chatter during the phoney war about the emergence of new powers, with Spain the favourites to win their first World Cup and the perennial talk about a breakthrough by the African nations. But while the balance of power in the real world is undoubtedly shifting, things have long been slightly different on Planet Football, where the top table is even more resistant to change than the old powers that control the United Nations Security Council. For all the advances by developing football nations, and the forced egalitarianism of holding the World Cup on every continent, the tournament remains dominated by a handful of teams from Latin America and Europe.

In its 80-year history, only seven countries have won the World Cup. One of the dual winners, Uruguay, did so as far back as 1930 and 1950, while two other champions, England and France, have won it just once each, on home soil, in 1966 and 1998 respectively. Four countries have won all of the other World Cups between them: Brazil on five occasions (1958, 1962, 1970, 1994 and 2002), Italy on four (1934, 1938, 1982, 2006), (West) Germany three times (1954, 1974 and 1990), and Argentina twice (1978, 1986). Sure, since 1978 several other countries have broken through to the semi-final stages – such as South Korea, Croatia, Bulgaria, Belgium and even England – yet a mere six countries contested the 10 World Cup finals before 2010: West Germany/Germany (five), Brazil (four), Italy (four), Argentina (three), France (two) and Holland (two).

Throw in some geography with your history, such as the fact that no European nation has ever won a World Cup played outside their own continent, or that both of the previous tournaments played on ‘new’ continents – the US in 1994 and Japan/South Korea in 2002 – were won by Brazil, and the odds against Spain, let alone England, start to look a bit longer. And while host nations have a fine World Cup record, winning it would take more than an appearance by Nelson Mandela for South Africa this time.

Then again, as we Marxist football fans say, players make their own history, though not necessarily on pitches of their own choosing…

That England are ordinary. Already in the phoney war we have seen the mood about England swing from wild over-optimism to exaggerated doom and gloom. One thing we English always seem guaranteed to lose where football is concerned is any sense of perspective. In reality we should learn that England are neither favourites nor no-hopers. They are a fairly ordinary, slightly ageing, international team which, as I heard the editor of the Racing Post reasonably explain to outraged patriotic radio pundits, should be around 20-1 shots rather than the 7-1 generally available with the bookies. But to look on the bright side for a moment, as even we cynical fans surely must sometimes, ordinary-looking teams have won the World Cup before, not least the Argentina side of 1986 carried to glory by the magic of Diego Maradona. And while the little Argentine genius has no equal, I have often thought of Rooney less as ‘the white Pele’ than the Scouse Maradona…

That the real thing cannot kick-off soon enough. Enough infuriating phoney war journalistic guff about the politics and culture and how it won’t be so much ‘fun’ without the England team WAGS around. Let us leave all this otherworldly wittering behind and head for World Cup 2010 on Planet Football, where anything remains possible, for 90 minutes at least.

Mick Hume is spiked’s editor-at-large. He will be writing on the World Cup for the next four weeks.

Read on: spiked-issue Sport.

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Topics Politics


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