Category Archives: Nationalism

Preview 11 – Croatia

Those that remember as far back as Euro 2012 will know that much debate about Croatia’s role in the tournament will surround the racist chants, banners and attitudes of the nation’s travelling supporters. Last time around the Croatian FA were twice fined for their fans’ actions.

The usual approach to such racist behaviour is to state that these acts are ‘outdated.’  Of course, this criticism almost always comes from a good place, asserting that we have no time in the modern age for behaviour that we (largely) universally condemn as unacceptable.  However, there is a strange distancing of our age and ourselves from the issue here.  Can we say these forms of expression are outdated whilst we witness them taking place in 2012, and under the threat of seeing them again in 2014?

First, we must acknowledge that racism (in most of its forms at least) is closely connected to nostalgia.  This is a point that hardly needs demonstrating; racism is almost always couched in a language of ‘the old days,’ ‘traditional values,’ and the ‘great past’ of the nation or race being celebrated.  This can easily be demonstrated in the case of Croatian football; the banners shown in 2012 contained military images and a web address of a political site dedicated to ‘the promotion of Croatian heritage and culture around the world.’  Its motto is ‘Pravda je izgubila ravnotežu,’ which is translated as ‘Justice has lost her way;’ the language of nationalism is one of nostalgia for a ‘lost’ past in which things we on the right track.

Second, and more complexly, nostalgia operates or can operate where there is nothing to be nostalgic for.  Or rather, that which we are nostalgic for is often an imaginary space created from the present and projected onto the past which we conceive of as answering the problems we are faced with in modernity.  As Svetlana Boym notes, nostalgia is ‘an affective yearning for a community with collective memory, a longing for continuity in a fragmented world.’  This once more is perfectly demonstrated by the place of Croatian nationalist culture.  A fantastic article by Gordana Crnkovic on Croatian nationalist and non-nationalist culture demonstrates that whereas Croatian culture was historically very diverse, containing Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian and other cultural influences from the region, after the war and independence a new demand for a cultural identity ‘truly its own’ was borne in Croatia.  Whilst it had a diverse history, it needed a singular one; the history it searched for was one that it never had.

Croatian cultural commentator Jurica Pavicic put it another way, saying, ‘we traded away our identity because it stank of our neighbours, and for that we got corporate goods, faceless global trademarks to whom we bow.’  The point again here is that what is missing now – a truly Croatian identity – never existed; it was always a miscellany of various cultural influences.  It is racism that creates an imagined time in which justice had not lost its way, in which we had an identity truly our own.

Does not the criticism of this racism as ‘outdated,’ whilst we see it around us in more forms than we would like to admit, not risk allowing this belief to maintain its hold?  It asserts the existence of a time in which it was legitimate to believe such things, and distances our modern world from this ancient and backwards day (even the language celebrates the ‘progress’ of modernity).

Thus, this criticism of racism as ‘outdated’ gives racism the very thing it needs to lament: an imaginary world in which its unacceptable beliefs were permitted.  In placing racism in the ‘outdated’ past we give it the very thing that it needs; an imaginary space in which racism was not only allowed but believed in.  We simultaneously avoid dealing with the very modern presence of these problems by distancing our own world from them when in fact it can be our own modernity which creates this dangerous nostalgia for a different and even racist past.

What we see here is the danger that the World Cup functions as a celebration of modernity which actually benefits from the appearance of its ‘backwards’ past – since it is that which it celebrates itself as having progressed from – but which does not deal (except perhaps by a measly £65k fine) with its continuing role in our present.

Posted by Alfie Bown

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

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Preview 5 – Bosnia-Herzegovina

Twelve years ago, I was up north for a few days visiting my family. At the time, my stepfather was a season ticket holder at St James’ Park: Newcastle had qualified for that season’s Champions League, and he asked me if I wanted to go to with him to watch their first home game in the competition against Željezničar Sarajevo. In my world, there’s only one real answer to that question, so I found myself on a balmy evening on Tyneside watching the Magpies cruise to a 4-0 victory, a significant build on the 1-0 lead they brought back from the Dinaric Alps. At the end of the game, the Geordie crowd turned en masse, looking up into the lofty section reserved for visitors at the juncture of the Milburn and Leazes stands, and lauched into a rapture of applause for the Bosnian supporters. 

There’s an outside chance that Newcastle were simply congratulating the Sarajevan fans for making the best of what is surely one of the worst perspectives in European football, but I think it’s likely there was more to it than that. In 2002, the Bosnian War had been over for less than seven years, and the horrors of Srebenica and Tuzla still felt like a contemporary feature of the mediascape. Željezničar’s home city had, of course, been besieged for around four years, and their stadium  in Grbavica had been right on the front lines of the conflict, with some of its terracing being destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces. The message being sent by the football supporters of Tyneside, surely, was that the very presence of their opponents at the top table of European competition was an achievement in itself. In fact, the applause was not being aimed solely at a specific set of football fans, but at the redemptive qualities of football itself.

Bosnia-Herzegovina’s debut in the World Cup this summer will see an enactment of the same principle writ large. Here’s the opening of their preview in the pages of the generally perspicacious World Soccer:

Whatever happens in Brazil, Bosnia-Herzegovina have already achieved all their goals. Ravaged by a war that brought it to its knees, the poorest country in Europe can take great pride in just having gained a place on the biggest stage of all.  

If the people of the country truly feel this to be the case, then it would be churlish to disabuse them of that sense of pride. Indeed, the Bosnian player most familiar to English fans, Manchester City’s Edin Džeko, recently stated that qualification has ‘helped to bring smiles’ to the faces of his compatriots.* What I think does need to be interrogated is the degree to which Europe, or football, at large should be allowed a slice of the affective pie here: is the narrative that the historical nightmare of the Balkan Wars is brought to a close by sport not also a way of alleviating the continent-wide anxiety they provoked?

In my preview of Algeria, I called that country Europe’s ‘near abroad’. Bosnia, along with Albania and Kosovo, might be called in turn Europe’s ‘nearly abroad’, those parts of the continent which are regarded on the whole as being only physically of it. One might make a similar claim for some post-Soviet states, particularly Moldova and perhaps also Belarus, but the Muslim-majority nations of the Balkans are conceived of by many as an ‘inside-outside’ for reasons that are already implied in this sentence. The war in Bosnia, and the subsequent intervention over Kosovo, provoked a crisis of identity for Europe for a number of reasons, not all of which were to do with the unheimlich reappearance of armed conflict in a region of the world which had been essentially at peace since the end of the Greek Civil War in 1949. No, the logic of liberal intervention necessitated providing not only logistical, but military assistance to a largely Muslim population fighting a war, which some believed to be an existential one, against Orthodox Serb and, at times, Catholic Croat Christians. This set off some cognitive dissonance, as did – for a more left-wing demographic – the twin convictions that the Bosniaks (and later, the Kosovar Albanians) were the victims of the immediate conflict but that NATO’s involvement was made in geopolitical bad faith.

That the Balkan Wars are still a live issue was brought to the fore last month when terrible flooding on rivers such as the Bosna and the Sava unearthed vast numbers of landmines left behind by the fighting, thus hampering relief work and reactivating the traumas of the 1990s. In the context of the World Cup, the event seemed to have a grotesque metaphorical value, alerting us to the fragility of humanist redemption narratives. Over the last decade, there has been a boom in semi-literary writing which uses some form of cultural activity to represent the indomitability of an essential human spirit in the face of the degradations of political conflict. Think The Kite Runner, The Bookseller of Kabul and, of course, The Cellist of Sarajevo. There’s almost a format: The [dogged defender of activity prized by liberal humanism] of [war-ravaged city]. These texts, along with a vast number like them – I live in East Dulwich, which seems to have built a whole economy on shops selling books with pastelised dust-jacket illustrations of knitting groups in Kirkuk – are well-intentioned, but their core message is that politics is a transcendental perversion of human niceness, something which is inevitably bad where cultural activity is inevitably innocent and good.

In communicating this idea, the historical specificity of all conflicts is generalised out of existence, so the Taliban are transformed from products of an absolutely unique set of economic and political contingencies into supervillains who ban kite flying and lovely books. Likewise, the Bosnian conflict becomes a story about universal badness and goodness, rather than one about the way in which Western Europe and the United States stood back, and in many cases added fuel to the fire, as aggressive nationalism filled the vacuum left by communism as the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, autonomous from Moscow under Tito and his successors, creaked and then fell apart through the 1980s. Counter to a reductive humanism, Milosevic, Radovan Karadžić and Franjo Tuđman were not out-of-control Bond villains, but the products of definable ideologies which flourished as communism floundered in Europe.

There is a danger that Bosnia-Herzegovina playing on the world stage will work in a similar way to this ahistorical logic, making the political realities of the war and its ongoing aftermath disappear – which is not the same thing as dealing with them – as football works its purifying magic. But this would be to ignore ongoing political divisions within the country’s football set-up. Although the Bosniak-Croat and Serb entities merged their federations at national level in 2002, creating a properly inclusive Premier League, the second tier is still split between B-H ‘proper’ and the Republika Srpska. The briefest glimpse at a map of the nation will show that this is not a matter of geographical convenience. That the national team mixes Serbs and Bosniaks – captain Zvjezdan Misimović is a Serb, albeit German-born, Džeko a Bosniak – is encouraging, but it continues to be dominated by the latter. Some Serbs born in what is now the RS – Borussia Dortmund’s Neven Subotić, for example – still take the opportunity to turn out for Serbia if the chance arises. What needs to be understood is that, where football can be a space for unity and reconciliation, it cannot be asked to bear the burden of the whole task of post-conflict reparation. While it’s undoubtedly a step in the right direction, Europe on the whole cannot take Bosnia-Herzegovina’s achievement in reaching Brazil as a simple feel-good story which allows us to forget about the nationalistic excess out of which the conflict developed in the first place.

* Thanks to SotB correspondent Muzz for the link to this interview.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

 

 

Preview 1 – Algeria

If you set aside all the real big hitters of global political geography, the superheated paracontinents of Russia, Canada and Australia, Algeria is one of the largest countries on the planet. Stuck between Kazakhstan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in the world rankings, it is the biggest nation in Africa: facing northward across the Mediterranean, launching ferries towards Marseille, Cagliari and Genoa, it also plunges south, charging towards the centre of its land mass. The Atlas Mountains cut the urbanised north off from the vast, thinly inhabited Saharan south, whose provinces, once combined, contain a population barely as high as that of Algiers.

For such an enormous state, Algeria seems to struggle to present an image of an intrinsic national identity. Sadly, its main connotation in modern times is the appalling internecine conflict of the 1990s, which only really caught the global imagination once its repercussions were felt in the Parisian Metro bombings and the hijacking of an Air France flight. Typically, Algeria was ignored until its nearness to Europe was made palpable. In fact, it would not be absurd to say that the world at large thinks of Algeria as not one, but two nations, the first an inscrutable, largely uninhabited North African republic characterised by governmental and religious instability, the second a deterritorialised, quasi-European entity existing sort-of amorphously within the political boundaries of France and increasingly separate from its geographical origin. When an Algerian acquaintance said to me recently that he regarded Marseille as an ‘Algerian city’, I don’t think he meant simply that Algerian people live there, but that it is the focal point around which this ‘second’ Algeria functions, a point of reference for diasporic energy like Manchester or Liverpool.

The two northwestern, ‘Irish’ English cities are worth mentioning for context as there is no clear parallel between France and Algeria’s relationship and the one between Britain and its former African and Asian colonies. The geographical proximity made the northern part of the country little more than a territorial extension of metropolitan France throughout much of the twentieth century, and the idea of independence for le plus beau fleuron brought the coloniser to the brink of a military coup in the 1950s. More, I think, than any other country – Israel, Syria, Morocco – Algeria is the ‘near abroad’ of Europe, a land which seems a concrete realisation of abstractions about slippage and liminality. Indeed, two of France’s most prominent twentieth-century thinkers of uncertainty, Albert Camus and Jacques Derrida, were technically Algerian. (So, come to think of it, was Louis Althusser, poorly referenced but not infrequently present in a conceptual sense on SotB.)

Camus’ novel The Plague, set in Oran, made the pestilential devastation of the Algerian city into a metaphor for fascism in Europe. It’s tantamount to the degree to which Algeria had been absorbed into France that the author did not appear to see the irony of staging his allegory about occupation and resistance in a city which had itself been under occupation since the middle of the nineteenth century. Reciprocally, perhaps, modern Algeria might assert a claim over the novel, taking it in turn as a symbol of its own fight to emerge not only from the experience of colonisation but from an epistemology which makes it into an annex in which Europe can stage its psychodramas, a not-quite-Europe pulsing with allegorical potential.

Algeria go to Brazil with a squad which could, in some lights, look representative of an attempt to raise a specifically Algerian consciousness. It would not be unfair to speculate that fans in Algiers and Oran might have looked on with irritation and a sense of what if as France started to capitalise on the footballing consequences of the diaspora during the 1990s. The greatest ever player for Les Bleus – sorry, but I’m not arguing this point – was born to Algerian parents in Marseille; Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema, present day players who have aux armes citoyensed at Saint Denis, also qualify for both nations. Although Nasri and Benzema were still finding their feet in the under-21s as Zidane’s career came to its filmic conclusion, there are presumably Algerian fans who have imagined all three taking to the field together for their country.

The current set-up seeks to mobilise the effects of the diaspora for its own ends. No team has gone to the World Cup with such a huge proportion on its squad born abroad as Algeria in 2010, when 17 players were French-born, and around half of the players Bosnian coach – and, perhaps tellingly, former Paris Saint-Germain star – Vahid Halilhodžić has selected in his 30-man provisional squad come from north of the Med. Indeed, several of the Algerian players have played at age group level for France, thus allowing Halilhodžić to benefit to some extent from centralised French investment in coaching and youth development.

One suspects, given the disastrous results of the European elections in France, that Algeria’s 2014 side will provoke a reaction with shades of Norman Tebbit’s infamous(ly stupid) ‘cricket test’. Perhaps it’s worth, in a World Cup where expanded eligibility and player naturalisation is a significant issue, to frame an argument as to why the Tebbit position on these things needs to be dismissed – it’s good to have a stock line for these things when the idiot in the pub starts citing them approvingly while you’re trying to concentrate on the game. First of all, why should individual players be more or less forced to represent a country from which they are simultaneously marginalised as abject and to which they are told they must demonstrate patriotic fidelity? This is nothing less than the reactionary expediency of the pseudomoral discourse of ‘integration’. Second, the notion that a member of a diaspora ‘should’ play, as opposed to ‘should be allowed to play’, for the country of their birth creates a myth about how the ‘non-indigenous’ owe the country that ‘hosted’ their parents or grandparents a favour. This needs to be challenged in all situations, not least in that lines of migration invariably open when the receiving country experiences a need for cheap labour, but particularly in those where political instability in the country being left behind is a direct outcome of colonisation.

Algeria have been handed a tough group with Belgium, South Korea and Russia. Even if the weight of expectation causes Belgium to have a World Cup pratfall on the scale of the Netherlands in 1990 or Colombia in 1994, the Koreans are formidable opponents for anyone in the group stage and Russia have both footballing and political points to prove. The only way in which Algeria could encounter France is if they make it to the quarter-finals, which would be a huge task regardless of the Greens’ swagger through the African qualifiers. If that does occur, however, we could be looking at one of the most ideologically fascinating games of the tournament.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

The Wilshere – Gove Axis

Most bank holidays don’t provide this much fuel for liberal outrage. Alongside the success of UKIP, and other far-right parties throughout the continent, in the European elections, Britain’s abysmal, wilfully and self-consciously retrogressive Secretary of State for Education Michael Gove has deemed the presence of a number of foreign texts on the GCSE English Literature syllabus undesirable. In a proposed shake-up, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, all longstanding Key Stage 4 stalwarts, have been shown towards pedagogic Siberia by Gove, who favours reestablishing the nineteenth century novel and Romantic poetry at the core of teenagers’ literary education.

For me, Gove’s decision feels oddly like a callback to Arsenal and England midfielder Jack Wilshere’s attempted militations against the naturalisation of players such as Adnan Januzaj for his country. Wilshere’s argument seemed to imply that foreign-born players, particularly those with no determinable blood connection to England, would be incapable of grasping the significance of wearing The Shirt. Beyond the Imaginary bad faith of his remarks – it seems to me that being part of the team constructs loyalty to The Shirt, rather than The Shirt possessing any intrinsic meaning – Wilshere appeared to be indulging in a bit of bloke-at-the-bar Best of British Common Sense, gesturing towards some moment in the past where the Westphalian nation state (obviously a thorny issue in non-sovereign England’s case) meant more than it did today. Latent in his comments was the sense that the national football side is an aspect of the way in which the patria expresses and sustains itself, that patriotism is a good thing which can be reproduced by the success of a football team spurred on by an organically grown pride in the homeland. Gove’s conviction is similar: that literature is a fundamental part of maintaining a coherent sense of national purpose.

In each case – albeit far less in Wilshere’s than in Gove’s – the argument or belief has a chauvinistic motor. However, both of these apparent examples of petty nationalism contain, inadvertently, important points which get overlooked in what looks like a scrabble to avoid agreeing with the Daily Mail. Let’s begin by thinking about what might actually be useful in Wilshere’s resistance to naturalisation.

‘Naturalisation’ is the process of making something seem natural. In international sport, it refers to the process by which competitive rules are stretched in order to allow a ‘natural’ place of birth to be forgotten. The collective imagination, with its curious sense of propriety,  accepts some aspects of this forgetting. We’re therefore prepared – admirably, in my book – to make allowances for an athlete who represents a country they have been forced to live in as a consequence of political expediencies. In Britain, Mo Farah is a good example of a sportsperson whose naturalisation is, unless you’re the Daily Mail, not a matter for debate. It becomes more difficult, however, when athletes come to the country solely to pursue their career and are then brought into the fold of representative sport: to many, this looks like an attempt to get around internationally-agreed rules of selection.

When we’re thinking about ideology, ‘naturalisation’ is once again associated with forgetting: the forgetting of the social, economic, political and historical underpinnings of an idea. When something is ‘naturalised’, it becomes common sense, and we forget that it was ever any different. There’s a case that, in the field of football’s politics and economy, the naturalisation of players – the hypothetical cases of Januzaj and Tottenham’s Nabil Bentaleb stand out here – also function to naturalise in the other sense. Even if you object, and I do object, to the chauvinistic concept of ‘national identity’ which may well underpin resistance to using naturalised players, Januzaj or Bentaleb coming into the England set-up would serve to obscure the rapacious strategies of footballing recruitment used by the bigger Premier League clubs.

 

The recent debate around a possible League Three has thrown the issue of player stockpiling into the spotlight, making us aware of how the biggest clubs hoover up young talent not only from geographically remote areas of Britain but from all over the globe. There is clearly something unhealthy about this: it involves processes of aggressive accumulation which are deeply damaging to football in less wealthy areas of the world, as well as to smaller British sides. Januzaj is a beautiful player in the making – he has something of Johan Cruyff about him, even – but it troubles me to think of how few Manchester United fans stop to think about why the club’s developing stars come, very frequently, from abroad. Had Januzaj decided to become English for the purposes of international football, and had the FA allowed him to, it is possible that player naturalisation would have played a role in the further obscuration of the material realities which determine footballing success. Remembering where a player comes from, on the other hand, can serve to interfere with football’s attempts to appear mystically aloof from political and economic contingencies.

 

Gove, too, might be saying something which is of value, even if that value is something he is not aware of whatsoever. For all the outcry about dropping ‘great’ texts from the curriculum, the GCSE mainstays are a matter of ongoing despair for the significant proportion of literature lecturers in HE – I can talk about this with plenty of first-hand experience – who are exhausted by the idea that To Kill a Mockingbird is a ‘brilliant book’ because ‘it has a message’. The reduction of literature to a buffet of thematic soundbites is the real ‘achievement’ of the extant GCSE syllabus, a syllabus which seems to me to teach its students that being able to say ‘racism is bad’ is to possess a detailed understanding of the whole subject. Complexity is routinely dismissed on the patronising and, I think, elitist grounds that Dickens or Wordsworth are unmanageable for modern teenagers, who are apparently only able to ‘relate’ to moral obviousness.

What has long bothered me is that the texts used to serve up this moral obviousness are, on the whole, American. The effect of this is a kind of outsourcing of ethical and political strife: the United States becomes the place where racism happens, where intellectual deviancy is punished, where poverty disempowers and disenchants. Students become adept at deploring racial injustice in the Deep South or the excesses of McCarthyism, but they are also implicitly instructed by the selection of course texts that these things are not, or are not as much of, a problem here as they are there. Inequality is ideologically configured as a problem of another time and another place: it’s the same cultural logic that’s involved in Britain’s completely unearned self-congratulation over its part in ending the slave trade (a trade on which much of the nation’s subsequent wealth was based). The well-meaning, yet somewhat facile, humanism which rails at Gove for ridding the syllabus of ‘tolerance’ might, in fact, be overlooking the maintenance of structural inequality achieved by the presence of the texts in question. As with Wilshere, Gove’s patriotic bêtise might be unpicked to discover an unconscious specification of ideology’s workings.

Posted by Joe Kennedy

You can follow Straight off the Beach on Twitter @S_ot_B and on Facebook.

 

The Diligent Loitering of Alan Shearer

Pitch side in Warsaw, and a middle-aged man fixes the camera with gimlet-thin eyes and an air of truculent self-assuredness, heavy perspiration bringing a gleam to his newly shorn bonce under the stadium lights as he pours forth his wisdom. “Those guys will be in the dressing room right now” begins the BBC’s roving pundit for Euro 2012, Alan Shearer, having conspicuously failed to notice that the “guys” in question had been warming up behind him for a good five minutes. With this, it was clear that the tournament was upon us – the first piece of memorably idiotic punditry being the traditional curtain raiser for such affairs. Not on a par with Paul Gascoigne welcoming viewers to Japan/Korea 2002 with the bon mot “I’ve never even heard of Sennyagal”, perhaps, it nevertheless heralded the start of three weeks of bluster, hyperbole and one-eyed jingoism that constitutes the black cloud of punditry which lingers over international tournaments.

Shearer sweating in the pitchside fug is, it seems, a sight we shall grow accustomed to in the coming weeks, with he and the embryonic Jake Humphrey scuttling between patches of turf to loiter diligently as the Beeb’s token men on the ground. It’s a curious double act, Shearer reciting the names of unfamiliar players with the glee of a toddler learning a new word whilst Humphrey gazes deferentially as if in the presence of a balding deity. Never the most charismatic screen presence, poor Al looks even less comfortable here – staring anxiously into the screen like a man who’s spotted a ghost hovering above the camera as Humphrey gasbags to his right.

That the presence of Shearer and Humphrey pitchside has been the Corporation’s sole on-screen presence at the tournament thus far makes the selection of the pair even less explicable. Perhaps they were the only two willing to fly economy, given the collective forelock-tugging towards the in-no-way-compromised Coalition’s complaints about cost effectiveness at the Beeb. Indeed, so showily understated has the coverage been that is has become ostentatious in its own right. The straight-off-the-shelf CGI opening credits, the truncated timeslot, the twinge of bitterness in Lineker’s voice as he acknowledges the BBC punditry team has been anchored in Salford Quays; even disregarding the mirroring of England’s downgrading expectations it’s hard not to feel that there’s an element of political point-making going on here. These are the BBC’s very own Austerity Games, and they’re keen to let it be known. If things don’t improve, they’ll be running a telethon alongside the coverage by the quarter-finals. “Alan, Clarence and Lee haven’t eaten for three days. Stranded in Salford, they’re three miles from the nearest supply of clean water. Please do give generously.”

It’s not just in relation to the studio location that These Straightened Times have dominated the mood of the BBC’s early coverage. Abetted somewhat by the fact that the opening fixture involved Greece, the tone was set from the off as the pundits ramped up the narrative agenda. “It’d be great if the Greeks could do well, because they’re a nation on their knees”, Hansen droned – rubbing salt in the wounds of a nation so down at heel even a Scotsman can patronise them about football.  The charitable concern continued, “They haven’t had much to shout about with all the economic problems engulfing their country” – the inference presumably being that everything here is tickety-boo. At least from a Greek point of view the cultural touch-point of fiscal collapse is a step up from “they invented gayness”, so baby steps.

Alongside financial doom-mongering, the other narrative strand likely to define the tournament is that of race. Hansen’s oblique reference to “a lot of controversy” introduced the issue within a minute of the Beeb’s coverage commencing, prompting the assembled throng to furiously fudge their way around the matter like resignedly bemused elderly relatives tutting about “That Racism” that the young folk are getting worked up about. Jonathan Pearce was quick to take up the baton on day two, helpfully informing viewers that “I’ve heard no racism yet” in a tone that immediately reinforced the perception that racism was exactly what we should expect from these dastardly Eastern Europeans. This is meat and drink to the likes of Pearce, a man whose view of football seems entirely defined by the peripheral narratives that swirl round the game and who, frankly, gives the distinct impression that he’d much rather be back providing an idiotic backing screech to a death match between Sir Kill-o-Tron and Count Crush-Bot on Robot Wars. Despite this, and for all the post-Panorama angst, the only piece of racism caught on camera has – rather unfortunately for the BBC – been Mark Lawrenson breaking off from his sheet of pre-scripted ad-libs to revel in his own Big Ron moment:

Most egregious of all, however, has been the BBC team chortling knowingly about the idiocy of English optimism in bygone tournaments, as if such overblown expectations of the cult of “Stevie G”, “Lamps”, “JT” and the rest of that depressing cavalcade of self-regarding underachievers had absolutely nothing to do with them. At least normal service now seems to have been resumed, with Harry Redknapp’s jingoistic fervour and teeth-grinding bonhomie – even Lineker tartly quizzing Redknapp if he was “surprised” owl-featured fraud Roy Hodgson was given the England job ahead of him was met with a fixed grin and a blanket of vague platitude – acting as a catalyst for an upswing that will doubtless grow to a crescendo should England nick anything against France. By the 47th reference to “good lads”, even mild-mannered viewers were left praying there was something to those Mayan prophecies after all. Come raining meteors and fall on Salford.

And yet, for all the manifest flaws, the BBC’s coverage has been like watching Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation in comparison to ITV’s shambolic effort. First, the inexplicable opening credits; a sequence in which what one assumes are wooden puppets – but which more closely resemble crude effigies carved from doner meat by an obsessive – of the giants of the European game jig about a fairytale landscape for no discernable reason. Gullit, Platini and Beckenbauer are all there, along with, erm, Roy Hodgson. It’s enough to fill you with patriotic fervour, as well as making you feel peckish.

Then there’s the studio – a mid-market provincial café, in which the gathered luminaries perch uncomfortably atop oversized Mecanno chairs. Of these, Roy Keane’s descent into furious self-parody continues apace, whilst Jamie Carragher ploughs ahead with his metamorphosis into a permanently on-call controversialist. A kind of footballing Jeremy Clarkson. The set-up seems fuelled by the hope of laboured controversy, with Patrick Vieira added to the roster in the hope that he and Keane quickly descend into finger-stabbing, “see-you-fuckin’-out-there”ing, doubtless stirred up by macrocaphalic windbag and disingenuous professional everyman Adrian Chiles under the guise of the ubiquitous, wait for it, “banter”. Given that each talking head has around fourteen seconds of airtime between the need for such hyperreality is just about understandable, but no less palatable. Brief respite is at least provided by the eminently sensible Roberto Martinez and Gareth Southgate, especially with the latter’s trend-bucking knack for verbose non-specificity and uncanny resemblance to a partially deflated balloon, but by and large it’s been turgid stuff.

ITV’s in-game coverage has been no less execrable, with Peter Drury spending most of last night’s game patronising Irish fans to within an inch of their lives. Drury is ITV’s Pearce, with his relentless clinging to every twinge of controversy and infuriating habit of applying stress at arbitrary points in player names – “PAV-lee-a-CHENK-o” – in an effort at appropriated gravitas.  At least he’s yet to come up with anything as nauseatingly self congratulatory as his yelp of “sing sing Africa” that greeted the opening goal of the 2010 World Cup, so small mercies and all that.

It’s only been three days, but already I feel beaten down. There’s little doubt that the standard of coverage continues to deteriorate, just as the amount of time, technical sophistication and effort invested continues to rise. Herein lies the central problem; that in the era of liveblogging, twitter and timeshift viewing the peripheral elements of TV coverage – punditry chief amongst them – are increasingly redundant. With corners of the Internet colonised by Wilson-inspired tactical savants, analysis that comprises of Lee Dixon superimposing a luridly coloured digital arrow over a full-back before embarking on a tangential yarn about David Seaman’s love of fishing quickly loses its lustre. Likewise, it’s not just the adverts that increasing numbers are skipping past on PVRs – the half-time kettle surge of years gone  now replaced  with a collective strain on the nation’s fast-forward buttons. In response, the TV companies are attempting a fightback, but in the process reducing everything to colours and noise, the superimposition of an external, one-dimensional narrative on a game that stubbornly refuses to yield to such a restriction.

Where the cycle stops is anyone’s guess. It’s a safe bet it won’t be tonight, when Clive Tyldesley will be covering England for ITV. Things are going to get a whole lot worse before they get better.

Posted by Ron Hamilton

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The Psychodrama of England’s Ukraine Panic

It’s not unheard of for England fans and the English media to lose the run of themselves in the run-up to a major tournament — it usually manifests itself in a belief that this is going to be their year. The build-up to Euro 2012 has, of course, been unusual in that respect with the FA’s and the team’s preparation so shambolic that there are few talking up their chances of lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy in Kiev on July 1st. Instead, media and fans are losing the run of themselves on the supposed threat of violence and racial attacks.

 Joe has already written thoroughly about the Panorama ‘Stadiums of Hate’ report, which was sensationalist and most likely overstated the scale and extent of an albeit very real problem of hooliganism and racism in both the host nations. Certainly, some of the images broadcast were horrific and darker-skinned fans might well be forgiven for being nervous about travelling to Ukraine having seen them. But it is also unlikely that people will be coming home ‘in coffins’, as Sol Campbell said, when he was shown the pictures of Asian students being attacked. You can’t blame Sol for his reaction but why did Panorama canvas him as a talking head on the matter when you imagine his familiarity with Ukraine would be sketchy at best? Why not people — particularly non-white people — with first hand experience of the country? The anxiety — which, among the seven visiting nations to be hosted by Ukraine, appears to be confined to England — has now reached almost hysterical levels with plans for England supporters to be protected in a gated community, to which nobody without an England supporters’ club card will be admitted. If implementing segregation is seen as the way to combat racial antagonism, we might say that the gentrification process of English football has well and truly reached its final point.

Of course, the irony is lost on few people of England fans being apprehensive about violence abroad, not least on the Irish, who saw far-right England ‘supporters’ go on the rampage at Lansdowne Road in February 1995. Nobody in Ireland, as far as I can recall, worried that the European Championships that England would host sixteen months later would be marred by violence. This despite the fact that violence at an international football match might be a better indicator of a potential reoccurrence at a tournament than violence in the closed circuit of domestic football. The people behind these segregated fan zones seem to also be unaware  of how gravely offensive it might be to the hosts. And I am thinking here of the majority of Ukrainian people, who, I am guessing, are not aiming to use this opportunity in the world spotlight to show how much they hate foreigners, which, of course, they probably don’t. Think about it: you travel to a foreign country for a tournament and before the locals even get to say hello to you and give you a welcome and express curiosity about what western Europeans might think about their country, you retreat off into a sanitary cordon, rebuffing any contact with them. Would that have gone down well in England during Euro 96 if the French, the Czechs or the Croatians decided to do it?

Once again, I am not denying the existence of racism or hooliganism in Ukraine. People who know the country better than I do, however, have expressed a more nuanced view than Panorama’s. Black players for English clubs have experienced some terrible racial abuse in Eastern Europe in recent years, but all the major Ukrainian clubs field at least a few black players, and, according to some accounts, the racial abuse is not as ubiquitous as Panorama suggested. My own team, Sligo Rovers, played in Ukraine last year in the Europa League against Vorskla Poltava, and our star player, the former Cameroon international Joseph Ndo, experienced no racial abuse whatsoever. If anything, the welcome afforded Sligo by the locals was warm, respectful and curious. I’m sure there are people that have not had such a pleasant experience on their visit but it’s worth bearing in mind that not everyone on the terraces will be the thugs featured in ‘Stadiums of Hate.’

English football is to be applauded for the way it has largely dealt with the scourge of racism and hooliganism that once blighted the game so. Of course there are still outbreaks of each but the English game has made much progress. This latest psychodrama though is a hysterical flip-side of that earlier culture of confrontation; where once England fans (or at least a regrettably sizeable minority of them) used to see the public squares of foreign towns and cities as a battleground to be conquered, now they seek out spaces within them to privatise out of the reach of the people hosting them. The English media has sounded the ‘here be monsters’ alarm on a number of occasions in recent years, most notably about the likelihood of racial attacks in Eastern Germany during World Cup 2006 and the crime panic that preceded South Africa’s tournament two years ago. Both times the fears proved to be completely ungrounded and England fans that did travel said that they never felt anything but safe all the time they were there. That is not to diminish the clear reality of South Africa’s violent crime problem but the likelihood of it spilling over onto the World Cup was always going to be slim.

As I said before, the other six nations that will be playing in Ukraine do not seem to be reacting in this way. I have been following the Portuguese and the French press closely and, while they have alluded to the existing problems, they are not whipping fans into a frenzy of fear and panic. These are two countries with a significant number of black players in their squads and both take the problem of racism in football very seriously (a way in which the English often imagine themselves to be unique). There is an argument to be made that Ukraine should not have been awarded the tournament — the transport and accommodation situations are clearly inadequate for a championship in such a vast country — but its own problems of domestic hooliganism do not represent a very strong argument. The Ukrainian authorities reaction to the Panorama programme could have been far better but neither is it in their interests to allow foreign fans to be indiscriminately attacked while the world watches and I very much doubt it will happen. Remember how England fretted about its knife-crime problem hampering its bid for World Cup 2018? It didn’t have much of a bearing on England’s bid failing but few football fans would have allowed such a real problem to keep them away from a World Cup in England. The difficulties of travel have thinned the English numbers this year but I still imagine there will be plenty of English fans intrepid enough to wander out of the segregated fan zones, meet the locals and will probably have a pleasant experience to tell the folks back home.

Posted by Oliver Farry

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Myopanorama

I had meant for my first post to deal with the BBC’s Panorama investigation – if a month-long research trip which draws no conclusions other than ‘Polish and Ukrainian football both have problems with racism’ merits that title – but felt compelled to turn it over for a little longer lest I came across as contrarian. With the benefit of an extra day’s consideration, I still feel that the programme was flawed on almost every level, and conveyed far more about the shortcomings of the contemporary TV documentary than about the issue it purported to address. Moreover, it emblematised lazy thinking about Central and Eastern Europe: dogged by its unwillingness to supply a political or historical context for the behaviour it (rightly) condemned, it managed to ignore the fact that the racist and anti-semitic convulsions it represented are the perverse outcomes of the factors that mean the Euros are being held in Poland and Ukraine in the first place.

First of all, though, something has to be said about the style of the documentary. In a lineage of televisual treatments of football disorder which goes back at least to Donal MacIntyre’s strangely priapic infiltration of the Chelsea Headhunters, Chris Rogers’ film was edited and soundtracked in a manner which virtually demanded vicarious participation in the adrenalised spectacle of hooliganism. Long panning shots of choreographed Nazi saluting and jump cuts between various clips of drunken paggering were interspersed with ‘brave’ interviews with self-confessed race warriors: make no mistake, the audience were told, we got right in the thick of it. Oddly, this documentary vocabulary is almost identical to the one employed in the much-maligned Danny Dyer’s The Real Football Factories. The difference, I think, is that Dyer – a long-time straw man for advocates of ‘intelligent’ media in Britain – almost always attempts to provide some form of social or historical rationale for violence, something Rogers didn’t find time to fit into his schedule of going to football matches and looking shocked.

A second criticism, which moves firmly in the direction of my real gripe with the programme, centres on the its lumping together of Poland and Ukraine into a homogeneous Ryanair Ruritania. Hey, there’s a tram! There’s some decaying brutalist architecture! The policemen wear funny hats! Although a certain ideational blurring of national characteristics is inevitable when countries co-host tournaments (Switzerland and Austria were transformed into a United States of Heidi in 2008; 2000’s general iconography was of beer, chips and featureless landscape) the differences are, in this case, hugely important. Poland is a Central European country in which the Catholic Church continues to play a fundamental ideological role: geopolitically, it tends to lean westwards or towards nations with a comparable economic and historical profile such as Hungary. Ukraine is Orthodox, much poorer than Poland, and far more ethnically heterogenous, with a significant Russian population  hinting at its long history of governance by its eastern neighbour. At this point, one might wish to point out the to makers of the documentary that the temperature and character of nationalism varies according to particular cultural determinants.

However, one of the primary determinants in both countries, and in fact in nearly all of the nations which once constituted the Warsaw Pact, is the legacy of an antagonism between state-endorsed communism and the (western-sponsored) drive for the recognition of national singularities. The pro-democracy movements of the 1970s and 1980s were often propelled by ideological liberals, some of whom fitted the western media’s agenda of generic humanism (many, of course, had to conceal socialistic leanings in order to appeal). However, popular support was often generated through the stirring up of chauvinistic resentment: communism became linked in a schematic sense to Russia, and Russians were cast as the inevitable enemies of the patria. The Party and its functionaries became simplified as nationalists were encouraged to think of themselves as constituting a noble opposition.

The end of communist rule throughout Eastern and Central Europe left reservoirs of nationalistic feeling with nowhere in particular to go. ‘Independence from Moscow’ had largely been achieved, yet the rush of rebellion proved addictive. Having been legitimised as romantic outlaws by the democrats who were taking governmental positions in the wake of elections, nationalists began to locate new arenas in which to express what, ultimately, was a combination of unadulterated anti-authoritarianism and narcissism. Football was an obvious sponge for this machismo, and the new governments – many of whom found it expedient to play down their links to the political right – were ideal in a nationalist imagination seeking new agencies to disobey.

Racism is driven by a very peculiar motor in the countries discussed by Panorama. While the groups which espouse it undoubtedly pick up members by providing extremist ‘solutions’ to socio-economic problems, it doesn’t react as – say – the BNP or the Front National do to the perceived threat of large-scale immigration. There isn’t any large-scale immigration, in fact. What Rogers unanalytically portrayed was a more general hostility to government which turns (often with horrific results) on minorities because liberal politics are seen, surreally, as the new heels which grind down ‘real Poles’ or ‘real Ukrainians’. In many respects, the nationalist groups are the monsters of pro-democracy Frankensteins.

The hype around the Polish-Ukrainian tournament has tended to disregard this. Euro 2012 is, in a manner which is admittedly rather subtle, being painted as a triumph of westernisation. The stadiums in Poland and Ukraine are no longer the imposing constructivist edifices, all angular concrete and blazing floodlights, in which ‘crack Eastern European outfits’ used to outwit Melchester Rovers on their European Cup awaydays. Instead, they’ve largely been built or remodelled to match the expectations one has of a modern British or French stadium, namely bright colour – the chromography of choice and diversity – and gentle curves embodying late capitalist flexibility and openness. On the whole, the tournament is a slightly belated welcoming of Eastern and Central Europe into the fold of core EU values. It’s unacknowledged that the flip side of the establishment of those values is the racism and xenophobic violence Panorama picked up on last week.

Posted by Joe Kennedy