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.

Martin O’Neill is a political philosopher, based at the Centre for Political Theory in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has previously taught at Cambridge and Harvard, and is writing a book on Corporations and Social Justice.
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When it comes to responding to Islamic State, there is no middle ground

If Britain has a declared interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria, it is neither honourable nor viable to let others intervene on our behalf.

Even before the brutal terrorist attacks in Paris, British foreign policy was approaching a crossroads. Now it is time, in the words of Barack Obama, addressing his fellow leaders at the G20 Summit in Turkey on 16 November, “to step up with the resources that this fight demands”, or stand down.

The jihadist threat metastasises, and international order continues to unravel at an alarming rate. A Russian civilian charter plane is blown out of the sky over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, killing 224 people, most of them returning from holiday, and the various offshoots of Islamic State bare their teeth in a succession of brutal attacks in France, Lebanon, Tunisia, Turkey and further afield. Our enemies are emboldened and our friends want to know to what extent we stand with them. The UK can no longer afford to postpone decisions that it has evaded since the Commons vote of August 2013, in which the government was defeated over the question of joining US-led air strikes against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians. MPs’ continued introspection is on the verge of becoming both irresponsible and morally questionable. There is no fence left to sit on.

On Sunday night, two days after the Paris attacks, the French – with US support – launched a series of bombing raids against Islamic State targets in Raqqa. With much more to come, the choice facing this country may not be easier but it is certainly clearer. Britain must determine whether it wants to be a viable and genuine partner in the fight against Islamic State, and in the long-term efforts to bring an end to the assorted evils of the Syrian civil war; or whether we are content to sit on the sidelines and cheer on former team-mates without getting our knees dirty. We can join our two most important allies – France and the United States, at the head of a coalition involving a number of Arab and other European states – in confronting a threat that potentially is as grave to us as it is to France, and certainly more dangerous than it is to the US. Alternatively, we can gamble that others will do the work for us, keep our borders tighter than ever, double down on surveillance (because that will certainly be one of the prices to pay) and hope that the Channel and the security services keep us comparatively safe. There is no fantasy middle ground, where we can shirk our share of the burden on the security front while leading the rest of the world in some sort of diplomatic breakthrough in Syria; or win a reprieve from the jihadists for staying out of Syria (yet hit them in Iraq), through our benevolence in opening the door to tens of thousands of refugees, or by distancing ourselves from the ills of Western foreign policy.

That the international community – or what is left of it – has not got its act together on Syria over the past three years has afforded Britain some space to indulge its scruples. Nonetheless, even before the Paris attacks, the matter was coming to the boil again. A vote on the expansion of air operations against Islamic State has been mooted since the start of this year, but was put on the back burner because of the May general election. The government has treated parliament with caution since its much-discussed defeat in the House in summer 2013. The existing policy – of supporting coalition air strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but not Syria – is itself an outgrowth of an awkward compromise between David Cameron and Ed Miliband, an attempt to reverse some of the damage done by the 2013 vote in parliament.

The Conservatives have waited to see where the ground lies in a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party before attempting to take the issue back before the Commons. Labour pleaded for more time when Corbyn was elected, but there is no sign that the Labour leader is willing to shift in his hostility to any form of intervention. More significantly, he has now ruled out Labour holding a free vote on the matter.

If anything, the coalition of Little Englanders, anti-interventionists and anti-Americans in the House of Commons seems to have dug its trenches deeper. This leaves the Prime Minister with few options. One is to use the Royal Prerogative to announce that an ally has been attacked, and that we will stand with her in joining attacks against Islamic State in Syria. The moment for this has probably already passed, though the prerogative might still be invoked if Isis scores a direct hit against the UK. Yet even then, there would be problems with this line. A striking aspect of the killing of 30 Britons in the June attacks in Sousse, Tunisia, is just how little domestic political impact it seems to have made.

Another option for Cameron is to try to make one final effort to win a parliamentary majority, but this is something that Tory whips are not confident of achieving. The most likely scenario is that he will be forced to accept a further loss of the UK’s leverage and its standing among allies. Co-operation will certainly come on the intelligence front but this is nothing new. Meanwhile, the government will be forced to dress up its position in as much grand diplomatic verbiage as possible, to obfuscate the reality of the UK’s diminishing influence.

Already, speaking at the G20 Summit, the Prime Minister emphasised the need to show MPs a “whole plan for the future of Syria, the future of the region, because it is perfectly right to say that a few extra bombs and missiles won’t transform the situation”. In principle, it is hard to argue with this. But no such plan will emerge in the short term. The insistence that Assad must go may be right but it is the equivalent of ordering the bill at a restaurant before you have taken your seat. In practice, it means subcontracting out British national security to allies (such as the US, France and Australia) who are growing tired of our inability to pull our weight, and false friends or enemies (such as Russia and Iran), who have their own interests in Syria which do not necessarily converge with our own.

One feature of the 2013 Syria vote was the government’s failure to do the required groundwork in building a parliamentary consensus. Whips have spent the summer scouting the ground but to no avail. “The Labour Party is a different organisation to that which we faced before the summer,” Philip Hammond, the Foreign Secretary, has said. It is ironic, then, that the Prime Minister has faced strongest criticism from the Labour benches. “Everyone wants to see nations planning for increased stability in the region beyond the military defeat of the extremists,” says John Woodcock, the chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party defence committee, “but after two years of pussy-footing around, this just smacks of David Cameron playing for time when he should be showing leadership.”

The real story is not the distance between the two front benches but the divisions within both parties. There are as many as 30 Conservative MPs said to be willing to rebel if parliament is asked to vote for joining the coalition against Islamic State in Syria. It seems that the scale of the Paris attacks has not changed their position. A larger split in the Labour ranks also seems likely. Even before Paris, there were rumoured to be roughly 50 MPs ready to defy their leader on this question.


At first, in the wake of last week’s attacks, it seemed as if the Prime Minister might force the issue. To this end, he began the G20 in Turkey with a bilateral meeting with President Putin. His carefully chosen words before and after that discussion, in which he was much more emollient about Moscow’s role, showed the extent to which he was prepared to adapt to the changing situation. Cameron hoped that if he could show progress in building an international coalition on the diplomatic front, that might just give him enough to get over the line in a parliamentary vote.

This new approach has not had the desired effect. At the time of writing, the government believes it is too risky to call another vote in the short term. It calculates another defeat would hugely diminish Britain’s standing in the world. In truth, the government was already swimming upstream. On 29 October, the Conservative-
dominated Commons foreign affairs select committee, chaired by Crispin Blunt, released a report on the extension of British military operations into Syria, in anticipation of government bringing forward a parliamentary vote on the question. The report recommended that Britain should avoid further involvement unless a series of questions could be answered about exit strategy and long-term goals. The bar was set deliberately high, to guard against any further involvement (even the limited option of joining the existing coalition undertaking air strikes against IS in Syria).

The most flimsy of the five objections to further intervention in the report was that it will somehow diminish the UK’s leverage as an impartial arbiter and potential peacemaker. This is based on an absurd overestimation of the UK as some sort of soft-power saviour, valued by all parties for its impartiality in Middle Eastern affairs. Britain cannot hope to have any influence on policy if it is always last to sign up while others put their lives on the line. As so often in the past, what masquerades as tough-minded “realpolitik” is nothing of the sort. It is just another post-facto rationale for inaction.

Although it is sometimes said that Britain has yet to recover from the consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the committee report had a retro, 1990s feel. Many of the objections raised to burden-sharing in Syria were the same as those raised against humanitarian intervention in the Balkans two decades ago, when Blunt was working as special adviser to Michael Rifkind as defence and foreign secretary, and the UK was at the forefront of non-intervention. Likewise, two of the committee’s Labour members, Ann Clwyd and Mike Gapes, were veterans of the other side of that debate, and strong supporters of the Nato intervention in Kosovo in 1999. They expressed their dissent from the report’s conclusions but were voted down by their Conservative and SNP fellow committee members. “Non-intervention also has consequences,” said Gapes when he broke rank. “We should not be washing our hands and saying, ‘It’s too difficult.’”

Polling figures have shown majority public support for air strikes against IS since the spate of gruesome public executions that began last year, but nothing seems to change the calculus of the rump of anti-interventionist MPs.

All this promises an uncertain future for British foreign policy. On 6 November, the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, suggested that the UK’s existing position, of joining the coalition in Iraq but stopping at the borders of Syria, is “morally indefensible”. The killing of Mohammed Emwazi, aka “Jihadi John”, by a US predator drone on 12 November demonstrates what he meant. Emwazi was a Briton who was responsible for the beheading of British and American citizens, as well as countless Syrians. While the UK government was closely involved in that operation – and has previously used the justification of “self-defence” to “take out” targets in Syria – such are the restrictions placed upon it that we are forced to ask our allies to conduct potentially lethal operations (which are in our core national interests) on our behalf. The very act of “self-defence” is subcontracted out once again.

How long can this last when Islamic State poses a much greater threat to the UK than it does to the US? There is an issue of responsibility, too, with hundreds of British citizens fighting for and with Islamic State who clearly pose a grave danger to other states.


The very notion that Britain should play an expansive international role is under attack from a pincer movement from both the left and the right. There are two forms of “Little Englanderism” that have made a resurgence in recent years. On the left, this is apparent in the outgrowth of a world-view that sees no role for the military, and holds that the UK is more often than not on the wrong side in matters of international security, whether its opponent is Russia, Iran, the IRA or Islamic State. The second, and arguably just as influential, is the Little Englanderism of the right, which encompasses a rump of Tory backbenchers and Ukip. This is a form of neo-mercantilism, a foreign policy based on trade deals and the free movement of goods that regards multilateralism, international institutions and any foreign military intervention with great suspicion, as a costly distraction from the business of filling our pockets.

The time is ripe for long-term, hard-headed and unsentimental thinking about Britain’s global role. The country is not served well by the impression of British “decline” and “retreat” that has gained ground in recent times; and it is no safer for it, either. Given how quickly the security and foreign policy environment is changing, the publication of the Strategic Defence and Security Review in the coming week, alongside an update of the National Security Strategy, is likely to raise more questions than it answers. The officials responsible for its drafting do not have an easy brief, and news forecasting is a thankless task. Strategic vision and leadership must come from our elected politicians.

For all the talk of British decline, we are still one of the five wealthiest nations in the world. What we do matters, particularly at moments when our friends are under attack. However, until a new broad consensus emerges between the mainstream Labour and Conservative positions on foreign policy, the Little England coalition will continue to have the casting vote.

Syria continues to bleed profusely and the blood seeps deeper into different countries. There will be no political solution to the civil war there for the foreseeable future; to pretend that there is a hidden diplomatic solution is to wish to turn the clock back to 2011, when that might have been possible. Nor is the security situation any easier to deal with. A few hours before the attacks in Paris began, President Obama gave an interview in which he argued that he had successfully “contained” Islamic State. For the wider Middle East and Europe, that is simply not the case. Now, France will escalate its campaign, and the US will do more. Russia already has troops on the ground and will most likely send reinforcements.

The war in Syria is becoming more complicated and even more dangerous. The best that can be hoped for is that the Syrian ulcer can be cauterised. This will be achieved through the blunting of Islamic State, simultaneous pressure on Assad, and the creation of more safe places for Syrians. All roads are littered with difficulties and dangers. Yet, in the face of this ugly reality, is Britain to signal its intention to do less as every other major actor – friend and foe alike – does more? If we have a declared national interest in curtailing Islamic State and stabilising Syria – both because of the growing terrorist threat and because of the huge flow of refugees – then it is neither honourable nor viable to let others take care of it on our behalf.

John Bew is an NS contributing writer. His new book, “Realpolitik: a History”, is newly published by Oxford University Press

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror