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Brexit and Football: A story about England

This post is mostly about football! But it is also about England in the aftermath of Brexit. For those of you who can’t stand football, jump ahead to the last paragraphs, but I think it would still be interesting for you and the last paragraphs will make more sense!


A few days after England and Wales wanted to leave the EU, the English football team lost to Iceland, a team that had never been in a major competition, a real David versus Goliath match.


England invented football; it also invented golf, rugby, cricket, tennis, squash, etc. etc. For many decades, England dominated these sports, until other countries started to play them and became serious competition for the English. Football found a natural home in South America and when the World Cup began in 1930, it was Uruguay that first won it. In successive World Cups, it was evenly divided between Europe and South America, but it wasn’t until 1966 that England lived up to its reputation and won it. Not necessarily a coincidence but it was also held in England for the only time in its history. Even though the English invented the game, the rest of the world resented England. It ruled over a quarter of the inhabited globe and imposed its own rules and standards. The USA decided it would make its own rules and it dreamt up variations of football, cricket, hockey, with which they could happily amuse themselves on their own. The rest of the world decided that England’s rules could stay but they would show that even if they didn’t make the rules they would make sure they would beat England at its own game by being better at these sports. The  World Cup was played in England in 1966 and after a very doubtful goal was allowed and England beat West Germany, the rest of the world said never again will they let England play hosts to the World Cup.


But the sixties was a good decade for English football, maybe the last good decade. The World Cup win proved that it could still keep the Germans at bay. Churchill would have been so proud, had he not died the year before.


The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Lulu, Gerry and the Pacemakers all exploded onto the world in the Sixties, Liverpool became a household name but not just for the music, but also because of Bill Shankley’s lads, and Manchester was where Matt Busby’s babes had returned from the ashes of the devastating aeroplane crash in 1958, which killed many of its players. And in a few years, Bobby Charlton, George Best and the others at Manchester United were known the world over.


But English football was heading from those dizzy heights rapidly downhill. In the Sixties, footballers weren’t millionaires, and even the best players received very basic wages. Football itself was not a very lucrative business, and even the BBC could afford to show football matches. But as broadcasting rights and technology improved, football began to be lucrative, and new TV companies sprung up competing with each other to show the best matches. The Common Market was unifying Europe and Britain was grudgingly allowed to join. In 1978, two players, Ossie Ardiles and Ricardo Villa, joined Tottenham Hotspur from Argentina. This was the beginning of a major change for English football. From then on, an increasing number of foreign players and managers were signing up for English clubs. Before 1978, all English clubs had their mix of players from other countries within the United Kingdom, but real foreigners playing in English clubs was a new thing. And what’s more they were bought for ever increasing amounts of money. Record transfer fees were being broken almost every month. And as new blood entered the old First Division, so was the interest from the public, who were prepared to pay more to see these foreign stars, many of whom were also members of what was now being called EEC. English football was becoming exciting and good business. At first there were attempts to control how many foreign players each club could contract, but after 1993, when Britain signed the Maastricht Treaty, European players could come and go wherever they wanted. It was such a free for all that some of the better teams could field a team without any English or even British players at all. And you would have to upturn many stones before you could find an English manager, and even the England national team had several foreign managers.


But all this activity was causing greed as more and more money was thrown into the ring. The top twenty teams felt they could get better deals with the broadcasters if they broke away from the Football Association (FA). And so was born the Premier League. England had done it again! It broke the mold and like so many worthy inventions in earlier times, started a national league as a business, and completely changed everywhere how football was run, managed, financed and played. It is now such a wildly successful scheme that nearly all of the major football teams are owned by wealthy foreign firms or individuals, who buy in to the Premier League for its exclusivity. Manchester United is such a major company that its matches are seen in nearly every country in the world and its billions of fans could be from Chile or Taiwan, and they buy Man U merchandise and pay broadcasters to see their matches.


But what are the consequences of this globalisation of football? First of all, the better British players were earning phenomenal sums of money. All they had to do was turn up to a match and play a bit. They had become lazy. They were adored by the England fans who were fed all the juicy details of their private lives in the tabloids, and they had become superstars earning massive advertising contracts, marrying pop stars and buying mansions in the London Green Belt. The one thing they weren’t doing was bringing home the goods: the desire to win became lost in their ever-changing priorities.


Secondly, the consequences of the influx of foreigners to England’s green and pleasant pitches, was that there were fewer places for British players to shine and become better. It was as if the non-stellar English players just couldn’t become as good as the highly paid foreigners, who had priority to play in the first team to justify their own cost, so the lesser English players retired to the lesser teams, to become bigger fish in smaller leagues. So we come back to the Iceland match. It was such a sorry spectacle, because these multimillionaires were bested by a team run by an amateur, from a total population of 300,000 people. It was as if Bovey Tracy United (pop. 2,500) from Dartmoor in Devon had beaten Manchester United itself.


Here’s where we welcome those lazy football haters from the first paragraph, who skipped the meat to eat the pudding.


So what has all this to do with Brexit? Actually everything. This preceding story is a story of post war England: an England, which had achieved its greatest hour by every man doing his duty, defending England from the Nazis. Within fifteen short years, with a lot of financial help from the Yanks, it had recovered from the shortages caused by war, rebuilt destroyed cities, and had started to raise a generation of baby boomers, youngsters for whom the war was a tale told by their parents. These people were given everything, free education, free health, free prosperity. Flower power could bloom, Stones could Roll, and Beatles had eight legs not six. England hosted and won the World Cup. This was my generation, and if I look back to the sixties with nostalgia, rather than the seventies or eighties, then that is because it was the closest the English ever got to the nadir of happiness after a half century of brutal and devastating war. The English were helped in this remarkable recovery by a large contingent of immigrants from the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. Its population had been decimated by war, and these newcomers helped build a rejuvenated nation. They were from the ex-empire, British citizens, born in British administered lands, speaking the Mother Tongue, albeit with amusing accents. They weren’t from Europe. Britain was still trying to come to terms with Europe. The Germans were still mistrusted and blamed for nearly every problem. The British films were still all about how the English won the war single handedly and the German dialogue in these films, was basically Achtung! And were all called Fritz. The French were ridiculously proud despite having been overrun by the Nazis, and were also not to be trusted, and the Italians and Spanish were jokes. The shadow of the Soviet Union was beginning to be felt, Berlin was divided into two, and there was an Iron Curtain somewhere over there, which sounded ominous but at least it was “over there”.


But to all intents and purposes, the sixties were a fun time, and the older people in 2016 who in a large majority, voted to Leave the EU, recall this as the time when life was mostly good and before Britain joined the Common Market. When a Brit could be proud of being a Brit. They have blamed the EU for every act and law which has removed them from this ideal time of bliss.


In 1973 Britain joined the Common Market and enjoyed the benefits of a free movement of goods, enabling business and many individuals to thrive. It also enabled Britain to gingerly return to Europe but this time without guns, and test the waters. Maybe the Krauts were really trying to change, and the Frogs were not so lily-livered after all, and if they were going to grow and prosper, Britain had better join them and participate. The EEC soon became the foundation of the largest trading bloque in the world and while the Brits had their doubts about the real intentions of this European State, they were part and parcel of the good but also had to swallow the not so good. Like the English football players, Brits were getting swallowed up into something they couldn’t control, and before long after Maastricht initiated the free movement of people from all member countries, many places, just like the big football teams, became unrecognizable, as immigration had enabled thousands of complete foreigners to start living in Britain with all the benefits. However just like the Premier League, it was wonderful business, and many people thrived in this environment: not least those who were selling their goods all over the world, because Britain was part of the EU, like Man United.


So now, an ill-chosen referendum was proposed, which was to become the vehicle, whereby the people from the less prosperous parts of the country, basically everywhere except rich London, Scotland and Northern Ireland, could voice their frustration about how the EU had robbed them of their Britishness, had stifled them in mountains of bureaucracy, and had essentially relegated them to the lower leagues. Their voice last June the 23rd, was that of a lost nation swallowed up, their complaints ignored, decent people trying to make a living, where manufacture had dried up, and what jobs that were available, were given to East European immigrants accepting lower wages and pushing “real” English people on to the street. The lack of any good football players these days is equivalent to the lack of jobs available, no manufacture of new talent. However the real point to this story is that the Premier League, which is the most famous, most watched, richest league in the world, is the result of the EU. And now the Brexit will more than likely mean the Premier League will lose many of the players from abroad which will mean it will diminish in importance, income and status. However, those who voted to leave, and those who want to return to a sixties style of life with a deified Sir Bobby Moore and the 1966 World Cup team, will be very disappointed. The priorities today are climate change, a world population that has trebled since 1966, and strife in the Muslim world which overflows inevitably to Europe. These are world issues which need more cooperation, not less. Those who say that given time, England will be reborn, if only it could decide for itself how to run itself, are misguided, because time is running out. The recent migration of Syrians is the tip of the iceberg. Once the millions of people who live marginal lives, and I don’t mean those marginalised in West Bromwich because a few Poles have set up shop, I mean those in the Sahel, Pakistan, India, the Middle East, etc, who have no more food because their homes have become deserts, those marginalized peoples will be overrunning Europe including Britain and Russia. It is quite possible, Britain will witness a mass emigration of younger English people, those who see opportunity in Europe and the rest of the world, and who voted Remain. Will England become a country of resentful pensioners, but with a reduced GDP to pay for their pensions?


But for the time being, I wanted to use the theme of football, as an analogy for Britain today, because Britain is football mad and Brexit may turn England into a football desert, a place where even Manchester United may become like Tranmere Rovers and where England national teams will continue to be beaten by amateurs. And by that I mean that England, will become less and less significant, a place about which I will no longer feel much pride or have much desire to return to.


Martin Quartermaine

July 2016