As England prepare to take on Colombia tonight, Philosophy Football’s Mark Perryman outlines what we might or might not be able to look forward to
The last time England got to this stage at a World Cup there was no happy ending. A 4-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany at South Africa 2010. Well at least we know that isn’t going to happen, Auf Wiedersehen before the postcards, ouch!
Though it might do not to be too cocky, England have a decent record in the last sixteen round when not up against a top tier football nation. Beating Ecuador at World Cup 2006, Denmark in 2002, Belgium in 1990, Paraguay in 1986. But out of that lot, the only time we then made it past the quarters to the semis was when at Italia’90 after beating Belgium in the last 16 we faced Cameroon, rather than a higher ranked team.
This is what makes the Russia 2018 campaign so mouth-watering a prospect. Beat Colombia and the quarter will be against Sweden or Switzerland. And with Spain dispatched England’s semi-final opponent would be Russia or Croatia. Arguably there has never been a World Cup like it for sending well-fancied former tournament winners home early, Germany now joined by the last sixteen exits of Argentina, Spain, and reigning European champions, Portugal.
But again, don’t let's go getting ahead of ourselves. Since England’s last World Cup semi-final appearance 28 years ago non-top-tier football nations; Bulgaria, Sweden, Croatia, Turkey, South Korea, Portugal, those that have never won the World Cup or played in a final, have made it this far. England’s world standing never moved on after 1990. In these intervening almost three decades, we fell behind others and in the recent past have slipped back still further. Thus, Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland, Croatia or Russia can’t be taken as lightly as some might assume.
All those fancied teams going home early has opened up the tournament but something else has happened too. No African team made it into the last 16. Pelé’s prediction that an African team would win the World Cup by 2000 looks as far away as ever. And with only Japan making it through to the last sixteen, despite their plucky performance against Belgium, their eventual defeat means the same goes for Asia too. Football is a truly global game but the very top level remains a European-Latin American cartel with little obvious sign of that changing. World Cups have been won, since its inception, by a remarkably small number of teams. Apart from Brazil, Germany and Italy plus Uruguay’s rather ancient 1930 and 1950 tournament wins following England’s one and only triumph, newcomers Argentina have won the trophy twice, in 1978 and ’86. Three tournaments later host nation France lifted the trophy for the first and only time in ‘98, and another three tournaments later Spain did the same in 2010 but not again since. After the exits of Germany and Argentina, the failure of either four times winners Italy to qualify or Holland, who hold the unenviable record of making the most appearances in a World Cup Final without winning it, the best possible outcome from Russia 2018 would be for a nation that’s never won the World Cup to lift the trophy, or England, of course.
World Cup winners may be more or less unchanging yet something else has changed, for European teams in particular. When England won the World Cup in 1966 the team was all-white. 24 years later and the team that lined up once again to face West Germany in the ’90 semi-final included just two black players, Des Walker and Paul Parker. Another 28 years on and of the England team to face Columbia tonight more than half the line-up will be black or mixed race. Something that when it happened at World Cup 2002 for the first time seemed so natural a development it barely merited a mention. And what is true of England, the same more or less goes for France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and Portugal too, teams made up of a patchwork of a nation’s migrant communities.
Of course, the meaning and effect of all this can be overstated. At France ’98 Zinedine Zidane led arguably the greatest multicultural team of all to World Cup triumph and two years later the same at Euro 2000. But in 2002 Jean Marie Le Pen makes it into the final round of the French Presidential Election for the first time ever, polling almost 20% of the vote. And in 2017 Marine Le Pen achieved the same, this time attracting a third of the popular vote. But the point is that a St George Cross draped in the colours of multiculturalism has at least the potential for the beginnings of a journey away from racism. It has a reach and symbolism like no other, touching the parts of a nation’s soul no anti-racist placard thrust in our faces is ever going to This is the meaning of modern football and when England begin to scale the heights of 2018 World Cup ambition the reach of that message is amplified still further on a scale and in a manner that ’66 could never have done, and ’90 barely began.
A popular Left politics must surely connect with such episodes as metaphor, to translate what we see on the pitch into the changes beyond the touchline we require to become a more equal society. So here’s my maxim for Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues. If Labour cannot explain the meaning of the World Cup why should I listen to what the party has to tell me on how they’re going to fix the mess the NHS is in? Not the flimsy populism of Blair when he adopted the ‘Labour’s Coming Home’ message after England’s last tournament semi, Euro ‘96, but a political practice rooted in popular culture because here, more than anywhere else, ideas are not only formed, but also changed.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of Philosophy Football, self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’. Their England Expects T-shirt is available from here
Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour Party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football, he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest is Corbynism from Below and is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available to order from here.