The Battle for the soul of England

Game of Our Lives, the football podcast from Al Jazeera, is covering the goals, triumphs, tragedies, and politics of the 2018 World Cup

    The World Cup quarter-finals are upon us.

    As Uruguay meets France and Brazil faces off with Belgium, there's still a slight buzz in the air about that final Round of 16 match: England vs Colombia, where England won in a penalty shootout.

    The victory sparked celebrations throughout the nation, as well as debates on the pitch and online. A yellow card for a headbutt? Isn't England supposed to be rubbish at penalty shots?

    One of the lasting conversations that came out of the match, however, was one of identity: What does a victory at this stage of the World Cup mean for the nation, especially in the era of Brexit?

    "The defeat by Iceland at Euro 2016, just days after the referendum of membership in the European Union, was emblematic of the country's shock and disarray," writes David Goldblatt, host of the Game of Our Lives podcast, in his latest feature for Al Jazeera English.

    But, Goldblatt goes on to say, this year's team may just be different.

    "I was prepared to go to my grave without seeing England win a penalty shootout at the World Cup," he says in a new episode of the podcast. "I'm still buzzing."

    While Goldblatt dares to dream of a World Cup victory for the Three Lions, his guest, writer Kanishk Tharoor, thinks the nation has maxed out their quota of triumphs - call it payback for centuries of empire.

    "It's difficult for me to feel that England deserve to win much more," says Tharoor.

    As we near the final weeks of the World Cup, the eighth episode of Game of Our Lives  considers the remaining teams. It includes Tharoor, co-host Tony Karon, and The Totally Football Show's Iain Macintosh, who meditates on why the world has fallen out of love with Brazil, and previews Brazil vs Belgium. 

    Read an excerpt from the conversation between Goldblatt, Karon, and Tharoor, below, and listen to the full episode in the player above.

    David Goldblatt: Kanishk, what's your issue with the England football team?

    Kanishk Tharoor: My issue with the England team is more that as an Indian, as somebody who comes to watching these World Cups without a national dog in the fight, I have always watched them with a general interest in the fortunes of teams that represent, sort of, geopolitical underdogs. And it's difficult for me to feel that England deserve to win much more. I mean, I think about a century ago they maxed out their quota of triumphs. Anything beyond that is just luxurious.

    Goldblatt: I'm hearing you, Kanishk. I'm hearing you. Look, for sure, until England as a society and as a culture looks the consequences and meaning of empire properly in the eye, with the kind of fidelity to truth and emotional honesty that the Germans have managed when looking at their past, I understand. We are entitled to post-colonial opprobrium for the rest of time. But given that - put that aside if you can for one moment - is there nothing about this England side that you find in any way unusual or attractive by comparison to what we've had over the last say 10,12 years?

    Tharoor: Well, you know if their conduct during the game against Colombia shows us anything, it's that England are not that different from everybody else. I think you know, there is this hackneyed idea that English football culture is somehow distinct from other places. That there's a sort of robust courage and honesty that is built into the British game. But we saw in the way that, let's say Harry Maguire, with his sort of guileless, over-proportioned face, threw himself to the ground from time to time. Or Jesse Lingard with his quite clownish face, dived and stamped as well. They're all schooled in, if not the dark arts, the theatrical arts - and sort of necessary theatrical arts that come with so much of football these days; that exaggeration, play acting, managing the referee. These are not somehow foreign to the English game. They are very much assimilated into it. And maybe that's one way this young, seemingly more diverse, more I won't use the word "cosmopolitan", but let's say "progressive" English team, is very much part of the rest of world.

    Goldblatt: For sure, and it's good that we've caught up. I mean, I think we've been there for some time. I recall Michael Owens' superb penalty against Argentina in 2002 where he brilliantly tricked Pochettino into tripping him up in the area and then immediately turned round to look at the referee. And what do you know? We won a penalty! I seem to remember even the Argentinian press saying afterwards in banner headlines, "They've learned." So yes, in some ways it is a more normalized team. What do you feel about it as a South African and a rootless cosmopolitan too, Tony? How are you feeling about this England team?

    Tony Karon: Well actually, what Kanishk was saying was reminding me of how this team in some ways is the negation of this idea that's been prevalent in a lot of the more sort of bigoted, the more nationalist English press for years: That they're too many foreigners in the Premiership. There are too many foreign players, they're mostly foreign coaches. Because, guess what? The reason England is able to compete at the level it does, the reason that we may in fact, finally be looking at a new England - you know Billy Bragg's proverbial new England - is because of the presence of all of those players for decades. The foreign players and particularly the foreign coaches. This is an England team that has grown up playing football as mandated by their club coaches - that's what England is now. So this is a negation of Brexit. Let's be absolutely frank. This is a negation of the "Little England" idea. Because "Little England", if it was a football team, would be rubbish. We know that. So, I share Kanishk's, you know, concerns about jingoism. I mean, in some ways this is still going to be celebrated by the "No Surrender to the IRA" crowd who are still sporting the crusader gear, and so on. But you know in reality what this represents about -

    Goldblatt: Hold on, where's the crusaders? Two things. First of all, the blokes wearing the crusader gear are not necessarily the people who are singing about the IRA. I think that's unfair. There is definitely carnival, albeit slightly cheap fancy dress dimension to the England crowd. But just because you've got chainmail on in 33 degrees heat does not mean that you are a neo-fascist. I mean, actually, that lot haven't put in a really serious showing since the game with Ireland back in 1995 when they tore up the stand and chucked wooden benches onto the pitch in Dublin. That's not to say they're absent. But, this is what I'm finding with so many critics, forgive me gentlemen, that you have an essentialised model of England. You have a model of England that is stuck in the past and England is so much more complex and diverse than you seem to be giving it credit for.

    Listen to the full episode in the player above, and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

    You can also listen on the Game of Our Lives Facebook. Follow the show on Twitter @gameofourlives


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