I probably don’t need to remind you that it’s something of a miracle we even made it to Brazil 2014. Since the Iraqi nuclear attacks on London in early 2003 (who besides the late dictator Tony Blair thought those WMDs were actually real?), England and its football culture has, understandably, been in a state of some disrepair. With Zone 1 of the capital reduced to a toxic crater, and with infrastructure dispersed throughout the nascent Quatropolis of the British Republic (Stratford, Cardiff, Newcastle, Glasgow), we’ve been forced to think in unusually strenuous terms about history, collective identity and the place of football within it.
Quite aside from the difficulties most of us now have with the mere concept of “England” – a name that we now tend to associate with the recherché world of monarchy, pastoral myth and capitalist belligerence that has mostly evaporated since the destruction of London and the Home Counties just over a decade ago – it is extraordinary on a logistic level that a team from the Republic exists at all.
Post-2003, after the world economy was thrown into turmoil by the attacks on London and New York, and Britain’s inordinate reliance on finance capitalism and the tourist industry came to an abrupt end, we have faced material hardships on a biblical scale. Over the last ten years, as we dealt with the humanitarian fallout from nuclear catastrophe and tried to slowly rebuild our economy as a hub of manufacturing and the creative arts, sport has been the last thing on most people’s minds.
But there is also, of course, a sense in which the birth of the Republic has revitalised English football, and vice versa. Before the bombings, the Premiership was in a bad way, and there were signs that it was about to get even worse. After an initial honeymoon period, the alliance between global capitalism and the big English clubs that deepened from the early nineties had created a disaffected, apathetic climate, one in which both supporters and young players had begun to lose faith that the game was anything more than an elaborate marketing spectacle.
Domestic competitions had come to be dominated by a handful of mega-wealthy clubs, ticket prices were rising at an alarming rate, and heavily overpaid players were starting to become objectionable characters who displayed increasing detachment from the underlying moral and aesthetic imperatives of the beautiful game. There were even signs that the FA Cup was losing its importance, and that the same 5 or 6 teams would be able to effectively monopolise domestic football long into the future by way of a de facto plutocratic super league.
2003 changed all that. With Chelsea and Arsenal consigned to the history books after central London was razed to the ground, and with the steady withdrawal of corporate money from both the Premiership and the British economy as a whole, a newly egalitarian game began to emerge in a landscape blighted by a combination of (man-made) ecological disaster and severe economic depression. With player wages only slightly above the average rate for British Republic citizens, and with English teams unable to take part in European competitions, our stratified, hierarchical domestic league was completely overhauled. Between 2004 and 2013, 8 different teams won the (newly unsponsored) league title, and the FA Cup was won by a different team each year.
At Everton in 2006, Wayne Rooney and John Terry (a refugee from west London) spearheaded a glorious league campaign that ended with a dramatic last gasp victory over Hibernian on the final day of the season. Andy Caroll scored 42 league goals as Newcastle won the Cup in 2010, narrowly losing out on the league title to Preston. In 2011, Danny Welbeck and Jordan Henderson led Villa to a spectacular title victory. At resurgent, supporter-controlled Sheffield Wednesday, Gary Cahill, Adam Lallana and Daniel Sturridge were the backbone of an exceptional team that won the double in 2012. After a steep decline from their nineties heyday, Man United fought successive relegation battles, but their cup victory in 2013 over Rickie Lambert-led Leeds was perhaps a sign that the good times will soon return.
With this difficult yet emboldening recent domestic history behind them, I can’t help but feel that the 2014 England squad might be capable of pulling off an unlikely triumph in Brazil. The last decade has been difficult, but we now have a renewed sense of what this whole venture means. We are a lot closer now in background and worldview to the rest of the world, much more in tune with our working-class heritage, much less blinkered by myths of greatness and a mingled feeling of inflated superiority and nagging inferiority. Above all, we have something to prove – namely the fact that we are part of a democratic new country that is moving slowly but inexorably into a brighter, more passionately felt future. If power corrupts, then disempowerment can humanise, and this is a truth that Roy Hodgson and his idealistic young team must keep close to their hearts in the splintering sunlight of Manaus.
Posted by Alex Niven