By John Williams, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Leicester.
On the occasion of his seventieth birthday, in April 1995, the left-wing Labour Party stalwart Tony Benn made an informal speech to his party colleagues at Westminster in which he said he had learned three things in life so far: ‘First, that experience is the only teacher. Second, that all progress comes through struggle. Third, that all achievement is collective and that nothing is ever achieved by one person acting alone.’ These are not bad lessons. They are ones that might seem especially appropriate to the new England football manager Roy Hodgson and his team as they try to convince the country that all previous international failings – England have reached just one major football tournament final, back in 1966 – can now be laid to rest at Euro 2012.
The veteran Hodgson certainly has the experience: he is the first appointee to the England job with previous international management credentials. And the England team and its fans can absolutely attest to the struggles involved in previous campaigns. Although those – like me – who were present when Germany defeated England twice in major semi-finals, in 1990, in Turin, and in 1996, at Wembley, might contest the view that demonstrable ‘progress’ has really followed. And, finally, who could argue that the individual in football is more important than the team today? Except, perhaps, devotees of the Barcelona and Argentina forward, Lionel Messi. Messi’s recent hat-trick for his country in a 4-3 defeat of Brazil took the little man’s seasonal tally to a world record 82 goals scored. Even England might struggle to lose with the brilliant Messi in their ranks.
As many people have pointed out, one of the distinctions of the current tournament is that the England team seems less burdened by the sense of entitlement that usually follows its players and manager abroad. In contrast to the traditional public flag-waving and tabloid press bellicose blather, few people, apparently, expect England to win in Poland and Ukraine. This seems to be confirmed by the fact that so relatively few England fans have bothered to make the arduous and expensive trip to witness events. Fewer than 5,000 fans are expected to travel, compared to five times that number who sailed from bailed-out Ireland, whose fans are merrily cocking a snoop at Angela Merkel and her austerity politics for the Euro-zone in the process.
This relative lack of English public enthusiasm might also be to do with the fact that tournament ticket prices and the new identity politics of England fandom – less crazed hooligans, more multi-cultural, mixed sex groups of beer-swilling sports hedonists – has made Eastern Europe a much harder sell than normal. Added to this disincentive have been the stories coming out of Poland and the Ukraine recently – on BBC’s Panorama, for example - about violence and racism among local ultras and football supporters.
Such scare stories are nothing new. Before the World Cup finals in the USA in 1994 I attended a major conference in Chicago at which the local police chief asked opaque questions about ‘European’ hooligans (would the Danes behave like the English?) and worried about distant visitors straying into local housing projects and possibly getting robbed and shot. Similar fears were expressed before the World Cup finals in South Africa in 2010. No visitor was killed in either case.
The truth is that visiting fans – and the media – at tournaments like these generally avoid the worst of local problems because the security and consumption-based ‘screens’ erected around them typically mean that major events like these are increasingly conducted like discrete and hermetically sealed global tourist projects. They are primarily occasions designed to showcase the hosts in place-marketing terms rather than act as inclusive events that might actually engage with potentially problematic local populations, or raise wider questions.
And some of these tendencies are also pertinent closer to home. Hence the recent letters to national newspapers in Britain from people living in Stratford and Newham in East London claiming that the best chance they might have of connecting with an Olympic Games is actually to travel abroad hoping to get tickets for future Games not hosted near their own communities.
Questions about Poland and Ukraine also remind us that it is an inescapable fact these days that sporting and cultural events are routinely hosted in countries which harbour political, social and human rights concerns. As Kirsty Hughes from Index on Censorship recently pointed out, hosting global TV spectaculars in countries such as China, Belarus and Azerbaijan only really make sense if we also simultaneously spotlight local oppressions and constraints on activism and journalism. However, incidents of racism and ant-Semitism among football fans are higher up the agenda these days for both UEFA and FIFA, arguably, less for these sorts of reasons. It is probably more because they threaten public perceptions and thus the commercial potential of its major international events. No sponsor with global brands to shift wants an association with a product tarnished in this way.
Much less attention is focused, of course, on the banal and relatively hidden institutional racisms which routinely shape dealings inside the world of sport. Which makes the situation facing the England squad and The FA over the next couple of weeks even more interesting. Against the background of widespread concern that black and Asian England fans might be abused in Poland and Ukraine (they could easily experience the same here) has been a highly charged public debate about the John Terry v Rio Ferdinand affair. Despite facing charges of racially abusing a fellow professional player, barring injury Terry will play in all England’s matches in Euro 2012. Meanwhile his usual partner Ferdinand, a seasoned international, has been omitted from England’s ranks despite a series of injuries to centre-backs. Speculation is that Rio cannot be accommodated in the Euro 2012 squad because the victim of Terry’s alleged abuse is Ferdinand’s brother, Anton.
Notwithstanding these complexities, at least the football Euros can be seen as an occasion to temporarily put aside our anxieties about economic crises and the future of Euro-zone and instead celebrate our collective identity as Europeans in sport. But as the Australian sociologist David Rowe points out, it is a conundrum that while sport appears to be the most global of all cultural products, when we actually get together internationally to compete against each other – in football championships and Olympic Games – old nationalisms and tribalisms inevitably re-emerge. It seems that it is only in competing against the ‘other’ that, for good or ill, we remind ourselves what it is that binds us locally and nationally together – and excludes those we choose to define as outsiders.
John Williams is a Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Leicester. He currently teaches on the sociology of sport and the sociology of deviance. His research interests include: the sociology of football and football fan culture; sport and inequality; sports identities and spectator behaviour.