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  • Published in Opinion
Winning: Fans watch the match in the Newcastle city centre Photo Credit: North News & Pictures ltd

Winning: Fans watch the match in the Newcastle city centre Photo Credit: North News & Pictures ltd

The World Cup is more than a soccer tournament; it's an occasion for all the nations of the world. Jack Brindelli looks at nationalism and the World Cup

Football is a global phenomenon, with a world-wide support base numbering in the billions. No other sport - and scarcely any other cultural experience - reaches so far across the mass of our species. Indeed, whilst it might be hard for some of the more traditional left to understand – while relatively few babies exit the womb clutching the first volume of 'Das Kapital', most of us were presented with our first pair of boots before the midwife had chance to cut the cord. Our clubs of choice become welded to us almost as tightly as our names, as institutions that bring us together for a shared experience of collective elation or shared agony – and in the process it places people in an environment where boundaries can be crossed, norms can be challenged, and the foundation of a better tomorrow can be built.

You only have to look at “Alerta”, the pan-European network of anti-fascist fans, or the Green Brigade of Celtic - ultras who bleed green and white, but also argue for republican socialist principles amongst their fellow fans - to see the soul of the game, and its supporters, are far more than just the domain of reactionary thugs. You only have to see the Justin Fashanu Campaign, and the numerous LGBT+ fan groups established across the UK (including, I’m thrilled to say, Proud Canaries at my local club, Norwich City FC) which work toward eradicating the bigotry on the terraces that many are willing to write football off for. Fan ownership in places like Portsmouth give us a chance to discuss common ownership, while the overlooked world of women’s football goes from strength to strength, both in quality and popularity, presenting yet a great opportunity to address issues like the gender pay gap.

Football not only provides us with an opportunity to ride a roller-coaster of emotion as human beings then, but is a space where we can reach out to the wider population as revolutionaries. As such, failing to engage with the sport on the same lines as, amongst others, Terry Eagleton or Laurie Penny would not only make us appear as woefully misinformed kill-joys. To disregard football would also crucially be to forsake a golden opportunity to politicise people in their everyday lives - to literally miss an open goal! However, in the shadow of the 2014 World Cup – and the raving patriots cheering England as they kick and rush their way to another uninspiring quarter final exit – it is important not to confuse engaging with football with the need to endorse the 'soft nationalism' that often accompanies these sort of cultural events. Many socialist socceristas understand this – and subsequently, they understand the sting that the studs-down-shin allegation of “smug leftist moral superiority” brings after you announce “I’m supporting ABE (Anyone but England).”

To say “I’m not backing England at the World Cup” is often wrongly conflated with “I think football is a bourgeois distraction – onwards to full communism comrade!” This kind of pigeonholing is about as conducive to meaningful debate as honking a vuvuzela over your counterpart’s speeches – but furthermore it evokes a damaging faux-nostalgia, harking back to a united ‘English character’ that never existed. It conjures up an ungainly caricature that never was; consisting of bulldogs, bicycles, and John Major sipping warm beer with the vicar, on the village green. This dangerous line of logic accepts that all working class people should, and do, inherently accept that fuzzy construct of nationality, as nature – meaning to challenge it would instantly alienates you from ‘ordinary people’. So let them have their flags and their catty comments about Uruguayans – we’ll win them over on everything else. And therein lies the problem.

Because that fuzzy, warm pint of cack that seemed so twee doesn’t stop with the purchase of tacky plates commemorating royal weddings. It’s a gateway, a route through which more insidious ideology can keep its grip on the minds of the masses. Because who’s going to go on strike as long as they genuinely believe we could be “all in this together”? Who is going to fight against discrimination when it’s directed at someone who finds themselves outside the boundaries of that precious ‘English spirit’? Who is going to take to the streets against their government when they still stand to bray and bleat the national anthem, to a Queen who isn’t even present at the ground? Precious few.

The Miners who struck from 1984 to 85 understood as much – to the extent that during the 1986 world cup they could be heard chanting “Ar-gen-tina, Ar-gen-tina”, as Diego Maradona weaved rings around the lumbering Terry Butcher and co - and into the nightmares of the English elite. There was an understanding in that instant that the sweating, sluggish, lumps in the white shirts were at that moment the embodiment of the fraudulent idea of a united nation. They were the personification of the ideas of the very establishment that had less than a year before savagely beaten, brutalised and murdered ordinary people for upholding their right to strike.

This is not to say socialists and radicals should avoid football as a whole then – any more than we should avoid the medium of cinema because of the work of Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstall. Football, as with films or any other form of mass culture, has been commodified - and as an institution has absorbed the ideas of the ruling class like any other – but that is precisely why it is important, now more than ever, to engage with it as a popular forum to battle those ideas – including ideas of national identity. That's why as a proud, footballing fanatic I'll be glued to the every second of the World Cup, whilst supporting the struggles of the Brazilian people off the field. First and foremost however, I'll be supporting anyone but England.

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