Jonathan Wilson's Editor's Note from Issue Twenty Three
There was a time when loudmouth megalomaniacs of questionable political beliefs were football managers and quietly eloquent, slightly bland men who avoided giving offence were politicians. With Gareth Southgate, at the time of writing, seemingly about to be appointed England manager and Donald Trump president-elect of the USA, it’s hard not to think that at some point we got that the wrong way round. What sense, after all, can you make of a world in which a childish joke about the way a predecessor speaks and a vague interest in taking on extra work expressed in private can lead to you being forced to resign from being England manager while racism and misogyny, freely expressed during the campaign, an open contempt for the democratic process, a catalogue of allegations of sexual assault and a fraud case settled out of court for $25million, are seemingly no obstacle to becoming US president?
If it genuinely meant the England manager was held to higher account than the US president, then perhaps English football could take some pride in it. Perhaps the FA executives did genuinely think such conduct was unbecoming of the office. If they did, it’s a little weird and quaint, but it’s laudable. In the modern world any semblance of decency, of having values, is to be supported. But the suspicion must be that it was just part of the craven populism that has taken hold at the FA, of which the poppy farrago is the most crass.
There’s been a creeping militarisation about football for some years. It used to be that the only military presence at an FA Cup final was in the red-coated form of the band of the Coldstream Guards. But now, there’s commonly a military presence on the pitch before kick-off, as though khaki were part of the Cup final ritual. Other than strengthening the bond between football and the military, a strange US import that should be resisted - what is the link? Is it some antiquated sense that both are somehow rugged many activities? - it’s not clear what purpose the soldiers serve. It’s certainly not to bring military precision to the formalities - last season’s Cup final kicked off four minutes late because the army was slow in removing the covers from the pitch.
Football’s modern obsession with war is bizarre. It shouldn’t need saying, but it’s not war, not even war without the shooting, as Orwell had it; it’s a game. It probably is appropriate that on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday public events such as football matches conduct a minute’s silence. It probably is useful to encourage people to take a minute to think, whether they are remembering specific people they have lost, the losses of war in a more general sense, or reflecting on the values that wars are supposedly fought for, which certainly would not involve forcing people to wear a symbol if they didn’t want to. And still, however much minutes of silence have been debased by overuse, there is tremendous power in the silence of a stadium of tens of thousands of people. But what value is there in every club holding a minute’s silence before the home game nearest to Remembrance Sunday? For 90 years after the first Armistice Day, nobody felt the need to do that. So why now? What is gained by dragging out the remembrance process from a weekend to a fortnight? If anything it reduces the impact of the silences. They become part of a routine. It’s as though every club needs to signal that it is remembering for fear it might be accused of not.
A similar impulse seemed to underlie the FA’s stance on the poppies for the Scotland game. Again, this is a modern phenomenon. In 1999 England also faced Scotland on the second weekend in November. Nobody printed a poppy on a shirt or demanded a minute’s silence then. So why now? Because the First World War is longer ago, do we have to remember harder? Fifa’s stance on this is entirely reasonable. It has 209 members. It cannot be expected to investigate the nuances every time one of those members wants to add a symbol to its shirt. What seems virtuous or harmless to one country may be deeply offensive elsewhere. So all additional symbols are banned. For England to demand that regulation not to apply to them it is ridiculous and arrogant. It’s got nothing to do with how appropriate or necessary we may deem the poppy.
The whole business of poppies on shirts is an uncomfortable one, making it something a player has to opt out of rather than opting in to. James McClean is the only player so far to do so, but there are plenty of people across the world who have reason not to look kindly on the British military. Given the general sentiment in Argentina about the Falklands, you wonder how Argentinian players feel about wearing them. It’s all very well saying the poppy memorialises all war dead of any nation, but the fact is that the poppies are produced by the Royal British Legion - who, to their credit, seem embarrassed by the climate that sees those not wearing a poppy hounded. When the BBC feels the need to pin one on the Cookie Monster during The One Show, you know a certain level of absurdity has been reached.
But the poppies are just part of a wider trend, one that goes far beyond football. In an indirect but nonetheless clear way - one that runs quite contrary to their initial intention - the obsession with poppies is tied to a militaristic nationalism of a sort that has been unleashed across the world in the past year, fanned by a reckless populism. In economic, moral and human terms the consequences could be devastating.
The weeks since Trump’s election and since the Brexit vote have seen countless pieces trying to explain what has happened. I’ve no intention of adding to that here, other than to reflect on the loss of faith in the institution of journalism. When major newspapers and television stations distort facts as brazenly as many have in the past weeks, is it any wonder that their authority has leached away and that large swathes of the world seem unable any more to differentiate between what is fake and what is real?
Aldous Huxley feared truth would drown in a sea of irrelevance. It’s a line that’s nagged at me over the past weeks. If the liberal consensus is coming to an end, if the far right is rising as alarmingly as it appears to be, what value is there in expending as much energy as I do thinking about football? Perhaps there is none and perhaps, as David Icke says in this issue, football is just an opiate to distract us from the real problems.
But it is more than that. If nothing else, the increasing disparity in wealth between the haves and the have-nots in football precisely mirrors the wider economic trend. And, more optimistically, in a world that appears determined to turn inwards and close itself off from wider responsibilities, it remains determinedly internationalist. It is inefficient, run by an awkward coalition of the ineffectual and the self-serving and has enriched the rich at the expense of the poor, but at least it still has a global vision. In that, perhaps, there is some small sliver of hope.
This article appeared on Episode Sixty One of the Blizzard Podcast. You can see which other articles we have featured by searching the Podcast tag, but we'd really like you to subscribe which you can do through iTunes, Soundcloud, our RSS feed or wherever you usually get your podcasts of choice.