So, despite my making the cavalier declaration that the combination of results needed for England to survive in the World Cup post-Uruguay did ‘not strike me as impossibly unlikely’, the inappropriately nicknamed Three Lions are mathematically out of the tournament. After a weekend of press coverage which was, at least in the broadsheets, largely sympathetic to Roy Hodgson and his players, the recriminations are beginning. Unsurprisingly, the catalyst of spite has been Harry Redknapp, a man incredibly popular with tabloid journalists because he’s a bit like Terry Venables in his bloke-selling-perfume-on-Dagenham-market charm and also because he tends to answer their calls. Redknapp’s take on the weird – both enervated and over-hasty – performances in Manaus and São Paulo was that perhaps some of the team didn’t want to be there, a notion he backed up by claiming that, during his tenure at Tottenham, a number of his English players asked their manager to withdraw them from the national squad. The consequent uproar has offered us yet another insight into the intersection of football’s small-p politics and ‘real’ political ideology.
To begin with, there’s the story of what is happening beneath the surface of Redknapp’s apparently ‘helpful’ disclosure. The relationship between the QPR boss and Roy Hodgson could not be more Shakespearean if it were staged on a balcony in Verona, written in iambic pentameter and grossly misunderstood by the National Curriculum. In one corner, you have the incumbent leader, a benign if occasionally gauche man who reads European literature in his spare time and cheers his young followers with legitimate space tales. In the other, you have the (alleged) popular choice, his route to the throne blocked by what he takes to be conspiracy, consumed by the rage of his embittered sense of entitlement. With Hodgson having his job guaranteed by the FA in the wake of the Uruguay game, it is hard not to suspect that Redknapp is attempting a Iagovian coup-by-insecurity.
Hodgson and Steven Gerrard have responded intelligently to what might well be an act of provocation. Gerrard in particular has found a skillful way of walking the line between humouring Redknapp and letting him know that, however annoying it is to have him pissing into the tent, he’s not going to be given an opportunity to micturate out of it. By asking for the names of those who attempted to avoid England ‘duty’, the captain is, I think, offering up the suggestion that the would-be deserters simply don’t exist other than as fabrications in a more pernicious agenda. I have it on pretty reliable authority that some players find playing for England in friendlies a bit of an inconvenience at times, but this in no way proves Redknapp’s allegations. Moreover, why shouldn’t players find international games – particularly the utterly meaningless trips to shit-at-football-but-very-wealthy countries that the FA send the squad to as part of their interminable branding campaign and the games scheduled for no reason other than to repay the cost of rebuilding Wembley – tedious?
The assumption that Redknapp’s stirring will live or die by is that all footballers are unquestioningly patriotic. I’d dispute this. When we see them belting out the national anthem or doing one of those ludicrous pride-and-passion pre-match space-fillers, I suspect that patriotism is something which is used as a focal point for team-mindedness, a node for professional success. One does find the occasional Siniša Mihajlović or Zvonimir Boban for whom nation-love is clearly a very real and visceral thing, but I’d hazard a guess that for the average international footballer patriotism is a way of rationalising responsibility to the footballing cause. There’s a ludicrous misrecognition on the part of the right-wingers doing their Queen-and-country act in the stands who think the men on the pitch share their blood-and-soil mentality: for the most part, footballers focus themselves out of any formal political identification (it’s rarely pointed out as it destroys the depiction of players as asininely nationalistic, but the Mihajlovićs are outliers on the right just as much as the Graeme le Sauxs and Pat Nevins are on the left). Presenting footballers as purely patriotically motivated is a form of fantasy about the politics of the working class from which they are almost unanimously drawn, which is to say that it suits certain agendas to treat the proles as borderline fascists (which would make socialism into an illegitimate bourgeois charade).
This links tellingly to the stories society tells itself about the army. While the majority who join are motivated by the route military service offers out of poverty – hence the similarities in geographical origin between infantry soldiers and international footballers – the narrative is that they do so for the patria. In one fell swoop, the shame of Britain’s socio-economic inequality is masked and its ridiculous, disastrous post-imperial wars touched up with affective ‘credibility’. The logic is that war can’t be a crime against the poor because the poor like going to war, as if patriotism in the Forces isn’t largely a case of having to locate some structure for coping (this is implicitly shown to be the case in various works by reporters embedded in the US military during the War on Terror, notably Evan Wright’s Generation Kill and Sebastian Junger’s War. Geoff Dyer’s recent account of time spent on an American aircraft carrier drops heavy hints in the same direction. Clearly, you don’t have to be a Marxist hardliner to believe expediency is the basis for a significant proportion of enlistments.)
And so, having drawn my own analogy between football and the military, it’s time to turn to the terminally nonsensical – and that’s putting it politely – Ian Wright. If there’s a league table of footballers making inappropriate interventions in affairs, Wright would vie at the top with Paul Gascogine turning up at a siege with a can of lager and a fishing rod for ‘Moaty’. The former Arsenal striker and present-day useful idiot declared in today’s Sun that players who tried to dodge an international call-up should be forced to ring the grieving parents of a soldier killed in Afghanistan to explain their decision to shirk. There’s plenty of grimly funny imaginings of this doing the rounds on Twitter at the moment, so I’ll decline the opportunity to add my own and simply point to the fact that this is yet more evidence of how football is being used as one vector in the increasing militarisation of British society. Most recent tournaments (those that have supplied a victory) have found their UK TV coverage adorned with cutaways to Our Boys enjoying the game with non-alcoholic beers at Camp Bastion as a respite from ‘holding off the Taliban’, and then there’s the way that the FA Cup draw seems no longer the preserve of a monotone Graham Kelly but of serving Forces personnel. You’re more likely to find discounted tickets being offered to soldiers than to the unemployed nowadays, which is pretty instructive if you want to think about how the Tories have capitalised on Blair’s wars to cloak their vicious-as-fuck austerity drive in a miasma of nationalistic sentiment. Remember the poppies-on-shirts debate and the EDL’s protest on a Zurich rooftop? It’s all that all over again.
As I’ve said above, I think Gerrard and Hodgson have played pretty cutely so far. There does, however, need to be a louder voice asking why a player should be asked to feel a certain way about representative sport and what it means ideologically that they so frequently are. For my part, I’m much more comfortable with a player taking pride in turning out for their childhood team than with them pontificating about the moral obligation to want to play for one’s country. Last year, my team Darlington won the regional Northern League, the first step – I hope – on the road back to the Conference, from which bankruptcy had exiled them. Forced to rely on cheap local talent, the Quakers fielded a Darlo fan, Steve Johnson, in a crucial top-of-the-table away match against Spennymoor. After a 3-1 victory, Johnson headed to the travelling fans to reveal a t-shirt which read, in an homage to and bettering of Mario Balotelli’s, ‘Why Always Us?’ That‘s solidarity.
Posted by Joe Kennedy