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Laurie Penny: Why I despise the World Cup

Who cares about a bunch of misogynist jocks tossing a ball around? Football is commodified nationalism that excludes more than half the population.

Much as I hate to disagree with Gary Younge, I can't get on board with his utopian vision of the upcoming World Cup evoking a "collective sense of latent English identity . . . infused with positive energy".

I despise the World Cup. I will not be supporting England, nor any other team.

I refuse to get excited about some wealthy, misogynist jocks tossing a ball around in the name of patriotism and product endorsement. Mistrust of team sports as a fulcrum of social organisation comes naturally to me. I'm a proud, card-carrying member of the sensitive, wheezy, malcoordinated phalanx of the population for whom the word "football" still evokes painful memories of organised sadism and unspecified locker-room peril.

I'm a humourless, paranoid, liberal, feminist pansy who would prefer to spend the summer sitting in a dark room, contemplating the future of the British left and smoking myself into an early grave.

The fact remains, however, that there are more pressing things to worry about over the soccer season than the state of Frank Lampard's admittedly shapely calves. This country is in crisis. Young people are in crisis, poor people are in crisis, unemployment stands at 2.5 million, the labour movement is still leaderless and directionless, and there's a brutal train of Tory public-service cuts coming over the hill.

In short, the left has more important things to do than draw up worthy charts determining which Fifa team is worth supporting on the basis of global development indicators.The British left has an uneasy relationship with international sport.

Liberal alarm bells can't help but start ringing when a bunch of overpaid PE teachers get together to orchestrate a month of corporate-sponsored quasi-xenophobia; however, as soon as World Cup fever rolls around, members of the otherwise uninterested bourgeois left feel obliged to muster at least a sniffle of enthusiasm, sensing that not to do so is somehow elitist.

This is a misplaced notion: football is no longer the people's sport. Just look at the brutal contempt that the police reserve for fans, or count the number of working-class Britons who can afford to attend home matches, much less the festivities in South Africa. Then there's the uncomfortable fact that the World Cup is only and always about men.

Younge is right to celebrate that race is no longer an impediment to his young niece's and nephew's vision of football as a world "in which they have a reasonable chance of succeeding" -- but unfortunately, his niece can forget about it. Even if she were to make it to the big leagues, she would be forbidden to play in the World Cup: the women's league, held separately next year, garners barely a fraction of the media coverage devoted to proper football, where the only significant female figures are footballers' wives.

In South Africa itself, female players are lucky if they are merely dismissed -- barely two years ago, Eudy Simelane, star of the South African women's team, was raped and murdered for the crime of being a lesbian.

There is something suspect about a people's sport that violently excludes more than half the people, and boozy, borderline misogynist pseudo-nationalism is the last thing Britain needs to help foster a badly needed sense of community. George Orwell observed in 1941 that "in England all the boasting and flag-wagging, the 'Rule Britannia' stuff, is done by small minorities . . . The patriotism of the common people is not vocal or even conscious."

Britain itself is a shuffling, gloriously dissipated nation that also includes many people from Scotland, Ireland and Wales. By contrast, the kitsch, horn-honking vision of English identity associated with World Cup-EnglandTM is too easily co-opted by big business in an effort to get us to spend money on booze, branded sportswear and chocolate bars emblazoned with the England flag. B&Q, which expects to make a loss over the season, has even released a range of garden gnomes wearing the England strip, which rather sums up the twee consumer desperation of World Cup season.

Marketing strategists clearly envision the people of England drinking and shopping the summer away, safe in the knowledge that national pride is being guarded by a regiment of xenophobic pottery goblins. This cheery commoditised nationalism runs unnervingly close to the uglier face of engineered "English pride".

Of course, not everyone who displays an England flag is a fascist, but a few of the flags in circulation will undoubtedly be reused at the upcoming EDL rally in east London, which plans to process through the same streets where Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts marched in 1936.

As football season begins, England flags are once more emerging like a welter of giant sticking plasters where social injury is keenest, in areas where the coming cuts will be deepest.

Meanwhile, the left still has no coherent response to Britain's bricolage of troubles. The problem with footie as commodified nationalism is that it leaves the left wing entirely undefended.

The tacky, tribalistic, red-and-white bandage of cheesy national sentiment is already stifling the healing power of political expediency. And as the people gear up to root for EnglandTM, the left's best chance to reorganise and re-energise is deflating like a football, smashed against a wall by idiot children.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Inside a Ukip conference obsessed with Stoke

Now that Brexit has been achieved, the party of protest is focused on a by-election. 

On the roundabout outside the Bolton Macron stadium - the venue for the Ukip spring conference - a sheet was hastily draped. Daubed in black paint, it read “Bad Bootle bullshitter”.

The unknown critic was commenting on the recent travails of leader Paul Nuttall, who is standing for the party in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, but whose campaign has been clouded by questions over his claims about the Hillsborough football tragedy

At conference, Nuttall kept away from the press. He had also cancelled a hustings appearance the day before.

But while many on the outside see Ukip as increasingly directionless, from the inside it's a little different. 

The thrum of enthusiasm which ran through the attendees at the stadium was palpable. The Lightning Seeds’ Marvellous - with lyrics promising “Things could be marvellous, things could be fabulous too” - was on a constant loop. Party stars like Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn rubbed shoulders with the rank and file.

From the start of the morning, the press were shunted upstairs to a media room. But while Nuttall was mysteriously hard to find for media interviews, those who support him were only too happy to share their strong beliefs in what the brand still stands for - even after the vote which was meant to be their raison d’être.

In the ladies’, a neat, petite woman with perfectly coiffed grey hair was fixing her scarf in front of the mirror. It was patterned in Ukip purple, to match her lilac top.

“I just love conference,” she told me. She was one of the minority of female attendees I saw during the day in a throng of besuited men of a certain age. The programme and speakers went out of their way to refer to all spokespeople as “spokesmen”, despite gender.

When Nuttall took to the stage - to, among other things, offer his mea culpa for erroneous website details - he got a rousing reception to match that of  Nigel Farage. 

The former leader is still a favourite. I caught up with two audience members following his speech, and they were positively glowing.

“He pointed out every single thing that Ukip is about and brought it up to the present. He says it as it is,” Marie Foy told me.

She comes from an old Labour family, but says the party is "no longer working for us". 

Her friend, Mick Harold, interpreted it as a case for ongoing radicalism: “What was important was the fact that he said we cannot move to the centre. Because if we move to the centre, then we just become like all of the other parties and we become pointless.

“We have to keep pushing our agenda. We’ve got to be different or there’s no point in us being there. That, for me, is the message that sticks in my mind from Nigel today.”

The idea of remaining radical and yet pertinent is a big one for party members.

Foy and Harold are both Ukip activists, who have spent recent weeks campaigning in Stoke. Harold knows the area particularly well - he came second to outgoing Labour MP Tristram Hunt in the 2015 election, who beat him by just 5,719 votes. 

“The radical ideas of Ukip are what resonates with the working people of this country," Harold said. "We don’t want the Labour party, we don’t want the Conservatives. We want something different. We want change, and that’s why Ukip have been so successful." Like Foy, he too is a former Labour supporter. 

“There are certain parts of Stoke now which are probably 50 per cent Ukip," he said. "The old Labour areas, the old council estates, they’re definitely moving over to Ukip.”

It may be the talk of the Ukip bubble, especially now Nuttall is on the defence. But with the by-election only days away, it won't take long to find out.