An alternative nation

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In 2006, when England last made the quarter finals of the World Cup, the world looked different. In retrospect the German Sommermaerchen was the last global party before the financial crash of 2007/8 and the long decade of recession, austerity and populism that followed.

England was awash with St George flags as never before, expectations of a “golden generation” players – Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, etc – were sky high. Since the defeat by Portugal on penalties, England had failed to win a knockout game in the World Cup and the public had steadily fallen out of love with the team. On the day of the team’s opening game with Tunisia there was barely a flag to be seen.

In part, the relentless cycle of optimism and failure, repeated at successive tournaments, became impossible to sustain. In part, the public tired of the squad’s seeming sense of entitlement, its closed uncommunicative face to the world, and the intertwined antics of the paparazzi and the WAGS.

The contrast of the national team with the unstoppable commercial success of the Premier League appeared a case book study of public squalor in a world of private affluence.

The defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016, just days after the referendum of membership in the European Union, was emblematic of the country’s shock and disarray. Symbolically powerful, but hardly the stuff of which romance is made.

With this England team, it is, perhaps, going to be different. The flags are beginning to creep back and the TV ratings for the games are simply huge – more than 60 percent of the adult population of England, which in a country where 37 percent of the British electorate has been declared enough to constitute the unchangeable “will of the people”, that is quite a showing.

Yet, lovely as it was to hold our nerve and win a penalty shoot out, good as it felt to put a lot of goals past Panama and Tunisia, and fabulous as the prospect of a quarter final with Sweden might be, these feats alone do not explain why the nation is falling back in love with the England football team.

2018 is a moment in England when age, like never before, is the most reliable indicator of people’s political values and outlook.

The vote to leave the European Union and the subsequent battles over Brexit are increasingly drawn on generational lines, while the jobs and housing markets are ever more segregated by age.

England, with an average age of 26, and just 20 caps a player, are the second youngest (Nigeria being the youngest) and least experienced squad at the tournament; their training ground clowning and love of the FIFA video game confirming this.

Ethnically they are a really mixed bag. Harry Kane has Irish roots, Raheem Sterling’s are in Jamaica. Dele Alli’s father is Nigerian, Danny Welbeck’s folks are Ghanaian. Eric Dier grew up in Portugal and Trent Alexander-Arnold could have played for the USA.

At the same time, they are indisputably English, with the players and their accents hailing from every corner of the country and a solid core growing up in the game’s traditional northern heartlands of the North East, Lancashire, Yorkshire, three of them – Kyle Walker, Jamie Vardy and Harry McGuire – from Sheffield alone.

Look too at the fans. St George’s banners in the stadium embellished with the club names and crests: Bristol Rovers the gas on tour, Stockport, Gateshead and Rochdale.

The fans and the players look and sound like urban England, not Wiltshire or Devon, and though the players are all millionaires, their life stories speak to some of their generation’s difficulties: Dele Alli’s absent or alcohol-dependent parents, Danny Rose’s struggle with depression, Jamie Vardy’s brushes with the law and his long journey, despite his talent, to be noticed in the lower leagues.

None of these are inconsequential matters in contemporary England where historically high levels of inequality have driven equally high levels of drug dependency, mental ill health amongst the young, and, given the almost complete collapse of any social mobility, the shameless squandering of much of the nation’s talents.

Representative as they are, it is Gareth Southgate, himself one of the youngest coaches at the tournament, who has animated this squad, and given it the space in which to develop and find a new English identity. He has also struck a tone that is increasingly rare in English public life: open, polite, pragmatic, clear in his opinions, but always reasoned.

I have particularly relished his post-match interviews during which he simply refuses to be deflected down the set paths that the interviewers’ closed and excruciatingly dull questions are pointing to, thus refusing to engage in pointless speculation and unfounded triumphalism.

It is a sign of the times that while the Swedish press is sure that English overconfidence and arrogance will be their downfall in the quarter final, Southgate’s first response when asked about the game was to remind everyone how much and how often England have underestimated the Swedes.

One wishes the British government had been equally humble and clear eyed in their assessment of the power of the European Union during the Brexit negotiations that they have so disastrously mishandled. So, too, the squad’s evident relish for penalty-taking homework and practice prior to the big event, rather than the back-of-the-envelope dilly-dallying that passes for policy-making inside the British cabinet these days.

Not everyone is happy with the new England. The tribunes of the global south are rightly appalled by the antediluvian and racist stereotyping that English tabloids and English football commentators specialise in (Colombia as a coke ridden banana republic, Colombians as errant children anyone?).

Part of the left in England, as ever, has run a mile at the thought of English nationalism being expressed, convinced that it can only take the form of the racist and imperial Britannia it has been hiding inside all these years. I hear you. Until England really looks the meaning and consequences of Empire in the eye, it can only expect an eternity of post-colonial opprobrium.

Yes, racist, ultra-nationalists and the drunken mob can try and monopolise the meaning of England, but only if we let them. More importantly, both sets of critics are guilty of interpreting the past not the present and above all, of essentialising national identities. England and Englishness is infinitely more complex and diverse than the lazy coked-up tabloid editors and the beery skinheads; more to the point, it is open to change.

To paraphrase EP Thompson, the great Marxist historian and political activist, and a key figure in exploring the radical and dissenting traditions of Englishness, from his electric speech at the Glastonbury festival in 1984 (in-between The Smiths and Elvis Costello). “This has not only been a nation of money makers and imperialists. It has been a nation of inventors and writers, of theatre and musicians, of football players and fans and coaches, and it is this alternative nation that I can see in front of me now.”

What kind of nation might that be? It sure as hell isn’t going to be the one the Tory Party and the Brexiteers, having decided to implement a government boycott of the World Cup after the Skirpal poisoning case, can commandeer. Even if they did, as the tribunes of the old and those most disturbed by migration, there is little grist for their mill here.

The football so far is not the stuff of which a new epic or enlightened English narrative can be weaved, but as Gareth Southgate has repeatedly told his players – they can write their own stories, they can make their own history. To paraphrase, EP Thompson, once again, from the opening lines of The Making of the English Working Classes, “This England team will not rise like the sun at an appointed time. It is present at its own making.”

Whatever actually transpires on the pitch, this quiet affirmation of agency, of youth, of the possibility of collective change, is surely something resonating in England. Certainly, I have never known the country so stuck, so frozen, so divided, and so unable to organise itself to address the pressing questions it faces and that it has brought down upon its own head; I have never known it in need of such inspiration.

It is our misfortune that we should be counting on such a gossamer thin hope as the England football team, but we are lucky to have found one at last, about which we can be hopeful at all.

 For more of David Goldblatt’s insightful and incisive commentary on the world of football, listen to Game of Our Lives from Al Jazeera’s Jetty Studios. The podcast airs twice-a-week during the World Cup. Subscribe now!

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