With the start of the world cup this week heralded by St. George’s crosses on cars, in windows and on television screens across the country Shift takes a closer look at the politics of (anti) nationalism and its relationship to international football. Can the world cup be a tool for progressive politics or is it better off left well alone? Two lovers of the beautiful game, Boydell and Carly Lyes, take sides over this tricky subject.
For many anarchists, the World Cup tournament represents a clear expression of nationalism – the St. George flags on cars and houses, a reinforcement of the difference between ‘them and us’, Norman Tebbit and his ‘Englishness Test’ (he infamously said that all South Asian migrants should support England in the cricket and not the country of their birth). The World Cup is just a chance for nationalism and prejudice to be openly expressed by those who normally have to be more reticent. It sows divisions, reinforces the nation state system, and is just an excuse for drunken men to aggressively indulge in a tribal society of the spectacle.
Except this is not true. Football is not just a blank screen on to which the symptoms of Shitty Britain are poured on thick. It is not a shop dummy dressed with the worst excesses of Capitalism. Football is a thing in itself, a collective expression, a joy to behold and a nightmare of its own making, separate from all the things attached to it.
Following on, the national team is a thing in itself – a national team in an international tournament, the highest level of expression and quality, eleven men or women against eleven. We may not want to live in a world of nation states, but that is the reality at the moment, and all it really means for football is that it’s the way in which sides are picked.
Of course, nothing exists in isolation, I know that. England football is a dirty word with anarchists for a reason, the evidence is there for all to see – nationalism, racism, aggression, division. The “Bomber Song”, “God Save the Queen”, “No Surrender to the IRA”, “We Want Our Country Back”. The sunburnt bonehead flapping his cock about in the bar, while his mate pukes over the side of the veranda. The German tourists locked in a nightclub to protect them from a howling mob, the Iraqi Kurdish kebab shop smashed up when we lose to Turkey.
But there is another side to it. I’ve been in pubs watching World Cup matches as a neutral, where people find out that there are, say, a couple of Romanians in the corner and so the whole pub starts to cheer Romania on. I’ve talked tactics with taxi drivers who support England in the football and Pakistan in the cricket, and watched games in Wales where half boo an England goal and the other half cheer. Why shouldn’t someone who hates the state cheer a Wayne Rooney hat-trick? The state is the state, the football is the football. Don’t underestimate people’s ability to be perfectly aware of that, and to think maybe it’s you who has got the wrong end of the stick if you can’t see the difference.
France hosted the 1998 World Cup against a backdrop of rising support for anti-immigration, nationalist politicians. King Rat Le Pen tried to harness the mood of the nation when he criticised ‘immigrant’ players for not singing the national anthem. This “mixing of football and politics”was rejected by the French fans who were looking for these players to win the cup for them, the long-suffering fans, not for France. When they did, Le Pen’s vote collapsed and he was made to look like the arsehole he was. Football fans may act stupid but they’re not. Take comfort from that.
England, like France, could do with a win. As an ex-power, nationalists harness a backward-looking viewpoint. “44 years of hurt,” refers to the time since we last won the World Cup, but sums up the decline of everything English in the eyes of many. A World Cup win would go a long way to ending ‘the past’ and starting ‘the future’ for these people, whose lack of hope forms part of the present problem. I certainly would take a lot of convincing that it would lead to the rise of fascism, but the chances are even less if the left are active supporters and claim the win as our own as well.
Let’s cut to the chase. If you don’t like football, fine. If you think the whole thing is stupid, grown adults chasing a ball around etc. fine. I’m not asking you to change your mind on that. What I am asking is that you reflect on your assumptions about the role that football plays in life, and in particular the role of the national team.
England football is not something to fear, or to despise. It is something to criticise, for sure, at times, but it is also something to celebrate. Come June, come join the party, feel the unity – remember, as the old saying goes – “it’s only a game!”(ha.ha.ha). If you can’t see it that way, I at least hope you will not judge me and anarchists like me for doing so. For you, maybe if you can’t dance it’s not your revolution. For me, if I can’t play and watch football, it definitely won’t be mine.
“I prefer my football to reject the concept of the nation state” Carly Lyes,
Carley is active in the Manchester United Supporters Trust A British Asian shopgirl stands proudly to attention; a Sikh butcher, a young black lad and a white bloke in a pub close their eyes reverently before an old West Indian man marches towards the camera. The band strikes up and with the three lions prominent against the red background of the shirt, they begin to sing their allegiance to the Queen. A suspiciously multiethnic array of “typical Englishmen/women” flashes past culminating in the penultimate shot of a misty eyed Muslim woman whose hijab rests atop an England shirt. The band fades, the sponsors logo flashes up, I puke.
This beautiful image of the World Cup as an opportunity for the united colours of the world coming together in a way that transcends the nation state is a myth. A myth that anarchists in our idealism are sometimes all to keen to perpetuate. International football by its very nature is entwined in the bitter history of the nation state, consistently used as a tool for stirring up dwindling nationalism and drumming up support for military juntas (see Argentina’s hosting and victory of the World Cup in 1978 which was engineered to sustain the popularity and power of General Videla’s brutal regime), reinforcing the collective memory of war (England v. Argentina World Cup 1986, Holland v. Germany Euro 2004) and even providing the aggressively nationalist spark needed to ignite the flames of conflict (see the 1969 World Cup qualifying match between Honduras and El Salvador which provided the final push into war over Salvadoran immigration). Unlike club football, which allows for free and peaceful association without restrictions on participation, international football by definition is based on exclusion, the rejection of the “other”, organisation around the nonsensical notion of national borders. Recent attempts at “fluffy nationalism” and “it’s only a game, ya spoilsport” rhetoric can’t hide its essential heavily politicised being.
As a football fan one of the main things that disappoints me about the World Cup is that it isn’t even a true expression of the best football has to offer. Due to its nature as a brief quadrennial spectacle some of the world’s greatest players are invariably missing through injury. But even more frustrating than this is the fact that due to the geo-political manoeuvring, larger, richer nations such as the North American and Australasian teams enter consistently despite being of a lower standard than many smaller nations in Europe and South America. Smaller nations such as Croatia and Egypt who are of a higher footballing standard but which wouldn’t bring as much to the World Cup corporate feeding frenzy as those larger, wealthier, English-speaking nations, the USA and Australia, miss out due to the biased qualification process. Due to the necessity of appealing to a larger proportion of the global market audience, some of the world’s greatest talent never gets seen on a world stage.
Some football friendly lefties like to point to supposedly beautiful sights such as smaller nations beating their former colonial overlords in crucial games, such as Senegal embarrassing France with a 1-0 victory in front of billions at the World Cup 2002 opening match in Paris, as an example of how international football can prove emancipatory for third world nations. Don’t get tied up in that useless third-worldist romanticism, mistaking small inconsequential victories for true progress. International football just replicates resource inequality on a smaller level, it goes no way towards challenging it.
For those of us who follow club football with a desperate and fervent passion, football is far too intertwined with our essential being to separate it from our lives as “just a game.” It informs our politics, our view of the world and our self, our individual and collective identities, our sense of belonging and community. We feel a true affinity with people we’ve never met because somehow we’ve been thrown together willingly on the same path. The same is not true with international football where the affinity is largely accidental and occasional, the nets are cast too wide, quite literally every man and his dog is waving a mini England flag. It’s got a falseness and fabricated air to it. Mass produced fake passion in mass produced polyester shirts featured in dodgy telly ads. International football isn’t real football, just a cynical state sanctioned exercise in plastic nationalism and an excuse for “official sponsors” to flog American chocolates (Mars), Italian cars (Fiat) and Japanese electronics (Toshiba) in the name of “England”. If I can’t watch football, it’s not my revolution, that much is true. But like my revolution, I prefer my football to reject the concept of the nation state, not be defined by it.