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Men's Football Thirty-two nations under a groove

Will the World Cup be an orgy of petty-minded nationalism? Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman doesn’t seem to think so

IN BETWEEN the matches from Russia over the next few weeks here’s a trivial pursuit question to test mates’ footballing knowledge.

Which is the only World Cup squad with the entire list of players playing in their own country’s domestic league?

Easy! Easy! England, of course. 

Except it’s not just a knowledge of football that provides the answer but politics, history and culture too. 

First, the domesticity of our players betrays a certain very English parochialism. More comfortable at home than abroad, Europe, after all, is a foreign country. 

Secondly, the political economy of the game, aka English clubs pay heaps more dosh than most overseas outfits.

Thirdly, Anglo-superiority complex. Who in England’s 2018 squad would make it as a certain first-team starter at a top German, Italian or Spanish club? Precious few. There’s a number who aren’t even regular starters at their own clubs, edged out by Johnny Foreigner’s talent. 

More than anything else it is political economy which helps explain this.

England’s second most successful World Cup campaign remains Italia ’90. Of England’s starting line-up Gary Lineker had played in Spain for Barcelona, Chris Waddle was then playing for Marseille in France. Paul Gasgoine, Des Walker and David Platt all went on to play for Italian clubs.

And this was by no means unusual.

And as for the victorious West Germany side who went on to win the trophy none of them played in England, though Jurgen Klinsmann would end up being snapped up by an English side but that was four years hence in ‘94.

The lesson that was drawn from Italia ’90 was that English football had the potential to recover its reputation and popularity post the banning of our club sides from European competition post-Heysel and the human tragedy of Hillsborough. 

How? This, like so much else after Thatcher’s election in ’79 until Jeremy Corbyn came along to break the spell of its appeal, was down to neoliberal deregulation. 

The Football Association effectively gave up its right to govern the elite level of the game by floating off the top division, formerly the First Division and now the Premier League, to be run by the clubs themselves. 

With Rupert Murdoch in hot pursuit following the dawning realisation that broadcasting live football was the only way to save his fledgling satellite TV company Sky, the deregulation accelerated via the vast wealth TV contracts were to provide.

Neoliberalism isn’t the same as globalisation but they are intimately connected. The latter always producing a counter-reaction. 

In Donald Trump’s case this is his populist America First nationalism. Across Europe movements for independence, from Catalonia to Scotland. And throughout the same continent anti-migrant movements too. 

In football’s case it is the persistent influence of racism and worse among certain fan subcultures coexisting with the huge influx of foreign players.

Again, the World Cup illustrates this. Consulting once more my handy pocket-sized World Cup squads guide for reference, a tasty looking English Premier League 11 out in Russia would line up like this: De Gea in goal, Benard Mendy, Nacho Monreal and Andreas Christensen providing three at the back, Paul Pogba, Christian Eriksen, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne packing the midfield, up front Roberto Firmino, Sergio Aguero and Mohamed Salah. 

And there’s plenty more where that lot came from too. Yet precious few fans in their right mind are going to complain about these particular migrant workers, over here, nicking our players’ jobs, with their foreign ways and the like. Racist attitudes to that extent are marginalised.

A football club, up and down the divisions, stretching down into non-league even, is easily the most globalised public institution in English society we can think of.

The owners, the management and coaching staff, the aforementioned players, the fan base, the sponsors and advertisers, the TV viewing public, all are globalised and, apart from the most embittered, few would object to that. 

This doesn’t mean the process is entirely unproblematic. Football mythologises itself as the people’s game, it has never been thus. 

Clubs were owned by the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker, in Manchester United’s case, quite literally. The Edwards family were butchers who sold the club they owned off to the Glazers, US sports moguls. 

A local business elite owned the game in their own local interest, the only difference now is that it’s a global business elite running it in their own transnational interest. 

Resistance to absent owners erupts from time to time, though homegrown owners are often not much better, just look at West Ham. 

But what frames modern fan culture most of all is a popular cosmopolitanism. While England agonises over how and when it will exit Europe, every football club’s ambition is to get into Europe.

This is our cultural barricade against the hateful rise of the Football Lads Alliance. Their values, founded on division, are the complete opposite to the way the modern game is consumed and supported.

For every fan cheering on England over the next few weeks there will be others keeping an interested and supportive eye on how their club’s foreign players are doing and, most importantly, many are fully capable of doing both.

One nation, 32 nations, for the next three and a half weeks under the same groove. For this precious moment nothing could be more powerful as a resistance to racism and division than that.

And you know what, despite Fifa’s worst efforts, it’s broadly equitable too. What have the superpowers of the United States, Russia and China got in common? 

They’ve not got one World Cup between them. And that’s because international football is regulated, no country on Earth, however rich, is ever going to persuade Lionel Messi, Neymar or Cristiano Ronaldo to sign for them.

If that’s not neoliberal globalisation turned on its economic head into something a tad better I don’t know what is. 

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