It is definitely, definitely not the case that the teams in La Liga are better. Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images
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Why are we messing up at top-flight football? I have all the answers

Champion of Europe? Not these days. Hunter Davies explains some of the reasons England aren't quite the footballing force they once were.

Why are we so bad? At this time of the year, England used to have four teams left in the quarter-finals of the Euro championship, two or three at the semis stage, sometimes an all-England final. This year: nothing, nada, disparu. Our four world-class Premiership clubs are long goners. The great brains of the football world have been wrestling with this most vexatious question, muttering into their fashionable beards that it’s a big ask, but now we have some answers...

We are not bad. It’s just that we are in the presence of greatness. Living at this time are some players of genius, so bow down before Messi, let us praise Ronaldo and let’s be grateful that our rough, simple lads get to play on the same turf, even if they spend most of the game lying down, the ball having passed through their legs, again. For last Sunday’s Clásico between Real Madrid and Barça, I stood during the whole game. Respect.

The pendulum will swing. It can’t go on like this. These bad spells never last long. Look at the England national team – why, it was only yesterday they won the World Cup, hold on, correction, 49 years, OK, forget England: that particular pendulum has somehow got stuck on the marker saying “Shite”, so we’ll move on...

Too many bloomin’ foreigners everywhere. They come over here, take all our street-sweeping jobs, provide brilliant service in Pret a Manger and sleep with all our English girls, so how can our lads get in any of our Prem teams? Have you noticed how they arrive in the Prem with big reputations, come to save us, show us how, yet the moment they put on the shirts of Man United, Man City or Spurs, they prove to be rubbish? A plot, obviously. “Are you a double agent in disguise?” they now sing on the Shelf at White Hart Lane.

Too well paid. How can they concentrate when they’re worrying about their HSBC account in Jersey, their five gardeners, three brand managers, two lawyers, two accountants and three French hens bought for tax reasons?

Not paid well enough. They’re being really horrid to Raheem Sterling at present, refusing him £150k a week. Liverpool are just so mean, just because he’s young and inexperienced. Why, it’s ages since he was in short trousers. How can he do his best if he’s worrying about where his next Bentley is coming from?

And the next haircut. People go on about rugby players not needing to bother, but come on, they look pathetic, bits all over the shop. Our footballers do have standards. Having that sharp parting made fashionable by Giroud is not easy. Fans don’t realise it takes surgery to get the line right. And a quiff at the front, or plastered up in the air, as the players do at Newcastle. You need a cool cut to hold your head up in a Prem dressing room.

Surrounding the ref. They also go on about rugger players never arguing with the ref. How craven is that? Far better to have a co-ordinated verbal assault on the ref, all the players going blue in the face. Takes ages in training, which is why they have little time for working on all that soppy stuff they do in Europe, such as passing the ball.

Easier in Europe. Oh yes, it is. Bayern Munich, 10 points ahead in Germany, often field only five players, sometimes just the wives of the first team, and still they hammer everyone. In Spain, Real Madrid and Barça are level pegging, but down at the bottom, dear me, it’s like a Sunday league, or playing Carlisle United. In our wonderful Prem, richest, most competitive in the world, it’s war every week.

The general election. Our lads have been distracted all season, worrying about the result. Once that’s over, you’ll see.

England are ahead of the game. In everything, being an advanced civilisation. Did we not have the Industrial Revolution first, and suffer the consequences first? Did we not give cricket, rugby and football to the world, then politely stand back while others did them better? See, we are the winners, really. Calm down...

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Easter Double 2015

A woman in an Indian surrogacy hostel. Photo: Getty
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The Handmaid's Tale has already come true - just not for white western women

Why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying, is the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels causing so little outrage?

When anti-choice Republican Justin Humphrey referred to pregnant women as “hosts”, I found myself wondering, not for the first time, whether everything had got “a bit Handmaid’s Tale.”

I’m not alone in having had this thought. Since Donald Trump won the US election, sales of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel have spiked and we’ve seen a plethora of articles telling us how “eerily relevant [it] is to our current political landscape.” In an interview during Cuba’s international book fair, Atwood herself said she believes the recent “bubbling up” of regressive attitudes towards women is linked to The Handmaid’s Tale’s current success: “It’s back to 17th-century puritan values of New England at that time in which women were pretty low on the hierarchy … you can think you are being a liberal democracy but then — bang — you’re Hitler’s Germany.”

Scary stuff. Still, at least most present-day readers can reassure themselves that they’ve not arrived in the Republic of Gilead just yet.

For those who have not yet read it, The Handmaid’s Tale tells the story of Offred, who lives under a theocratic dictatorship in what used to be the United States of America. White, middle-class and college-educated, Offred once enjoyed a significant degree of privilege, but now belongs to a class of women whose sole purpose is to gestate offspring for high-status couples. Much of the shock value of the story comes from the contrast between Offred’s former life – in which she had a name of her own - and her present-day existence. If this can happen to someone like Offred, it is suggested, surely it can happen to any of us.

Or so that is what a white, middle-class reader – a reader like me – might tell herself. Recently I’ve started to wonder whether that’s strictly true. It can be reassuring to stick to one narrative, one type of baddie – the religious puritan, the pussy-grabbing president, the woman-hating Right. But what if it’s more complicated than that? There’s something about the current wallowing in Atwood’s vision that strikes me as, if not self-indulgent, then at the very least naive.

In 1985, the same year The Handmaid’s Tale was published, Gina Correa published The Mother Machine. This was not a work of dystopian fiction, but a feminist analysis of the impact of reproductive technologies on women’s liberties. Even so, there are times when it sounds positively Handmaid’s Tale-esque:

“Once embryo transfer technology is developed, the surrogate industry could look for breeders – not only in poverty-stricken parts of the United States, but in the Third World as well. There, perhaps, one tenth of the current fee could be paid to women”

Perhaps, at the time her book was written, Correa’s imaginings sounded every bit as dark and outlandish as Atwood’s. And yet she has been proved right. Today there are parts of the world in which renting the womb of a poor woman is indeed ten times cheaper than in the US. The choice of wealthy white couples to implant embryos in the bodies of brown women is seen, not as colonialist exploitation, but as a neutral consumer choice. I can’t help wondering why, if the fate of the fictional Offred is so horrifying to western feminists today, the fate of real-life women in surrogacy hostels is causing so little outrage.

I suppose the main argument of these feminists would be that real-life women choose to be surrogates, whereas Offred does not. But is the distinction so clear? If Offred refuses to work as a handmaid, she may be sent to the Colonies, where life expectancy is short. Yet even this is a choice of sorts. As she herself notes, “nothing is going on here that I haven't signed up for. There wasn't a lot of choice but there was some, and this is what I chose.” In the real world, grinding poverty drives women of colour to gestate the babies of the wealthy. As one Indian surrogate tells interviewer Seemi Pasha, “Why would I be a surrogate for someone else if I don't need the money? Why would I make myself go through this pain?"

None of the feminists who expressed shock at Justin Humphrey referring to pregnant women as “hosts” have, as far as I am aware, expressed the same horror at surrogacy agencies using the exact same term. As Dorothy Roberts wrote in Killing The Black Body, the notion of reproductive liberty remains “primarily concerned with the interests of white, middle-class women” and  “focused on the right to abortion.” The right not just to decide if and when to have children, but to have children of one’s own – something women of colour have frequently been denied – can be of little interest of those who have never really feared losing it (hence the cloth-eared response of many white women to Beyoncè’s Grammy performance).

As Roberts notes, “reproductive liberty must encompass more than the protection of an individual woman’s choice to end her pregnancy”:

“It must encompass the full range of procreative activities, including the ability to bear a child, and it must acknowledge that we make reproductive decisions within a social context, including inequalities of wealth and power. Reproductive freedom is a matter of social justice, not individual choice.”

It’s easy to mock the pretensions to pro-life piety of a pussy-grabbing president. But what about the white liberal left’s insistence that criticising the global trade in sexual and gestational services is “telling a women what she can and cannot do with her body” and as such is illiberal and wrong? “Individual choice” can be every bit as much of a false, woman-hating god as the one worshipped by the likes of Humphrey and Trump.

One of the most distressing scenes in The Handmaid’s Tale takes place when Janine/Ofwarren has just given birth and has her child taken from her:

“We stand between Janine and the bed, so she won’t have to see this. Someone gives her a drink of grape juice. I hope there’s wine in it, she’s still having the pains, for the afterbirth, she’s crying helplessly, burnt-out miserable tears.”

Right now there are women suffering in just this way. Only they’re probably not white, nor middle-class, nor sitting in a twee white bedroom in Middle America. Oh, and they’re not fictional, either.

The dystopian predictions of 1985 have already come true. It’s just that women like me didn’t notice until we started to be called “hosts”, too.

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.