December 21, 2014
England and the foreign fix
For the Herald
Real cause of demise is not misfortune but choice
THE HAGUE — Success in soccer says next to nothing about the spiritual health and economic well-being of a nation. Failure on the other hand, dank, absolute failure, seems to lead quite naturally to examination of the sins in a country’s soul. At least for a few days, and above all when concerning that serial exponent of World Cup self-abasement, namely England.
It did not take long for the missile launched from the foot of Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez on Thursday night to ignite the customary bout of flagellation. This time around, the menu of causes on offer to explain England’s swiftest elimination from the Cup in 60 years seemed wider and deeper than ever before, becoming almost Homeric in dimension after absorbing over the decades each new variation on the theme of failure — glorious and inglorious, deserved and undeserved, defeat by Argentina or defeat by Germany.
This is not the place to consider all those causes, hopping as they do from tactics to players, to excessive youth or old age, heat, wages, travel, the anxiety of the British public, the hysteria of the tabloid media or the effects of the housing boom on the availability of green playing fields. Yet within all this wringing of hands, one explanation appeared to be more scientifically grounded that any other. Suárez, should it bear repeating, is a player for Liverpool FC, which is also the team of five of England’s starting eleven against Uruguay. The difference is that he is the star, and they are the backing singers.
Put another way, clubs in the English Premier League have become utterly dependent for their players, and above all their dynamos — creative midfielders and scoring strikers — on foreign talent. A year ago, it emerged that 68 percent of Premier League players were non-English; for the top four sides, only a quarter are now English. In this year’s winning side, Manchester City, only one regular first-team player was in fact English, and he was the goalkeeper.
In the Europe of the xenophobic itch and the populist urge, this argument can attract some disagreeable company on your nearby bar-stool. So it is important to underline exactly what is meant. A lot of foreign players can live quite happily alongside very good home-grown players: Spain until this tournament was the perfect example. Likewise, the quality of soccer played by clubs can improve sharply under foreign influence, as it has in England. But insofar as the frantic competition for money and status spreads across the Premier League, locking together in a Faustian pact shadowy foreign investors, dewy-eyed domestic supporters and the collective wage hunger of professionals and staff, the result is a crazed rush for instant solutions.
Young English soccer players tend to face one of two paths through this simulacrum of hyper-capitalism, with its 24-hour cycles of headlines, appraisals, transfers and sackings. One is to stay unnoticed and neglected as clubs’ interest in training and development wanes. The other is to be so good so young that promotion into the stable of millionaire players follows, if only because the club can then sell you on for a nice fat fee. Corruption of the new hope’s body and mind invariably ensues.
The real cause of England’s demise is not misfortune but choice — and it is this that makes the issue so visceral and resonant. Cup after miserable World Cup, the national side brings into question the idealism once espoused by British philosopher and Socialist Bernard Williams, who hoped that the dilemmas of achieving equality in modern societies could be met by seeking “the best way of eating and having as much cake as possible.”
Fellow philosopher Isaiah Berlin, meanwhile, was developing a clearer vision of the issues that would shape English soccer. In his view, there are values that are simply incommensurable: equality and fairness, or efficiency and democracy, to which we might add a strong and competitive league and a strong and competitive national side. England eats the cake, but the foreigners definitively have it.
It came as a cruel coincidence, then, that on the day after England’s defeat, the United Nations should publish a report showing that the world population of displaced people now exceeds 50 million — its highest level since World War II. Far from being feted for their talents, these people, many of them fleeing warzones in Afghanistan, Syria or Africa, are generally met with a cold gaze of indifference. Should they consider coming to Europe, they are likely to be met by ever more barbed barriers, rougher seas, and the sort of political leaders who trade on panic over mass human movement.
Clearly, an ethical wasteland stretches between the hostility meted out to these unwanted refugees and the welcome afforded to a non-European foreigner with a number 9 pinned on his back. What both refugees and footballers share in their treatment, however, is a certain European calculation of advantage, a measurement of profit and loss, and a desire not to know too much about the countries of origin; self-interest as applied to migratory inflow is perhaps the one universal law of European population policy.
When this rule is applied to migrants heading in ever greater numbers from poverty and conflict, it raises deeply troubling issues as to the future of border control and of intervention in distant wars. Yet when the law of self-interest is applied to soccer, it generates the moment that that was sweet to all but the English: a talismanic figure from a tiddling South American nation, felling his lesser club comrades with a bit of foreign magic.