Is it ethical to support In-ger-lund?
No, of course it isn’t - but so what? Let’s keep football out of politics.
Now that England have limped through the World Cup qualifying round to a knock-out meeting with ‘the old enemy’, Germany, on Sunday, the plastic red-and-white flags are flying higher all over the country. Also on the rise, however, are doubts among liberal-minded and left-thinking commentators about whether it is ethical or politically acceptable to join in the mood of football patriotism.
It seems that any apparent wave of flag-flying nationalism in England or Britain raises the spectre of the old politics of race and empire. With one tabloid already splashing ‘Job done – bring on the Hun!’, some are casting fearful glances back to the clash between England and Germany in the European championships of 1996, when the Daily Mirror was widely and officially castigated for running the ‘inflammatory’ and ‘offensive’ headline, ‘For you, Fritz, ze Euro ’96 is over!’ (which some of us thought was just a tired old joke). On the other hand, no doubt some are secretly glad that they can indulge their more politically correct prejudices about the Germans rather than having to face a ‘colonial’ contest between England and Ghana.
Now, like other spiked writers, I consider myself an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist internationalist, and have argued and often marched against racism, nationalism and every one of Britain’s wars since 1981 – including the popular ones – from Northern Ireland or the South Atlantic to Kosovo or Afghanistan. However, I have no problem with wholeheartedly wanting England to win in this World Cup, whoever they are up against.
No, there is nothing unethical or wrong with supporting England. There is nothing ‘right’ about it either. It’s just football, not politics or any other rational matter. And in 2010, the wave of plastic patriotism behind In-ger-lund is far removed from the real British nationalist politics of old.
Football and the World Cup have of course long been used for political purposes, at home and abroad. I recall seeing old First World War recruitment posters designed to appeal to the famous fighting spirit of east London dockers who supported Millwall (‘the Lions’), calling on ‘Men of Millwall’ to ‘Fight like Lions’ for King and Country against the German Kaiser.
Through the twentieth century, the authorities viewed the international standing of the England football team as a serious matter of national status. Before the Second World War the UK foreign office reportedly advised the Football Association on which opponents to play – and infamously told the England team to give the Hitler salute before a match against Germany in Berlin in 1938.
Though the World Cup began in 1930, England did not deign to enter the competition, since the authorities still blithely assumed that they were best at ‘our’ game, just as they still believed that the sun would never set on the British Empire. When England did enter in 1950 they were promptly beaten by a team of part-timers from the US. Then in 1953 the magicians of Hungary became the first overseas team to defeat England at Wembley, humiliating their hosts 6-3. These devastating blows to national self-esteem were experienced as a sort of footballing equivalent of the 1956 Suez Crisis, a cold dose of reality about the declining status of Britain (which for those in charge meant England) in the world.
Britain was not of course alone in linking nationalist politics with the national football team. While England was boycotting the World Cup in Italy in 1934, the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was busy ordering his Italian team to ‘win or die!’. They chose the former option. As a general rule the worse the government, the more it sought to exploit football for political purposes.
Growing up in Britain in the Sixties and Seventies, our whole culture was infused with the crossover of nationalist politics and football. The heroes in our inky pre-internet comics would interchangeably beat Johnny Foreigner – and especially Fritz – on the battlefield or the football pitch. For years after England’s victory over West Germany in the 1966 World Cup final, our German-baiting playground anthem was ‘Two World Wars and One World Cup’. The 1970 World Cup in Mexico, where West Germany came from two goals down to beat England in the quarter-final, did not count of course, since everybody knew that ‘we’ had only lost because ‘they’ – the dirty cheating foreigners – had poisoned our goalkeeper, Gordon Banks.
During the 1980s, when I first got involved in the revolutionary left, British politics became infused with a sort of last-gasp air of nationalist militarism under Margaret Thatcher. This reached its peak around and after the 1982 Falklands War against Argentina, when my comrades in the Revolutionary Communist Party were threatened that we would be charged with treason for marching behind a banner declaring ‘Malvinas are Argentina’s’ (Malvinas being the Spanish name for the island colonies Britain was ‘defending’).
At that time, English football really was a patriot’s game. Filled with the revolutionary ardour of youth, some of us became uncomfortable with any idea of supporting a national team whose supporters flew the same Union Flag that Thatcher loved to pose with. In the 1986 World Cup quarter final, I for one was happy that Maradona’s Argentina beat England in a match that the media had presented as a Falklands re-run.
The 2010 World Cup, however, seems to be taking place not only in another century than 1986, but on another planet. The British establishment has largely lost its traditional authority and its place in the world. British politics has lost its old air of nationalist self-certainty and coherence. Even by 1996, the most telling thing about the fuss over the Mirror’s ‘Fritz’ headline was that it revealed how sensitive and uncomfortable the British had become with imperial images and ideas that had been a staple of patriotic popular culture not long ago. Now that process has gone much further.
Today’s wave of football patriotism bears no real relation to the nationalist and imperialist politics of the past. It is as plastic and insubstantial as the flags that will fly from so many cars this week. Those flags, note, are the Cross of St George, not the Union Flag of the Falklands Factor. They denote a moment of support not for ‘Britishness’, or even for English nationhood, but merely for In-ger-lund, the football team.
Despite the attempts by some on both the political right and left to claim or ‘reclaim’ all of those flags for their cause, it is just football. This plastic football patriotism is not so much a vehicle for nationalist politics as a weak substitute for it. The most striking evidence for this is perhaps that, at the same time as public support for the England football team has never been more in evidence, public political support for Britain’s recent actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is at an all-time low.
Yes, there will be a lot of reactionary gits supporting England this weekend. If you watch the Germany game in a pub, you may even experience a ‘James Corden moment’ of finding yourself apparently surrounded by beery bigots singing unpleasant songs (see Could we ban the endless drone of James Corden?). And no, like others among us, you may draw the line at any suggestion of wearing a replica shirt or sticking a flag in your window. But don’t worry, an England victory is not going to help the British National Party win an election or turn David Cameron into Mussolini.
History shows there is no chance of keeping politics out of football. But it might be a start if we tried to keep football out of politics, whether that means Cameron flying the football flag over 10 Downing Street or others striking ‘radical’ poses on a football match to substitute for their inability to take a principled stand on more pressing political issues.
In the end, Sunday’s match really is only a game. There is nothing wrong with supporting England – and nothing right about it either. You are free to support whoever you like in the World Cup – just don’t try to make a political or moral principle out of it either way.
Investing all your hopes in the England team, however, and seriously expecting them actually to win the thing – that would really would be a dangerous game to play…
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked. He will be writing on the World Cup for the next two weeks.
Read more at spiked issue Sport.