Football, amnesia and England

In a departure from his usual commentary on philosophy and politics Martin O'Neill focuses on the sl

Football's a funny old game. But one of its most peculiar elements is the way it seems able to generate fuzzy thinking and brittle, short-lived emotional responses.

Many football fans (and journalists) think about the game in a strange, polarized way that sees only triumph or disaster with the England team by turns hailed as world-beaters, then derided as disgraceful incompetents.

The past couple of weeks have been a vintage of sloppy logic and wishful thinking about our national game.

The sloppy logic can be seen in the overly-rapid diagnosis of disaster, whilst the wishful thinking is evident in ideas for how the lot of the England team can be improved.

Until the Israeli victory over Russia on Saturday evening, it had looked as if England would fail to qualify for the Euro 2008 finals.

This putative disaster generated a spasm of soul-searching, with the government, in the person of Sport secretary James Purnell, entering into negotiations with the Premier League over how the terrible decline of the English team could be reversed.

The main ideas in play seemed to be broadly protectionist: the introduction of quotas to limit the number of foreign players plying their trade with Premier League clubs. Liverpool’s captain, Steven Gerrard, threw his weight behind such a quota system, whilst the Guardian’s headline: 'Brown’s mission: British players for British clubs' gave a good sense of the government’s equally protectionist instincts on this matter.

Talk of British players for British clubs was a knee-jerk reaction to the perceived disaster of the England team sinking to a new low. But the detection of disaster was unsupported by the facts.

Instead, the doom-mongers’ position was attributable to the combination of a strange sense of entitlement, amnesia about the past, and unrealistic expectations about the future.

It was true that England had not been at their best during their qualifying campaign, especially in an insipid 0-0 draw with lowly Macedonia at Old Trafford back in October 2006, when the English players were booed and jeered off the pitch. But other than this, they had played reasonably well.

Their qualifying group contained both Russia and Croatia (the latter having been World Cup semi-finalists in 1998) and so it could only have been wishful thinking that assumed qualification was inevitable or was there for England as a matter of right.

The level of amnesia about football is quite astonishing. It’s not the only subject where people are drawn to posit some mythical golden age, but it is nevertheless striking to see the way that people assume that things somehow used to be much better than they are now.

Yet, since 1968 England have got to the last four of the European Championship only once, and that was in 1996 when England were hosts and played all their matches at Wembley. Moreover England did not qualify for the tournament’s final stages at all in 1972, 1976 or 1984, and had ignominious first-round exits in 1988, 1992 and 2000. English ‘underperformance’ is nothing new.

When we have the real past (rather than an imagined past) in view, the call to limit the number of foreign players in the Premier League for the sake of the national team becomes difficult to understand.

If anyone has the belief that the influx of foreigners into the Premier League has ended a history of great success, then they are not doing a very good job of tracking the facts.

England has not won the World Cup since 1966 and many forget they failed even to qualify for the final stages of the World Cup in 1974 or 1978, at a time when the old First Division was almost entirely British players.

Indeed, between their appearances at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico and the 1980 European Championships in Italy, England failed to qualify for the final stages of any major competition. Some golden age!

Steven Gerrard meanwhile may call for quotas on foreign players, presumably out of a misplaced sense of patriotism, but he should recall that, when he won the Champions League, beating A. C. Milan in the 2005 Final, he did so in a Liverpool team that fielded (including substitutes) a Pole, two Czechs, a Finn, an Australian, a Norwegian, a Frenchman, a German, an Australian, an Irishman, a Malian and two Spaniards.

One can only speculate whether Gerrard would be in possession of a Champions League winners medal if the quotas that he advocates had been in operation.

One can only imagine the effect on the England team if it was composed of players who did not have to fight for their places at their clubs against the best in the world, but who were instead gifted places in their clubs’ starting line-ups by virtue of the positive discrimination of a quota system.

After all, the current team is composed of players who play every week for teams composed of full internationals from all over the world and few would argue the standard of international football is anywhere near as high as the standard of club football played in the Champions League.

To advocate a system of ‘national preference’ or some kind of quota system is, in effect, to advocate dragging the standard of club football down.

Broader questions about football go largely unaddressed, but are worth investigating. It might be useful, indeed, if we gave some further thought to how and why football might be a valuable activity at all.

Here are two suggestions. Firstly, when played at the highest level, football can have an intrinsic value as a form of human excellence that merges athletic prowess with imagination, skill and grace. It can, in short, and on some rare occasions, be a joy to behold. Secondly, football can provide a source of shared identification, and thereby serve as the basis for forms of cohesion and solidarity. It can be a catalyst for valuable forms of community, as well as being beautiful (sometimes!) to behold.

The idea of quotas is terrible in light of both of these sorts of values. With regards to the intrinsic beauty and excellence of football when played well, the Premiership serves well as it stands.

The current Manchester United or Arsenal teams, for example, often manage a level of fluent, dynamic and inventive football that is far beyond the abilities of the England team, or any other national team. If we value football for its aesthetic qualities, then watching Arsenal players like Fàbregas, Denilson, Rosicky, Hleb, Adebayor and Van Persie is pretty much as good as it gets.

Interestingly, though, the idea of limiting foreign players also does badly with regard to the promotion of shared identification and solidarity, at least when these values are understood in an expansive rather than a narrow way.

Although quotas would, in reality, be unlikely to help the national team, their advocates want to promote the England team’s chances, presumably because that would give fans something to be proud of and worth identifying with.

But the world where the fortunes of the national team are of overwhelming significance for football fans is now both vanished and unattractive.

Premiership teams, with their multinational rosters of players, provide the perfect focus for the creation of shared identities within pluralist and cosmopolitan societies. Complex personal histories and cultural differences can sit uneasily alongside support for national teams, but anyone can be a supporter of (say) Arsenal. Indeed in a city like London, with a massive multiplicity of ethnic backgrounds, support for such a team can be a valuable and unifying.

Moreover, the popularity of the Premiership throughout the world means that it provides a source of shared experiences and common interest in some unexpected places.

One can find passionate Gunners fans from New York to East Africa (there are, for example, Arsenal Supporters’ Clubs in Albania, Serbia, Sudan and Zambia).

There’s something rather hopeful and heart-warming in the idea of Togolese Arsenal supporters cheering on a goal from a Spanish or Belarussian player (or vice versa).

This kind of internationalism is a feature of football at its best, but it only exists where there exists football that is worth watching. The transglobal devotees of the Premiership would, no doubt, lose much of their enthusiasm if they were condemned to watching an exclusively English Premiership. It is no offence to the latter to suggest that any rational soul would rather watch Cesc Fàbregas than Phil Neville.

But thanks to the Israelis’ defeat of Russia, of course, the chance for qualification again rests in England’s own hands.

The imagined disaster of non-qualification can still be averted, and if it is averted many of the siren voices crying for quotas and 'British players for British clubs will subside.

England now need only a draw against Croatia (who have already qualified) at Wembley on Wednesday if they are to progress to the finals of Euro 2008. (And if they can’t manage a home draw against Croatia, one wonders what purpose would have been served by their going to Euro 2008.)

If they manage this feat, then expect England to again be trumpeted as one of the favourites for next year’s tournament.

If they fail, then we can expect a dull and silly debate about how the foreigners are holding back the onward march of England.