The positive image of continental European footballers at British clubs could help Blair win a referendum on the euroby Simon Kuper / July 20, 2000 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2000 issue of Prospect Magazine
Last season, about half the players in the English premier league were foreigners, most of them from other EU nations. The football writers’ association has chosen a continental European as its player of the year for four out of the last five years. The 1999 winner was David Ginola, the Frenchman who also figures in shampoo advertisements on television and is thus known to many people who don’t like football. Ginola has also been voted Britain’s best-dressed man, as has Ruud Gullit, the former Dutch footballer. Chelsea, the London club which Gullit used to manage, has transformed itself from an outfit featuring second-rate British clodhoppers into one of Europe’s best sides with a largely foreign line-up. Chelsea is managed by an Italian, Arsenal and Liverpool by Frenchmen and, until recently, Wimbledon by a Norwegian former Marxist. Those four outnumber the total number of foreign managers in the English top division between 1900 and 1995. In short, foreigners are taking over English football clubs. This is not happening in many other business sectors. Only if you work in one of a few select offices in central London are you likely to have many continental European colleagues. Nor do Britons encounter continental Europeans in many other spheres of daily life. They may be served by an Australian in their local pub or by a naturalised Bangladeshi in their local Indian restaurant, but unless they live in central London they will meet few continental Europeans. Just 1.6 per cent of EU citizens are permanent residents of another EU country, and few of those live in Birmingham or Sunderland. It is true that the British increasingly visit continental Europe, where they meet continental Europeans. However, most of those contacts are shallow: with waiters, petrol pump attendants or strangers in nightclubs. And it is no exaggeration to say that, even ten years ago, to most Britons the French were people who wore berets and smelt of garlic, while the Dutch wore clogs and smoked drugs. They were all forever caving in to the Germans, and if you went on holiday to poor southern European countries such as Italy or Spain, you were likely to be cheated. Although public debate in Britain about the EU is dominated by a low level euro-scepticism, most people do not hold strong views about Europe. But many Britons do care a great deal about football. The only comprehensive survey on the subject, published by Forrester Research, showed that 18m people in England and Wales describe themselves as football fans. Even greater numbers watch the big England matches. So it seems reasonable to assume that football could make a difference to British attitudes towards European integration. To begin with, football has put a few living Europeans into the British public mind. Ten years ago, how many Britons could have named a living Frenchman or German? Perhaps Brigitte Bardot, maybe Helmut Kohl, possibly Franz Beckenbauer. Few continental film stars or musicians have ever become big in Britain, and ten years ago the tabloids had already given up foreign coverage. Roger Jowell, director of the National Centre for Social Research, says: “Even when the Sun ran that headline, “Up yours, Delors,” 90 per cent of the public probably didn’t know who Jacques Delors was.” Ten years ago, too, British football crowds encountered continental footballers almost only as opponents in international matches. Narcissistic foreigners who rolled their socks to their ankles or wore their shirt outside their shorts were jeered. Commentators and coaches used to dismiss “continentals” as “lacking bottle” and being inclined to cheat. By contrast, among the most prominent figures in England in recent years have been Eric Cantona (French, handsome, charismatic, a brilliant footballer, arrogant), David Ginola (French, handsome, charismatic, a brilliant footballer, arrogant, enemy of Cantona), Ruud Gullit (Dutch, handsome, and so on) and Dennis Bergkamp (Dutch, deeply uncharismatic). Jowell agrees that these footballers probably enjoy widespread “male recognition,” if not “female recognition.” Gianluca Vialli, the Chelsea manager, and Gianfranco Zola, one of his best players, are certainly better known than their compatriot Romano Prodi. This matters. Ginola, Bergkamp and Zola help to put faces on those abstractions: “the French,” “the Dutch,” “the Italians.” It would be hard to design more attractive faces if you were a marketing man for the EU. The continental Europeans playing in Britain are mostly better players than the home-grown ones. They are also considered more sophisticated. They tend to speak good English, and many of them are well educated. Bergkamp finished school to the equivalent of A-levels, while Slaven Bilic, the Croat who played for Everton and West Ham, has a law degree. By contrast, British football, which usually requires aspiring players to leave school at 16 to become an “apprentice,” has a selection bias favouring the least educated members of the population. Foreign players also tend to look better than British players. In part, this is the result of a healthier diet. Until recently, British footballers ate working class staples such as sausage and chips, and drank a lot of beer. The foreign players were astounded. But most foreign players have been astute enough to state frequently how much they like living in Britain. This comes easiest to those living in London. (Bryan Roy, a Dutch winger with Nottingham Forest who found the East Midlands wanting, kept quiet about it.) Most of the foreigners also seem capable of getting on with British people. The young Manchester United players adored Cantona, while Bergkamp and his erstwhile striking partner at Arsenal, the rap music-loving, loud Ian Wright, struck up an unlikely friendship. The message was that Britons could work with Europeans. In response, fans even adopted foreign symbols to cheer on their clubs. Manchester United fans at the FA cup final of 1996 waved French tricolore in honour of Cantona. Arsenal fans briefly chanted Allez les rouges, while Middlesbrough supporters wore Brazilian team shirts for Juninho. When the German striker Uwe R?sler became a cult hero at Manchester City, fans celebrated the Luftwaffe’s wartime bombing of the Manchester United stadium with T-shirts which read: “Uwe’s Granddad Bombed Old Trafford.” When France won the 1998 World Cup, the Daily Mirror’s front-page headline was Arsenal Win the World Cup, above a photograph of Arsenal’s Frenchmen, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira, embracing. It was parochial and internationalist at the same time. (Similarly, in golf’s Ryder Cup of 1999 the British tabloids supported the purportedly gentlemanly European team against the supposedly cheating Americans. And in the rugby World Cup later that year, most British fans ended up supporting France.) There are, of course, foreigners who offend English sensibilities. Sasa Curcic, a Yugoslav formerly with Bolton, reported that northern women were ugly. The Italian Paolo di Canio fought dirty with Celtic in order to get more money, won a contract with Sheffield Wednesday, and there pushed over a referee, enhancing perceptions of Latins as greedy, violent, lawless and emotional. However, none of these sins matches those of English players such as Paul Gascoigne (alcoholic, a wife-beater, caught eating a kebab early in the morning in Soho shortly before the last World Cup) or Paul Merson (once addicted simultaneously to alcohol, cocaine and gambling). So the profile of continental European footballers in Britain is high. This is far more effective pro-EU propaganda than any of the formal attempts to generate European feeling. The Adonnino committee, set up after the European summit at Fontainebleau in 1984, chaired by the Italian MEP Pietro Adonnino, recommended various measures to build the public’s sense of European identity: a Euro lottery; the adoption of the blue flag with gold stars as the EC emblem; and the creation of European sports teams. But it is the current Chelsea side which is the epitome of Adonninismo. Oddly enough, the man who did most to make that possible is the eurosceptic Rupert Murdoch, whose Sky channels provided the money which allowed British clubs to buy the best foreigners. However, the continental Europeans at British clubs have done more than spread an Alle Menschen werden Br?der integrationism. They have spread the notion that the continent does things better. (It was noticeable, in last winter’s panic about the NHS, how even the mainstream media was unfavourably comparing Britain’s health arrangements with those of continental Europe.) In football, ideologies are tested quickly by results. And in recent times the europhiles have won almost every match. Until the early 1980s, the British could still believe that when it came to football they were best. Teams from the English provinces, typically consisting of hard-drinking muscular Britons supplemented by a couple of hard-drinking muscular Irishmen, won the European Cup seven years out of eight between 1977 and 1984. Those were the days when Nottingham Forest were better than Juventus or Real Madrid. Even then, English fans might have agreed that the continentals played a more sophisticated football-more passing, more brain, less brawn-but this was then seen as a drawback. The simple, British way worked best: long punt to the toothless centre-forward, goal. It was thought to be to the credit of the English that they did not mess about with continental ideas. You just had to look at the trophies. Then, on 29th May 1985 at the European cup final in the Heysel stadium in Belgium, Liverpool fans ran riot and 39 Juventus fans died. From that day on, the eurosceptics have been losing the football argument. Hooliganism became known as “the English disease.” To the average Italian or German, who did not know many English people personally, the image of the young Englishman became that of a hooligan. The foreign press explained that these thugs were the products of huge deprivation in places like Liverpool and Manchester. In England, too, there was shame. In fact, leaving aside that day at Heysel, hooliganism should never have become such a big law-and-order issue. Football violence paled by comparison with violence in pubs and clubs which had nothing to do with football. Twenty years ago, when hooliganism was at its peak, there were more arrests on a typical Saturday night in Oxford city centre than in the entire second division programme for that weekend. To England, hooliganism mattered mainly as an image problem. The violence, although usually slight, was often broadcast around the world. (The English image problem persists, in weaker form, to this day. At recent World Cups and European Championships, most of the violence has been caused by England fans.) After Heysel, English clubs were banned from European tournaments. When they were allowed back, in 1990, they could no longer win trophies. By losing touch with the continental game, they had fallen behind. It took until 1999 for an English side to win the Champions League (the successor to the European Cup), and this was hardly a straightforward British triumph. That Manchester United team played like the best continentals: it was led by a manager who frowned on drinking and featured a Dane, a Dutchman, a Swede, a Trinidadian and two Norwegians. The best English clubs have adopted continental ways. Watching Cantona go off to train voluntarily in the afternoons, the young Manchester United players of the mid-1990s realised that maybe there were more useful ways of spending their time than playing snooker. At Chelsea, when Gullit became manager, he made the dinner ladies at the training ground serve salads and pasta at lunchtime. Vialli, while still a Chelsea player, was so careful of his muscles that he did not even drive to training, using a chauffeur instead. Ten years before that would have been considered a laughable foreign affectation. But in the new era it was held up as an example. Healthy living became the consensus. A book called The Italian Footballer’s Diet was published in Britain. At Arsenal, the players agreed to ban alcohol from the players’ lounge after matches. Recently, the Chelsea chairman Ken Bates publicly attacked Jody Morris, one of his few English players, for eating too many hamburgers. Conversely, continental football has not become at all British. Steve McManaman of Real Madrid is the only top-class English footballer now playing abroad. Most of the others who have tried have failed to adapt, not learning the language and shocking locals with their drinking. Ian Rush came back from two miserable years with Juventus saying it had been like a foreign country. Such failures make the transition of the continentals-Vialli has even begun to speak estuary English-look all the more impressive. The continental Europeans in British football have become poster boys for mobility: they have taken exciting, well-paying jobs in a foreign country and are mostly coping well. This is crucial, because mobility of labour is a central EU ideal. Asked in a poll what the EU meant to them, the most common answer among 15- to 24 year olds was “the ability to go wherever I want in Europe.” Footballers show that it can be done. When it came to the England team in the 1990s, the europhile victory was even more complete. The manager at the start of the decade, Graham Taylor, favoured a traditional game. “Football should be honest, open, passionate,” he once said. “Part of a nation’s culture is the way it plays its sport. And the British way is with passion and commitment.” It proved a disaster. Beaten by a more sophisticated Dutch team, England failed even to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. Their defeats, and those of the cricket team, mirrored Britain’s humiliating ejection from the ERM under John Major. Taylor resigned and was succeeded by Terry Venables. Nicknamed “El Tel” after his years spent coaching Barcelona, where he had even picked up some Spanish, Venables saw the Dutch as his role model. He created an England team which played continental football. At Wembley on 18th June 1996, in a European championship match, his side thrashed the Dutch role models 4-1. That night remains the most vivid enactment yet of the Blairite message that Britain can turn itself into a modern European country. Significantly, the 4-1 was not greeted with Rule Britannia-style triumphalism. Instead, spontaneously, the Wembley crowd began to sing a song called Three Lions, written for the England team that year by David Baddiel and Frank Skinner. Reflecting that, after years of failure, the fans knew that “England’s going to throw it away, gonna to blow it away,” the lyric’s bittersweet refrain was, “thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming… football’s coming home, it’s coming home.” The song found a resonance beyond football. It was sung at Ascot and at Wimbledon. Major, Blair and Paddy Ashdown all referred to it in their party conferences speeches that autumn. It became the unofficial national anthem. The song seemed to tell the English who they were: a proud nation which had endured much failure, but now saw a better future. One of the most enduring tenets of English nationalism is that foreigners cheat at football. Nothing so outrages an English crowd than a long-haired foreigner writhing on the ground clutching his head, trying to get an English defender sent off for a possibly imaginary foul. English fans consider this dishonest and effeminate. These dives make a disproportionate contribution to anti-European feeling. But the debate is shifting here, too. In recent years English footballers have adopted the dive just as they have taken to other continental practices. Michael Owen has become a leading exponent. It was his dive that won England a crucial penalty against Argentina in the last World Cup. It is true that the English dive is more goal-oriented than the continental version: the English player goes to ground but then quickly stands up instead of feigning near-death. His acting is minimalist. He is not trying to get his opponent sent off, simply hoping for a free kick or a penalty. None the less, even when it comes to diving-the archetypal continental sin-the Dover-Calais divide is blurring. We are becoming more like them. We have had to. British fans would probably rather watch good British players than good foreigners. But there can be very few now who think that the British style of football is best. The traditional game is dying out, the victim of a sort of cultural Darwinism. The continental way has proved more efficient, more modern. Does this really matter? Football is only a game. Surely its fans can see that issues such as the single European currency, the common agricultural policy and the powers of the European parliament should be assessed on their own merits? The problem is that most of us have little idea what these merits are. British tabloid newspapers, radio stations and television channels do not give European issues much of an airing. I fly regularly to the Netherlands and I am always struck, on returning to Britain, how lowbrow most British news is. The Dutch newspapers are full of technocratic debates about interest rates or social security benefit levels for 2004. The front pages of British newspapers, once devoted to Conservative sex scandals and Princess Diana, now feature David Beckham and Posh Spice, Paul Gascoigne or David Ginola. When the tabloid newspapers do discuss European issues, they do so mainly by evoking popular narratives. First, Hitler tried to conquer Europe; now the Germans are using the EU to do the same. We Britons must stand up to them. Second, the Europeans have always been given to wild theories devoid of commonsense; now their bureaucrats are striving for straight bananas, cucumbers and the like. We Britons must stand up to them. Third, the Europeans cheat: the Italians vote for EU directives and then never implement them; the French illegally ban British beef; and they all dive when they haven’t been fouled. We Britons must stand up to them. These tabloid narratives have popular appeal. Yet they have failed to swing the British decisively against Europe. Even when it comes to an untried idea savaged by the tabloids such as the single currency, most Britons still seem open to persuasion. One reason might be the two subliminal messages that so many of them receive from football. First, continentals are not bad people. In fact, they drink less, fight less, look better and are better educated than we are. They can work in harmony with Britons. Second, the continental way is more efficient than the British way. If we don’t follow them we will be left behind. Nobody, not even economics dons, knows whether the euro will be good or bad for Britain. This means that the way Britons vote in a referendum will depend mainly on their gut feelings about Europe. And those gut feelings are shaped, increasingly, by football.