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Over the last four weeks, as the England football team made their unlikely journey to the World Cup semi-finals, commentators of both left and right have asked: Are these the seeds of a new English identity? Could Gareth Southgate’s twenty-three men, having won the hearts of the nation, show a divided country how to unite? The answer, of course, is no. But the England squad can claim a more modest achievement: to have shown that football doesn’t have to be as crass, superficial, and exploitative as it sometimes appears.

The sport has always been marred by cheating, lying, cynicism, and greed. But the inundation of TV and sponsorship cash made it worse: Footballers looked like an ultra-wealthy class playing by their own rules, several glass floors above the fans’ heads.

So it was refreshing that this year’s England team looked nothing like superstars. They were “un-flash, anti-flash,” as one journalist put it. Even the ones with menswear advertising deals looked sheepish as they tried to gaze moodily out of billboards.

The “golden generation” of England footballers, which ended with a whimper in 2010, were ruthless professionals and world-famous celebrities; but they were incapable of playing with each other, or of particularly enjoying each other’s company. The 2018 squad, by contrast, came across as modest and self-effacing, and seemed to have built a genuine community. They had a pact, for instance, not to look at their phones during mealtimes. When Jordan Henderson said he was “proud of all the lads for how hard we’ve worked as a team. … You have to dig in for each other in tournament football,” it was more than a cliché.

Southgate embodied much of this. The manager’s generosity, candor, and intelligence were obvious. But there was something else which earned the country’s respect. Southgate is a man who carries weakness and failure around with him, simply by virtue of his past. It is twenty-two years since he missed a famous penalty at Euro 96, becoming a figure of national contempt, but he admits to being still haunted by that moment. After England beat Colombia on penalties, an interviewer suggested that his “22 years of hurt” had now vanished. The manager gave a wry smile: “Nearly.”

Southgate embodied a gentle realism, telling England’s players and fans to be neither deluded by their hopes, nor trapped by the national team’s history of disappointment. In his previous job as England’s under-21 coach, Southgate saw young men coming through a harshly competitive club system which promises them fame and glory, but can break their dreams in an instant. (Some parents of former youth footballers give up watching professional football, having seen what the system does to junior players.) Even for the tiny proportion who make it, Southgate once remarked, football can be “a horrible game.” He would show the under-21s a presentation including two slides. On the first were his achievements: more than 500 games at senior level, 57 of them for England. The second slide listed the lows: that penalty miss, the subsequent death threats, and his abrupt sacking as Middlesbrough manager. Triumph and disaster, he implied, were both part of life, and perhaps not in the proportions you expect.

Such honesty, which has become Southgate’s trademark, goes against the grain. Football is a game of fantasies. At its worst, it resembles the Land of Toys in Pinocchio, a region of boundless pleasure and excitement which draws the unwary into slavery. Literally so for the thousands of young men, largely African, who are lured by human traffickers on the promise of a club contract in Europe. But even apart from these horrors, the modern game creates a glittering façade of skill and glamour, behind which there is a sordid reality of extreme wealth and every kind of corruption.

If the media do their job, the next four years will be full of investigation of Qatar’s 2022 World Cup preparations. A series of reports, including one from Amnesty, has  revealed what has been going on at some construction sites. Many migrant workers are hired on the promise of good wages, and asked to pay a hefty “recruitment fee” to go to Qatar. When they arrive, they find that the pay is far lower, the conditions are squalid and dangerous, and their passports are often confiscated on arrival. “In extreme, but not exceptional, cases,” Amnesty reported, “migrants are subjected to forced labour.” One worker, Ram Kumar Mahara, told the Guardian: “We were working on an empty stomach for 24 hours; 12 hours’ work and then no food all night. … When I complained, my manager assaulted me, kicked me out of the labour camp I lived in and refused to pay me anything. I had to beg for food from other workers.” During the summer of 2014 there was one death per day among Nepalese workers. The Nepalese ambassador was sacked the previous year after calling Qatar “an open jail.” (The government has since introduced reforms, whose impact is not yet clear.) The country is, it’s worth remembering, the wealthiest on the planet.

Meanwhile, Qatar faces accusations—which it denies—of bribing its way to the World Cup award. Readers of Jonathan Calvert and Heidi Blake’s The Ugly Game: The Qatari Plot To Buy The World Cup will draw their own conclusions. They will certainly discover that global football is dominated by a small group of men who live in an unreachable world of luxury—men such as Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, the former chiefs of world and European football respectively, now banned on corruption charges.

One of the most satisfying aspects of Calvert and Blake’s book, for any English patriot, is to see the England bid team completely at sea in this world, assuming that it would be enough to have excellent infrastructure, first-rate stadiums, and a football-loving culture. “England have got every reason why they should host the World Cup,” a former member of FIFA’s executive committee is covertly recorded as saying. “But they don’t strike the deals.”

England’s role in international affairs has not always been very creditable. But on and off the pitch, they have given football fans a little more reason not to switch off the greatest show on earth.

Dan Hitchens is deputy editor at The Catholic Herald.

Photo by CGP Grey and licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped from original.

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