This article originally appeared in Issue 4 of The Football Pink magazine. Available HERE
GREG THEOHARIS contemplates the effects a UKIP-inspired EU withdrawal would have on the England national team and its future World Cup chances.
In the bizarre world of Nigel Farage kitted out as Britannia, he’s barricaded the UK from the hordes of immigrants who want to come over here, take our jobs, steal our women and zzzzz…
Everywhere you look, electrified fences zing their way across this green and pleasant land, from Dover to Penzance, and should anyone have the temerity to turn up here and show us how to build a wall more efficiently or open up an ethnically diverse delicatessen with peculiarly shaped sausages hanging from the walls, then we’ll revoke their visas and send them back to the medieval fiefdoms from whence they came. Via the Eurostar. That’s Eurosceptics for you.
Farage probably hates the Premier League too because it’s bursting at the seams with those bloody foreigners. He’s a man stage-managed to like a drink and a smoke. It’s what all decent, normal folk like our Nigel do after all. British folk. He’s got the common touch, so they say. Footballers used to be just like him before those snooty garlic-munching professors came over here with their dietary habits and fitness regimes and took all the fun and violence out of the game. And don’t get him started on the Champions League, whatever you do. Just another cabal, run by a centralised elite that grows ever hungrier on a sponsor-driven gravy train. Isn’t it just like the EU? With its theme tune and its hollow proclamations of pan-European unity? Never mind the quality of football, it’s the messages it sends out. Will nobody think of the children? Our way of life? Bobby Moore?
Nigel Farage probably loves World Cups though because World Cups are basically extensions of the nation state. Squads are comprised of players from across the length and breadth of the country and managers are required to make the best of the natural resources available to them. If the best you can muster is a toothless goatherd from the mountains of San Marino, (yes, lazy stereotyping is a prerequisite of this piece) then tough. You make do with what the accidental temporariness of geography deals you whilst using the opportunity that a bi-annual international tournament gives you, to stick a cheap, plastic flag (made in China) on your belching little motor (made in France) and belt out all the old patriotic standards (made in England). Plus, a World Cup guarantees Farage and all those inclined towards his particular brand of jingoism another opportunity to dredge up a War (Second, Falklands, Crimean, a crusade or two) whenever Our Boys come up against one of those old foes and are usually dealt a footballing lesson of the most chastening order. Back home they’ll come, scapegoats will be scaped and Farage will look as confounded as a haddock gasping for breath on land when he is forced to confront in his sleepless hours that the world beyond these shores gets on just as well without us, thank you very much. So close those borders, he will. He must.
Three paragraphs there for you of bluster and rhetoric. Much like a UKIP party political broadcast. For that, I offer you my apologies. Shall we start again? How about with some rational discourse about whether or not a UK voluntarily taking up an isolationist stance might in fact have a knock-on effect on football in this country?
The benefits of migration across the continent are without question one of the successes of the whole European project. European citizens can freely come and go between member states and this naturally brings an assortment of different skill sets and perspectives to the workplace. This arrangement has consequently enriched football over the years, as it has not only seen us benefit from having players of the calibre of Thierry Henry, Gianfranco Zola and Eric Cantona play in our leagues but it has also broadened our horizons and appetites as fans of the game. With the accessibility of cheap flights and satellite television connections along with our increasing dependence on social media, it has contributed, in many respects, to a far more knowledgeable appreciation of the game; one that did not exist even a decade ago. It might be easy to turn your nose up at all this and dismiss it as ‘football hipsterism’ but the freedoms the EU affords us are unquestionably contributing factors for finding those commonalities that exist between nations within the sphere of football.
This slightly idealistic point of view might go on to suggest that that is exactly what the EU was designed to do after the horrors of the Second World War. Therefore, the Champions League could easily be viewed as an extension of that ideal, perhaps more so, seeing as it is inclusive of all European nations rather than exclusive to a few member states. It offers the most technical and sophisticated football on the planet and is played by its greatest exponents. Of course, the financial rewards for a club being involved in the competition naturally appeal to those holding the purse strings, but it is the anticipation of witnessing matches between the continent’s most glamourous clubs that continues to have many of us in thrall to it, whether that was before or after its re-branding in 1993.
It can’t be denied however, that for all its glittering sheen, the competition naturally attracts the commercial vested interests that stymie the less celebrated clubs from gaining a regular place in European football’s upper echelons. Sponsorship deals, some of which might be seen as representing a conflict of interests for some owners of Russian descent, coupled with UEFA’s propensity for bureaucratic doublethink and management speak are exactly the things that UKIP and its supporters use as tools of panic to gain votes on their anti-European platform. If the recent economic travails of nations such as Greece, Portugal, Ireland and Cyprus are anything to go by, it would appear that Europe is run to serve the interests of rich(er) clique of nations determined to keep poorer nations under their yoke. Replace the average Greek’s opinion of Germany with how the Champions League naturally produces winners from wealthier footballing nations and it’s hard not to see that maybe Farage isn’t quite the raving zealot the media, including myself it would seem, are happy to paint him as.
The problem with Farage and all Little Englanders for that matter lies within their perception of what actually constitutes a nation state in the twenty-first century. As a continent, Europe has continually undergone periods of mass immigration. The reasons for this are varied, ranging from fleeing oppression and conflict to the natural consequences of empire all the way through to taking advantage of better job prospects in a far more affluent country which is exactly what my grandparents did in the early fifties when they left the warmth of Cyprus to brave the smog and drizzle of London. As a consequence of this fluidity of movement, generations have been born in countries across Europe whose roots lie elsewhere but nevertheless are intrinsically part of the cultural landscape of their adopted nation.
I am one of those products. I am simultaneously British and Greek and with that interweaving of cultures I am able to assimilate two languages and mentalities and can move easily from one to the other but paradoxically also feel that I don’t quite belong in either. Despite this continual sense of dislocation, I happily found myself reveling in Greece’s triumphant tour of Portugal during Euro 2004 without any hint of self-consciousness. On the night Greece defeated the hosts in the final and after Ronaldo had shed his tears for the cameras, I danced into the early hours to the strains of Zorba The Greek with hundreds of Greeks who, like me, had never lived in their country of origin. We did this on the streets of North London. Those same streets, populated by the same people will be filled with England shirts during this summer’s World Cup because that’s what inevitably happens when cultures mix. It becomes a hodgepodge of various languages and styles and because of it, it becomes harder to determine what exactly makes that thing we call ‘nation’. Is that such a bad thing?
Were the French World Cup Winners of 1998 any less French because the squad was comprised of a mixture of races? Absolutely not. However much the venal Jean-Marie Le Pen sought to denigrate Zidane and company’s greatest victory, it didn’t stop thousands flocking to the Champs Elysees to celebrate and for a fleeting moment it felt that France’s traditionally fractured society was showing us all a sense of what nationhood could potentially mean as a new century dawned.
European World Cup squads are becoming ever more representative of how our societies are changing through immigration. A glance at Germany’s shows how well the sons of immigrants have been integrated. The Spanish, after years of regional hostilities, have managed to turn their disparate identities into a cohesive unit that has dominated football for the best part of six years. Hell, even Italy, long the preserve of swarthy, olive-skinned Adonises (is that lazy stereotyping?) now boast a player of African origin in Mario Balotelli.
To that end and however much I adore it, it’s becoming harder to view the notion of a World Cup as anything other than an anachronism. Nationality is an orthodox concept, uniform in structure. Ethnicity is much harder to define and when that’s becoming progressively more complex as people do what comes naturally and reproduce, then it’s difficult to say who can and cannot qualify to play for a particular country.
The furore caused by the hypothetical naturalisation of Adnan Januzaj earlier in the season nevertheless revealed an undercurrent of antipathy (in the traditional football media at least) towards accepting players into the England fold who do not have that unquantifiable ‘Englishness’ running through their veins. Jack Wilshere’s ill-conceived remarks that suggested “the only people who should play for England are English people” provoked a week of national navel-gazing as we all debated what being ‘English’ actually means. Wilshere’s comments prompted a furious admonishment from Kevin Pietersen who made it clear that such a definition is something that is not necessarily easy to define in a country that has happily assimilated the sporting services of others from elsewhere in years gone by. Is John Terry more English than Mo Farah, for instance? Does the idea of national identity boil down to commonly held stereotypes and if that is the case, are we happy to foster such outmoded and backward views? Bowler hats and Yorkshire tea and all that.
Admittedly, the England football team still needs to go a long way if it wants to be truly representative of the ethnic diversity present within this country. Players originating from Afro-Caribbean families have become a mainstay of the national side for a generation now but there is still an absence of other immigrant offspring. The virtual absence of Asian players in the English game for example, is something that needs to be addressed but conversely nobody should be granted a place in the squad for any other reason other than merit and talent.
Merit and talent. If you’re good enough, you can do the job. You should do the job. Regardless of where you’re originally from. That’s really all it should come down to in the end because all this talk of Europe and borders is essentially abstract. They were created by hungry little despots eager for power thousands of years ago in order to make sense of the world in which they lived. All this too before the advent of the internet and social media began to erode the boundaries that separate us all from one another.
Mr. Farage wants us sitting in our sheds, building train sets, listening to The Archers as we nod our heads in agreement with the latest fear-mongering claptrap concocted by this country’s right-wing press. He essentially wants a country that only existed in frothy little Pathé newsreels. He wants to see that Geoff Hurst hat-trick played over and over and over again. In proper pubs. Where you can smoke fags. Whilst singing Jerusalem. If that’s what he wants, then fine I say. My only stipulation? Speed it up and overlay it with the theme tune from The Benny Hill Show. That’s about the right decade for him.
In the meantime, I’ll be dreaming of the day I see my six-month old son (a composite of six nationalities) scoring the winning goal in a World Cup, if such a competition in fact exists by 2034. Deciding who that’ll be for will be half the fun of it. By current standards, I’m hoping he’ll veer towards Greece but isn’t that the beauty of choice, Nigel?