England and the World Cup: not a marriage made in football heaven

By John Williams, Senior Lecturer, Department of Sociology, University of Leicester.

After months of rampant speculation, disturbingly detailed media stories about alleged FIFA corruption, accounts of the deaths of workers on multi-million stadium construction projects in Brazil, a shoal of violent local street protests, documentaries about the problems of poverty and Brazilian child prostitution, and millions of words spent on describing the world’s best players and coaches, the football World Cup finals are finally upon us.  Our feted South American hosts are up against Croatia tonight (Thursday 12 June) and England will soon be pitted against old rivals Italy, up in the heat and humidity of the Brazilian Amazonian tropics.

In the face of this rather depressing list, to say that football is a true cultural universal which briefly binds together in celebration people, rich and poor, otherwise divided by language and culture, seems glib and recklessly optimistic. And yet it remains true that the football World Cup has an enormous global reach.  Some 204 nations were involved in the 2014 qualifying tournament, producing 31 qualifiers to add to hosts Brazil.

Although independent sources challenge these figures and there is certainly much double counting involved, FIFA estimates that some 3.2 billion TV viewers watched at least one minute of the final stages hosted by South Africa in 2010 – or a staggering 46.4% of the Earth’s population.  Only the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games regularly challenges the World Cup final itself for global attention.

Historically of course, the English have often had ‘issues’ with the football World Cup.  Although the tournament was first played in 1930, England refused to take part until 1950, fearing (with some reason) the competition would become a focus for excessive nationalism and win-at-all costs values at odds with English notions of ‘fairness.’  Her first experience of the finals – also played in Brazil – was salutary: defeat by the unconsidered United States.

In 1966, famously, England, the hosts for the first and only time, actually won the World Cup. The victory raised hopes that this was no home-team blip, but actually a signal of the natural order of things being restored. However, only briefly, in 1990, has England ever threatened anything like a repeat performance and few hold out hopes in 2014.
Worse, in the 1980s and 1990s, I routinely attended the World Cups and other major football tournaments involving England in Europe. These could be described as the fighting years, a decidedly miserable experience. While the PR departments of FIFA and UEFA trilled on about members of the global ‘football family’ being brought together to celebrate a ‘festival of football’, young England fans were busily rampaging around foreign streets, looking for ‘foreigners’ – or even the local police – to attack.

Since 2004 the atmosphere around England matches has happily been transformed: much of the violent nationalism and racism among groups of England followers has been replaced with a more urbane, less mono-cultural, sensibility.  The costs and distances involved in travelling to Brazil will also make this a mainly ‘tourist’ World Cup, so trouble between rival fans is likely to be minimal.
Instead, the focus in terms of public order is liable to be on managing the dissent of members of poorer communities in Brazil. FIFA’s World Cup finals may satisfy corporate sponsors, TV executives and the armchair viewer, but they have work to do convincing local people that millions of public money spent on football – even in Brazil – is cash well spent.

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