After Wiggo, London 2012, Murray in New York, The Ryder Cup and Chelsea winning the Champions League it looked like last summer could never be bettered. And then this summer began… Mark Perryman of Philosophy Football reviews a selection of books that explain sporting success, and failure.
The Lions series victory in Australia, Murray’s triumph at Wimbledon, Froome making it two British Le Tour wins in a row, Mo in Moscow, a home Ashes win as well. Summer sporting success is something the Brits are starting to become accustomed to.
Two new books help us to understand the meaning of sport’s enduring, and huge popularity, as well as how economic and social change impacts on the organisation, consumption and performance of sport. Sport in Capitalist Society by Tony Collins is a highly readable historical account from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day of how capitalism has served to shape sport. Victorian morality, Empire, the Cold War, globalisation and much more are each detailed in terms of how they served to change sport.Add all the insights together and a comprehensive picture of today’s marketisation of sport is provided. Edited by Michael Lavalette Capitalism and Sport has a more activist-based approach to the subject. The range is amazing, including cycling, cricket, rugby league, tennis, football and more. The tone is angry yet never fails to be appreciative of the sports the authors clearly hugely enjoy despite their opposition to the economic structure that frames their fandom and participation. An invaluable guide for sporting summers past, present and future. Click to continue reading →
A summer of sport is unfolding that reveals Britain as a nation of winners. Mark Perryman, editor of a new book on last year’s London 2012 asks what this means for our national identity.
A British encore in the Tour de France. Not even a sniff of winning the yellow jersey for 99 years, now we have two in quick succession. On the same day England pile up the runs at Lords to go 2-0 up in an Ashes series, for the first time since 1979. Add Andy Murray at Wimbledon ending the 77 years of hurt since the last British man won the singles title at our ‘home’ Grand Slam and the Lions tour victory down under, their first since 1997. Plus golfer Justin Rose winning the US Open, the first Englishman to win a major since 1996. 2013 already has all the signs of what seemed to be an unrepeatable 2012 Summer of sport, topped of course by Team GB finishing third in the London 2012 Olympic medals table.
A number of writers are already suggesting that all this adds up to ‘winning’ becoming a big part of British national identity. But what nation are we talking about exactly? In a wonderful sentence that must have taxed the skills of the sub-editors at the Guardian the complexities and contradictions of British sporting success were summed up as follows:
“It would make Chris Froome the second British cyclist to win the jersey. History beckons the quiet Kenyan.”
Chris Froome, born In Kenya where he spent his childhood, first representing his country at the Commonwealth Games, educated in South Africa, wins the Tour de France as a Brit. With his right-hand man from Team Sky on the road, the Aussie Richie Porte.The same kind of mixture applies to almost all of British sporting success stories. England’s cricket team is actually England plus Wales, not to mention more than a handful of batsmen and bowlers who could just as easily represent South Africa. Sport’s version of economic migrants except their search for a better life delivers a salary of millions and heroic status rather than at best a living wage and ritual demonisation. Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion since Fred Perry in 1936, or Scotland’s first since Harold Mahony in 1896? Rugby’s Lions complicate matters still further by not only temporarily uniting in one team the fiercely independent rugby home nations of England, Scotland and Wales. But by adding Ireland too as one country ending the division that still defines Irish politics, north and south of a border that rugby wipes off the map.
Seasons in the sun
Until that summer of 2012 things, in sporting terms at least, were a bit simpler. These were summers that every other year in England were dominated by our biannual foray to end those years of hurt since Bobby Moore lifted the World Cup in 1966. A semi-final in 1996, quarter-finals at World Cup 2002, Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 might be all we had to cheer for. But the relentless build up of expectation was more than enough to get the St George Cross flags flying, worn as a T-shirt, daubed on kids’ faces and after the inevitable early exit sustain the hope that it might just be different next time. 2012 stated to change all that, despite England getting to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, going out pluckily on penalties to eventual finalists Italy, the football barely merited a footnote to that year’s summer of sport.In 2013, with no summer tournament football hasn’t featured at all of course, apart from the near-endless stream of transfer speculation. But there’s another process in motion too. These other sports are acquiring a well-deserved share of the media spotlight because we appear to be rather good at them. England’s footballers on the other hand reveal themselves time and again as also-rans at the international level while at the same time providing the central focus for a national identity, Englishness, which politically simply fails to exist. Scotland and Wales, off the pitch, can boast a civic nationalism, broadly speaking social-democratic in character. Northern Ireland remains divided between nationalist-republican and unionist politics. In England we wave our flags for an under-performing football team and not a lot else.
Success on two wheels
So what does ‘British’ cycling success add up to? A mix of the public and private. It was state funding that first helped deliver the years of Olympic track cycling success, from Athens 2004 onwards in particular. The Gold medal haul was quite extraordinary with absolute dominance at Beijing 2008, sprint and endurance events, men and women. Repeated once again at London 2012, with a new generation fast emerging to replace those retiring, Victoria Pendleton and Chris Hoy. Success that led to the ambition to translate this into winning the Tour de France. A full-time professional team, sponsored by Sky though whisper this quietly in quite un-Murdochian fashion this is a sponsorship that has a benevolence quite unlike most corporate involvement in sport. ‘ From the podium to the park’ is an imaginative approach in association with British Cycling, focussed on local mass participation Sky Rides. Yes of course there is Sky branding all over the events but the essence of the message, connecting elite success to easy-to-access, informal participation which is predominantly recreational and non-competitive is hard to fault.
England’s fading football glories look unlikely to be restored at World Cup 2014, qualification is by no means certain. Summer age group tournaments rarely attract much coverage but the failure of the Under 21 and Under 20 sides to even get out of their groups at their tournaments have added to the felling that things can’t only get better. Even the women’s side who up to now had been enjoying a rising level of success failed to win a match at their Euro 2013. However international football has one significant advantage over these other sports. Its on the TV all-year round, and international football is on prime-time terrestrial TV, BBC 1 or ITV. Cricket’s selling off of the Ashes to Sky, Rugby doing the same with the Lions, cycling shunted off to ITV 4 , all have significantly eroded their impact as a national moment. Wimbledon is different, yet tennis really only achieves any kind of media profile for that one fortnight a year. A more pluralistic sports media would not only help to undermine the worst excesses of the commercial monster that modern football has become it would help these other sports play a more effective, and positive societal role in terms of the impact they can make. Cycling is the key to any connection that might be made between participation and elite success, what other ‘sport’ can you do as a way of getting to work or going to the shops. As a family day out, for a good cause or if you fancy the challenge test yourself with a 100-mile century ride.
Translating success into participation
There is no automatic connection between a Brit in the Yellow Jersey, thrashing the Aussies, a record Gold Medal haul and boosting sporting participation. Look at Australia, not only in cricket and rugby seen as a close rival but a nation in an earlier era that wrapped its national identity around its apparent sportiness. The Crawford Report commissioned by the Australian Government after the country finished a disappointing sixth to Team GB’s fourth in the 2008 Beijing Olympics medal table suggested that the massive skewing of sport investment to elite-level competition might be misplaced. Instead, motivation towards physical activity exists largely outside of the emulation of the achievements of elite athletes.
“Evidence shows that participation in physical activity is dominated by non-organised sport and physical recreation. Moreover, this is an increasing trend: aerobics and fitness activities were the biggest growth areas for participation between 2001 and 2008. The growth of time-poor two-income families leaves little time for sport. As a consequence, exercise is ‘purchased’ and ‘fitted into’ a schedule. People are moving towards activities that are able to suit lifestyle and time constraints and thus provide the most flexible options. Seven out of the ten growth areas in this time span were activities such as walking, running, cycling and aerobics/gym exercise—essentially activities that can be done on an individual basis. Apart from aerobics, in 2008, participation in the five most popular sports in Australia largely took the form of non-organised involvement. There is substantial growth in the number of people engaged in non-structured physical recreational activities— such as skateboarding, skiing, golf, cycling and more informally organised competitions such as mixed indoor cricket, netball and volleyball.”
The report provoked a furious response from Australia’s sporting establishment which sought to defend the enormous funding provided for high profile sports elite-level competition. Commenting on the row from afar, Observer journalist Kevin Mitchell noted drily that the report’s analysis was being accused of “Putting the general health of the nation over medals.”
Sport’s magnificent triviality
Understanding sport requires a sense of their social construction, particularly by class, gender and race. Not to ruin our enjoyment of watching, and doing sport, but to enrich and inform those processes. Without that kind of engagement we won’t begin to understand how to translate sporting success into participation apart from boosting numbers doing sport, from a sofa or a bar stool. Interest defined by the number of hours per day we spend watching sport, not doing it. Such a shift is one kind of vision surely of a better society , where leisure time is freely provided , recreation for all not just for some.
But sport’s contribution to our culture isn’t just about the instrumentalism of ‘taking part. It has a cultural impact out of all proportion too, what academic Alan Tomlinson describes in the book London 2012 How Was It For Us as ‘magnificent trivia’. Alan writes “It is top-level sport’s abiding appeal that it can draw us into a Never-Never land, combining an escapist focus upon the action with a willed immersion in the magnificently trial.” It is that ‘magnificence’, heavily mediated of course, that elevates sport’s possibility to provide the opportunity to start conversations around national identity. It cannot effect change on its own, that is the task of social movements. But the latter need sport, and all manner of other forms of mass culture too, to give substance to its hopes and objectives. In the past three and a bit weeks on the roads and up the mountains of France perhaps such a politico-cultural opportunity has been starting to unfold. The greatest cycling race in the world, which in its centenary edition remains defiantly French in every detail of its character and organisation , is becoming a part of our British sporting summer too. An embrace of its vocabulary, its history and culture the kind of popular Europeanism largely absent in Westminster bubble politics, defined by the people of Europe not its democratic-deficit institutions. A British love affair with the Yellow Jersey perhaps the beginnings of an effective counter to the little Englanderism of UKiP’s isolationism masquerading as so-called independence. Parlez-vous le cycling?
Mark Perryman explores what Andy Murray and the Lions tell us about sport’s impact on national identity
“The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people” – Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm’s acute observation concerning the impact of sport on national identity has been carted out so often that it is in danger of descending into becoming a cliché. Yet its enduring currency is reinforced by the fact that Monday after last weekend’s miracle of British sporting success at both ends of the global hemisphere commentators and politicians were scrambling to stake a claim for what the Andy Murray and Lions victories tell us about Britishness.
Large sections of the Left choose to absent themselves from this debate on the grounds that there’s nothing progressive about patriotism. Yet the ways in which sport represents, and shapes, national identity has been an increasingly popular discourse since another sporting summer, Euro ’96. Of course being football this one ended in anything but glory, instead the traditional early exit on penalties, and no trophy to show for it. The tournament took place a year ahead of the newly elected Labour government’s devolution referendums began the constitutional break up of Britain. In support of England the widespread, and then novel, flying and wearing of the St George Cross flag in place of the customary identity-confusion of the Union Jack indicated a growing awareness that England and Scotland shared an island but weren’t necessarily the same. Scotland, and Wales, had of course made sense of this a long time previously, for the English this was something new. And there was another difference too. In Scotland and Wales this popular mood around national identity connected to a wider politics of civic nationalism, with differing ambitions ranging from devolution to independence. In England, then and now there is no such expression of any such intent at a political level. Some of course on the Left portray any such awakening as reactionary, or worse, but the spectre of a racialised nationalism around Englishness is in large measure confounded by its primary vehicle, football. By far the most multicultural of all our team sports, on the pitch, in the stands, watching and cheering from the sofa. In many ways the St George cross, wrapped round football, a symbol of inner-city multicultural England.
Such was the evolving narrative every other summer 1996 through to England’s disastrous performance in South Africa at World Cup 2010. Given a nudge too by the winning of rugby’s World Cup in 2003, cricket’s Ashes in 2005, 2009 and 2011 , all in England’s colours.
But after 2010 the biannual summer of hopeful expectation and flag-waving celebration has taken more than a bit of a knocking. Despite getting to the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, and decent TV viewing figures, the popular mood seemed to have changed. England no longer creating the kind of buzz they had become used to. Instead 2012′s summer of sport was absolutely dominated by the London Olympics and all things GB. With Wiggins winning the yellow jersey, an incredible last-day recovery to win golf’s Ryder Cup and Andy Murray’s first Grand Slam victory in New York thrown in for happy measure. But these versions of sporting nationalism are more complex. The Olympic success often in sports where there is next to no interest outside of the Games, and zero fan culture of the sort football boasts on a weekly basis. Sports where the individual is celebrated, obviously to the maximum by those who share his or her nationality but beyond that it is his or her achievement that matters not the flag embroidered on the kit worn. The Ryder Cup in the most teasing of ironies given golf’s self-image of UKiP at play won under the EU flag. Andy Murray defying that favourite sporting maxim of a certain brand of Englishness , ‘Scots when he loses, British when he wins.’
The Lions victory doesn’t fit into a previously cosy version of sports nationalism either. Elite rugby players of course, but entirely unused to playing together as a team until they go on tour. This is teamwork at its best. The incredible third Test victory against Australia featuring a solid core of Welsh internationals, it couldn’t have been won without them. This de-centres a traditional version of Britishness. As for the Irish contribution. A united Ireland team playing this most English of sports, and all its home internationals are in Dublin. At a club level Ulster ranked alongside the other giants of Irish rugby, Munster and Leinster. Arguably Ireland’s most successful team sport on a global stage, this is a mix that the political imagination can hardly begin to comprehend.
And Andy Murray? David Cameron and Alex Salmond in the posh seats, nothing could better represent broken-up Britain. Each desperate for some of the gold dust of Andy’s victory to do their poll ratings some good, to strengthen the case for the Union or the cause of independence. But nobody was very much interested what either had to say, or tweet. Tennis, like most individual sports, doesn’t really do nationalism in the way team sports do. The story becomes a personal one, of family, sacrifice, talent-spotted and developed, turning disappointments into a glorious sunny July afternoon of triumph, with the backhistory of the tennis version of the years of hurt, all 77 of them, adding to the magic of the moment.
This is a superlative sporting achievement. But it hardly affects our emotional investment in that joy to add the observation that the All England Tennis Club’s pocket of SW19 doesn’t look much like the rest of that world-famous postcode, the rest of Wimbledon either, or London for that matter. An almost exclusively white crowd, white flight in reverse, this isn’t metropolitan Britain as we know it. Not ‘political correctness gone mad’ of the Jeremy Clarkson type jibe but enriching our understanding of sport by noting, accounting for, and acting upon those left out. Sport is socially constructed by gender, race and class in particular. Very few sports are ‘for all’ , some never will be, most could be. Why they aren’t as vital to our understanding of Britishness as lifting a trophy in Britain’s name, Wimbledon’s or any other we can get our hands on.
And this means also that John Inverdale’s pre-match commentary on Wimbledon’s women singles champion Marion Bartoli suggesting her father might have told her “you’re never going to be a looker” and this would explain her playing style “scrappy and to fight” weren’t simply a gaffe but deeply revelatory. And what it reveals is a misogyny at the core of sports culture. This was a statement that the media star of London 2012, Clair Balding, it is inconceivable to imagine would have made. Inverdale , not an isolated example, rather he is emblematic of a sports media culture blokedom, saloon bar putting the world to rights, keeping women in their place, getting down to the real business of sport, reinforcing their masculinity. As football shuffles way from its summertime tournament stage other sports offer the possibility to challenge this but not so long as the likes of Inverdale rule the studios and backpages they won’t
Meanwhile we can’t afford to get cocky. Last weekend may be as good as it gets this summer. But Chris Froome in the yellow jersey and a home Ashes win would surely set the seal on a British summer of sport every bit as good as the one in 2012 we thought we’d never get close to experiencing ever again. Will it change Britain for good? No, the impact of elite success has next t no impact on levels of participation in sport. They can help inspire, of course they can, and popularise a sport. But the tools for increasing participation require a much more serious unpicking of sport’s social construction, to account for the exclusions and inclusions, and most of all to focus investment and initiatives on the level most of us will ever aspire to, the recreational not the competitive. But there could also be the beginnings of a more profound cultural shift too. The bi-annual flag waving for the England team as it heads off to a Euro or World Cup only to return early with nothing much to show for the effort turning into a more multi-sports summer culture, breaking the hegemony of football over sporting culture, enabling a much greater variety of ways to identify with what sport and nation means to us. England, GB, a bit of one, some of the other, or none at all.
Of course how fast an individual can run, how far they can chuck an object, how high they can jump hardly matters at all in the greater scheme of global justice and human rights. But that isn’t what is being claimed on behalf of sport here. Rather it is the grand emotional narrative sport can help construct, arguably in the early twenty-first century more effectively and more internationally, than any single other cultural pursuit. Apart from the most miserabalist, or socially isolated, section of the Left that is surely something we can all agree upon, whether we like it or not. With the possible exception of web 2.0. no other cultural form comes close to sport in terms of its global appeal. But then who apart from the geekiest of the Geeks is going to cheer on Apple vs Microsoft in the way millions cheered on London 2012’s Super Saturday of Grandstanding athletics.
There is a certain version of one-dimensional Marxism that can on occasion decry anything meaningful to be derived from the masses’ enjoyment of sport. It’s as if those of us who do the cheering have handed in any consciousness we might have at the turnstiles, or those of us who do the training leave the same at the bottom of the changing room locker along with the smelly socks and half-eaten energy bars. Before the Games were even over the Socialist Workers Party in their Party Notes for members declared : Click to continue reading →
With the Tour de France starting on 29 June Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman argues for a two wheels good politics
“Every time I see an adult on a bicycle, I no longer despair for the future of the human race” – HG Wells
The most infamous quote on cycling from modern British politics remains hard right Thatcherite Norman Tebbit’s unhelpful advice to the 1980s unemployed to ‘Get on your bike’. So suggesting that two wheels are a more than useful basis for a progressive political project may be an uphill struggle. Whoops! Apologies, a cycling pun so early in the piece; don’t worry there’s sure to be more.
My weekend early morning ride takes me up Sussex’s Ditchling Beacon. Sad I know, but kitted out in a London 2012 Team GB replica cycling jersey I am Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Laura Trott all wrapped up in one for those stupendous and lung-bursting 90 minutes of cycling. And as I finish with a sprint drown Lewes High Street there’s a little bit of me that is Cavendish too. This is part of the fantasy of non-competitive cycling: we can all have that dream and not be too ashamed to admit it. Click to continue reading →
Here is Palestinian national football Team player, Mahmoud Sarsak at Old Trafford on 28th May.
He stands below a picture of his hero Eric Cantona, who helped spearhead an international campaign for his release. Mahmoud was detained for 3 years without charge by the Israeli authorities. 18 months of those were in solitary confinement, under 24 hour surveillance provided by G4S. Mahmoud was on hunger strike for over 90 days during which he lost half is body weight before he was eventually released. He is on a tour of the UK talking about his experiences, helping strengthen the BDS campaign, and exposing the role of G4S in the occupation, and specifically its role in the imprisonment of Palestinians. During his time in Manchester he visited the National Football Museum, Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, Manchester United at Old Trafford.
May 25 2013 will go down in history as the night when two of the most courageous men to ever grace a boxing ring served up a classic at the O2 Arena in front of 18,000 fans and millions watching around the world via pay-per-view.
It was fitting that so many witnessed Carl Froch’s victory over Mikkel Kessler in their second fight, as no one who did will ever forget the display of courage, tenacity, resilience, and determination that unfolded. At points it brought back to mind the Thrilla in Manila, when Ali and Frazier fought another all time classic. One writer famously described this final instalment of the Ali-Frazier trilogy as fight not for the championship of the world, but the championship of each other. This a fitting description of the second Froch v Kessler contest, especially with Kessler having taken the decision first time round in 2010. Click to continue reading →
Mark Perryman from Philosophy Football offers a selection of the best football, running and sports politics books of the quarter
In England there’s no sports writer quite like Dave Zirin. He writes about sport from the Left with such passion and style that readers will never spot the join. An American, the bias is unsurprisingly towards baseball, basketball and their own bastardised version of ‘football’, yet both the issues raised and his range of coverage are unmistakably internationalist. Dave’s latest Game Over should by rights be a major publishing event for the committed British sports fan, yet our fan culture is so parochial this superb book will be lucky to get a mention of two. Ownership, athletes on strike and supporting others on strike, Egyptian fans at the core of the Tahrir Square protests, the failed legacy of World Cups and Olympics. this book has the lot and more. The writing style provides a template for how to mix politics and sport yet keep the reader engaged whose interests leans more towards one or the other. Simply unmissable.
The London 2012 Olympics more than any other event has helped stimulate at last some writing over here of the sort Dave Zirin provides in the USA. Accounting for sport’s meaning beyond the touchline, track, pool or ring. In the build up to the Games Matt and Martin Rogan’s Britain and the Olympics provided a rare moment of context. Revisiting the 1948 London Olympics, dubbed the ‘austerity games’ for an insight into what London 2012 might become in a period of similar economic recession. Rich in interview material, one year on from London’s Games this is a book that deserves to be revisited as we ponder over the reality of the legacy claims. Written since the Games ended Phil Cohen’s On The Wrong Side of the Track? locates those legacy claims firmly in the social and geographical context of East London. This was where the regeneration was supposed to take place, acting as a leveller between the city’s tourist and retail mecca, the West End, and the depressed East End. Beautifully written, with an uncanny eye for cultural detail Phil’s book is a powerful response to the overblown myths and broken promises of the Olympian legacy agenda. Click to continue reading →
As England prepare for a World Cup Qualifier double-header Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman reviews the decline and fall of a Football Nation
Never mind the debate over the dodgy third goal in ’66, was it or wasn’t it over the line. The most famous piece of commentary in English footballing history, “some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over, it is now,” proves definitively England’s fourth goal against Germany should have been disallowed. A goal scored with a pitch invasion underway, absolutely against the rules of the game.
And thus England’s 47 years of hurt began. Up to 1966 we’d been World Cup quarter-finalists at best, and no European Cup had been lifted by an English club side either. Spurs had been the first English team to win a European Trophy, the Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, followed by Bobby Moore captaining West Ham to winning the same trophy in 1965.
Immediately after ’66 English club sides did begin to dominate European competitions. In quick succession Leeds, Newcastle and Arsenal won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, while Manchester United lifted the European Cup in 1968, following north of the border Celtic’s success the previous year. Into the 1970s, apart from the European Cup English club sides continued to do well in the other two European competitions. Chelsea, Manchester CIty, Liverpool, Spurs all won these tournaments, while any Leeds fan of a certain age will tell you that their club, not Bayern Munich, were the ‘true’ winners of the 1975 European Cup with disallowed goals robbing them of victory.
It was the late 1970s to mid 1980s however when English domination of Europe really established itself. Liverpool winning the European Cup in 1977, 1978, 1981, 1984. Nottingham Forest’s back-to-back wins in 1979 and 1980. Aston Villa in 1982. This was a remarkable run of success. But after the 1985-1990 ban of English club sides from European club competitions following the Heysel final involving Liverpool and Juventus which led to 39 deaths from a combination of rioting and poor stadium facilities, nothing like this kind of domination.
Since the English clubs were re-admitted, they have won just four Champions Leagues in 21 years. Spanish clubs can boast 6 wins, Italian 5. As for the UEFA Cup and the Europa League, just one win since 1992, Liverpool’s in 2001.
This season’s failure of a single English club side to make it through to the Champions League quarter-finals has been widely commented on as the worst English performance since 1996. But actually the decline and fall of English club sides’ dominance of Europe goes considerably deeper than this. In ’66 the fans and the clubs might well have thought it was ‘all over’, a golden period of club football about to begin. But despite all the Premier League-driven hype it has never recovered anything like the heights of 30 years ago. The sweet irony of the centrepiece of the FA’s 150th Anniversary Celebrations being a Champions League Final in the season of English clubs’ worst performance in the competition not to be missed.
If the situation for English club sides in Europe doesn’t look too good, this is nothing compared to the England team. After Euro ’96 and reaching the semi-final, the bare minimum surely for a major football nation in a home tournament, there’s been no progress beyond the quarter-finals at a Euro or World Cup since. Never mind the nearly five decades of hurt, these past 17 years have been bad enough. In European terms Croatia and Russia can claim to have done better, with a semi-final each since ’96 and not at home either. Turkey has managed two semi-final appearances. The Czech Republic reached the final in ’96 and the semi again in 2004. Apart from that little lot England can’t claim to come anywhere close to matching the records of Holland, Portugal, Italy, Germany, France and Spain in European Championship and World Cups since ’96. And then there’s Greece, who we squeezed past in 2001 to make sure of qualifying for the following year’s World Cup, and then they had the cheek to go and win Euro 2004, a feat that still remains beyond the reach of England.
What might be the reasons for this spectacular failure? In their excellent book Why England Lose, authors Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski offer a number of reasons, the principle one being that given the size of England’s population and number of professional footballers, being regular quarter-finalists but not much better is the kind of position we should expect in world football. This sits uneasily with our martial and imperial history and the fact we like to think we invented the game; but in reality it’s a theory not too far wide of the mark. It is the expectation that somehow 1966 wasn’t the blip it has proved to be and being a world power in football is our natural position in sporting life that distorts the magnitude of our failure . To that extent the 4-1 defeat to Germany at World Cup 2010 may prove a more important benchmark for the next 47 years than 1966 has proved to be for the past 47 years. It is unlikely ever again, certainly not in 2014 for anybody in their right mind, that England will go to a major tournament expecting to win it. And so when we make it to the quarters and not much further, we can be pleased with ourselves rather than agonising over the latest in the game of what-might-have-beens but weren’t.
I would add some other factors too. Firstly the psychological. In an England tournament squad the players know the expectations are unreasonably high. At club level they are mostly idolised — many have win a cabinet full of winners’ medals already — and they play their international football every season in the Champions League. Yet with England, unless they defy history and get past the quarters they are losers at best, vilified at worst. They can’t win. Secondly, our style of play. And as fans we’re culpable in this too. The English love a fast-moving physical game, ‘get stuck in’ with loads of commitment. Good enough to get England to the quarter-finals, but not many tournaments are won playing like this. Thirdly the narrow base of team recruitment. Despite all the changes in our society, professional footballers still come overwhelmingly from a narrow, and numerically declining, social base. And entire communities are entirely under-represented: Asian, Chinese, East European and other sizeable immigrant communities hardly feature in the professional game. No this isn’t the much touted “political correctness gone mad,” it’s ensuring we draw on all the talents that might be available. England doesn’t.
Fourthly we fail to learn from others. Yes there are foreign players, managers and coaches in English football. But the changes they bring with them still hardly impact on club football, and on the national team scarcely at all. It’s all a bit foreign, and what do we have to learn from the Germans, the Spanish and the Italians anyway? This inward-looking cocksureness largely insulates football from other far more successful sports too. How many of those who’ve excelled in establishing regimes that produce winners in other sports are headhunted to contribute something to football? Finally, our lack of experience of tournament football. Age-group competitions at a European and World Cup level are consistently undervalued, with the best players often not even sent there to represent England. And apart from the 2012 exception no England team competes in the Olympic football tournament, for many young players an essential experience towards a future World Cup. One simple solution: introduce what would be a hugely popular and highly competitive football tournament in the Commonwealth Games.
Five ideas; there will be plenty more. Just the kind of thing the FA should be debating as part of its 150th anniversary. Instead, England appear to be quaking in their boots at the prospect of the must-win game against Montenegro next Tuesday. This is a country with a population roughly comparable to the numbers living in the London Borough of Hammersmith. OK we seem to be as safe as houses facing San Marino in the first of the World Cup double headers, but plucky Montenegro have us worried. Looking back at our accumulated decline and fall, club and country, since 1966 with good reason.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction, aka Philosophy Football