The Soccer Dialectic

   This is a post about English soccer – but before all you Americans scroll down to something else, let may say it is also about identity and globalisation, capitalism and the decline of the nation-state.     OK, still here? Right, … Read More

By / November 24, 2007

   This is a post about English soccer – but before all you Americans scroll down to something else, let may say it is also about identity and globalisation, capitalism and the decline of the nation-state.    

OK, still here? Right, England has entered one of its periodic crises after the national soccer team failed to qualify for next summer’s European Championships. The qualification process ensures that the top 16 nations in Europe gather together in Switzerland and Austria next year for a big tournament which is second only to the World Cup in terms of interest and status. England, who invented ‘Association Football’ aren’t among those 16 after finishing behind Croatia and Russia and on the same points as that powerhouse of European soccer –Israel. (I don’t need to explain to you why Israel have  play in Europe rather than in competition with the other Middle Easter countries which they would almost certainly win).    

 It is 41 years since the England team last won a prize – the 1966 World Cup – which was the only time the tournament was held in England. Unlike most major powers in the game, Brazil, Argentina, Germany, Italy etc, England have never actually won away from home turf. But, we invented the game, we have the ‘greatest league in the world’ and most English people really believe they, their clubs, their players and their fans, represent the genuine, authentic heart and soul of the game. 

There is no way of comparing this trauma to anything in US sports – if I must try and tempt you with an analogy – imagine that baseball really went global, there was a World Series befitting of the title and the US didn’t even make the play-offs, finishing behind Honduras and South Korea after losing to Venezuela.       

No country in Europe likes their soccer team to not qualify for the Euro finals but in England, the failure provokes deep reactions which tell us a great deal about the tortured sense of identity in the country.      

 First of there is the sense of entitlement that is lost by actual competition – the English assume their place is at the top table for reasons of tradition and history. But unlike bodies such as the United Nations and The Commonwealth, European soccer is based purely on merit and not on heritage. No-one is silly enough to suggest England should qualify automatically (as they do for the UN Security Council) so the response is a vicious search for blame. As usual, and as in most sports, the coach is the first scapegoat. Steve McLaren was sacked before his bosses had even digested their bacon sandwiches the morning after the defeat to Croatia. Then there are the search for the ‘deeper causes’ of the defeat and here the deep pains of English identity start to emerge.    

One of the most popular ‘root causes’ identified this time around has been foreign players in English football. The Premier League (EPL to those Americans who take an interest) is packed with players from all over the globe and none of the elite teams are coached by Englishmen. Liverpool is owned by Americans and coached by a Spaniard. Chelsea is owned by a Russian and coached by an Israeli. The argument goes that because there are so many foreign players in England – English boys don’t get a chance. The argument is utter nonsense for several reasons – primarily because England had similar disappointments in the seventies and eighties when there were hardly any non-British players in the top league.   

Nonetheless, the argument is based on an essential truth – the ability of England’s Premier League to market itself globally, in a similar fashion to the NBA , has generated a huge amount of income which the clubs have invested in buying up foreign players. The result is a championship which is based on the core values of modern globalized capitalism – it is deregulated, internationalised and the team with the most money available usually wins. Imagine an NFL where a previously unheard of Russian billionaire could buy up, say, the Cleveland Browns, purchase Tom Brady and half the current New England Patriots team along with the best players from all the other teams and win the Superbowl easily every, single, year. You can’t do that in American sports because of the regulations – the draft, the salary cap, the rules on ownership etc  – it is a curious state of affairs but compared to the laissez-faire capitalism of English soccer, American sports are almost socialistic.

The English are pretty happy with this state of affairs for their league – they are sports fans, they support their teams in a tribalistic fashion and so no-one amongst Chelsea’s supporters ever complains about a loss of identity given their club is in Russian hands and they only have a couple of English players in their starting line-up – if the Blues win, the Blues fans are happy. The  problem comes when you get to international competition between nation states where the rules are very different. You can’t trade your citizenship, the coach of the national team can’t buy anyone and it doesn’t matter how much money your organization has – selection is restricted to people who are citizens of the country. National team soccer is the last survivor of the old amateur values – you play for honour and pride – not money. You represent your country and not your employers. You are expecting to give your all for glory and not for the next big contract deal.    

And this is where the global success of the English soccer brand falls down – the results show that the players aren’t really good enough or they haven’t been coached well enough and the normal rules of the market – buy some better players – don’t apply.    

So the England players are blamed for not caring enough and the system is criticised for being out-dated – and there are some valid arguments that I shan’t trouble you with here about what precisely, technically is the problem with homegrown English footballers.     

But the big picture is that soccer, like other sports, is transforming itself and globalizing itself in a way which leaves the old nation state framework looking increasingly like a sideshow. On a week to week basis fans, owners and coaches don’t care about nationality – they want results and entertainment. Most of the time, the English enjoy the chance to watch top international performers either in the Premier League or the Europe-wide Champions League. The pangs of pain only come when cash no longer can talk – when soccer enters a timewarp and we go back to an era when the rules are different. The pain is enhanced because the English like to think they represent the old values of the game when in fact they epitomize the modern transformation of the sport into a global entertainment and marketing industry.   

There are no signs that the trends will change – if anything they are likely to intensify –  and so the English will slowly have to get used to the fact their national team is mediocre but they have the most marketable professional league in the world. And in this respect England will become more American.    

There are no nation-state battles in American football or pro baseball and the Olympic competition in basketball and hockey is a sideshow for anyone who seriously follows the NBA or NHL. Americans are lucky in that so few countries play baseball or football – they can simply enjoy the NFL and MLB without worrying about what the rest of the world is doing. The English are going to have to learn to do that –  not to care about nation-state competition – and that won’t be easy for a people who remain attached to tradition while being at the vanguard of tradition-smashing global, capitalized sport.


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