Growing into your sense of defeat
For long enough — 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, oh how they trip off the tongue — I have comforted myself with the notion that my sense of defeat about football is entirely in keeping with my nation’s performance on the field. But I am getting older now, and Scotland are not getting any better; being a Scottish person means growing into your sense of defeat, and like every other square-shoed man trying to get a bit closer to the bar, I find myself now occasionally looking towards football to offer a sense of nation-sized glory at least once before I pack up my pistols and grow a moustache.
– Andrew O’Hagan, from Hating Football, published in the London Review of Books, 27 June 2002.
Responses to England’s and Wales departure from the World Cup in Qatar, as well as the triumphs of Morocco and Croatia have been wildly divergent, expressing very different levels of national aspiration and expectation. For Scottish fans, as expressed by O’Hagan, this has become a sort of nadir, a pit of hopelessness offset only by pathetic schadenfreude and gallows humour. This is also about shifting baseline syndrome — where once you expected to qualify and compete, now you would be more than content with qualifying (and then being humiliated on a global stage). But what’s interesting is how and why some nations ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ is to aspire to win and some nations ‘shifting baseline syndrome’ is to expect to lose.
For Wales, a team misshapenly dependent on two-star players who, if they had been groceries would have been placed in the reduced/past their Sell By Date section of the store, qualification itself was success. Having not qualified since 1958 the Welsh arrival was on a swell of nationalistic passion, but ultimately came to nothing.
But if Gareth Bale looked past-it — the 37 year old Croatian Luka Modrić (four years Bale’s senior) looked anything but. Modrić’s life story is like something out of Roy of the Rovers (or maybe Tiger and Scorcher). When he was wee his family became refugees in a war-zone. He grew up to the sound of grenades exploding. As with Messi, in early years coaches said he was too weak and too shy to play football. But Modrić was to lead Croatia to its first-ever World Cup final, won the Ballon d’Or, five Champions League titles with Real Madrid and many more trophies. Now he has led Croatia (population 4 million) to the semi-finals of World Cup 2022.
But if this bizarre winter world cup has intensified the idea of each team having some talismanic world-class player, it also means that there is a single-point of failure. This phenomena of the single mega player (worth hundreds of millions) stands uneasily alongside the idea of ‘national aspiration’.
If Neal Stewart has asked the perennial question of why Scotland can’t emulate such success as similarly small-sized countries here, Croatia’s success does raise the question of yearning, nation-building through symbolic acts and moments. In this sense Scotland and Scottish football is a strange beast. At our (apparent) height of the 1970s, the Tartan Army would descend and take-over London, a sea of flags (then Lion Rampant) would reflect what you would imagine to be a huge nationalistic fervour. Yet at this time, nationalism, in the sense of any serious movement for independence was a marginal affair.
I suppose national identity has different outlets now, and with the demise of the Home Championships, the annual fixture with the Auld Enemy is gone. In some senses, the roles are reversed and the English national team is now the bearer of the (repressed? misdirected?) aspirations of national identity. England doesn’t get to be England a lot.
This is all about expectation. For large European countries like France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Netherlands, or countries with a success-pedigree, like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay or others the expectation is to reach quarter, semi and finals. England is a bit of an anomaly, a large European country with a football history and culture, but no real track record of winning anything. This contributes to the difference in approaches to the national game, north and south of the border. If England have a fear of failure, Scotland have a fear of success. What would it look like for us to change the narrative from glorious (and often heroic) failure to workaday functioning-level ‘success’?
This conversation about expectation — what do we want? — has kicked-off in England as post-Qatar soul-searching mixed with pride and the ever-present rage. The sportswriter Jonathan Liew has written:
“England ticked all the boxes here, and in so doing generated about as palatable a tournament defeat as it is possible to conceive. But of course these expectations and judgments do not occur in a vacuum. They create the emotional weather around a team, who can sense on some deep subconscious level what the reaction to success or failure will be. England players of the past have talked of playing in tournament games and being able to envision the public and media uproar even before it happened.”
“And so is it possible that on some deeply unconscious level, the very concept of a palatable defeat can somehow self-prophesy it? Or, put more bluntly: did England’s players and Gareth Southgate need to win this World Cup enough? Did they need to win it like Lionel Messi so clearly needs to win it? Wanting it, striving for it, trying your hardest, is one thing. But should England be more than simply proud and disappointed?”
But the problem is not wanting to win, the problem for England is expecting to win.
Liew again: “If you are a five-time champion such as Brazil or a smaller nation such as Wales, perhaps this is an easier call to make. But for England, whose self-image is wrapped up in all sorts of contradictory motifs — colonial heritage and postcolonial angst, nationalism and internationalism, Premier League wealth and local tribalism — it has often been the very source of their confusion.”
This is where the post-Qatar debate meets the wider political culture.
Strangely, the current English team and management do not reflect a post-Brexit nation characterised by xenophobia and separatism but a contemporary multi-cultural one that stands in opposition to many of the ideals and values associated with England’s ascendant right. Gary Lineker, Gareth Southgate, Marcus Rashford and Alex Scott have become a sort of lightning-rod for regressive culture, they have become unlikely cultural warriors. Now the footballing debate about England and Southgate is less about tactics and selection issues and more about what kind of England they represent. From the debate about taking the knee, to defending the young black players abused after the Euros final, to raising £396 million for school-meals, to speaking out on LGBTQ rights in Qatar, the manager, the players and the pundits have become symbols of a different football culture and a different national culture, one that is more contemporary, liberal, multicultural and progressive.
But the limits to the liberal media front have also been exposed. Despite a lot of froth about LGBTQ rights and migrant workers conditions, the FA, or the squad did nothing at all in Qatar, not even the performative German photo. Alex Scott wore an armband.
Part of this shift is the feminisation of football that has developed rapidly with the massive breakthrough of women’s football in the last few years. ITV featured an all-female lineup for their coverage of Poland–Saudi Arabia last Saturday, with Karen Carney and Eni Aluko joined by host Seema Jaswal. ITV has three female pundits — Aluko, Nadia Nadim and Carney — the BBC has presenters Gabby Logan, and Kelly Cates, and female pundits Alex Scott and Laura Georges plus four female commentators. This is mirrored on the pitch. Last week the first all-female officiating team at a men’s World Cup took to the pitch for the match between Costa Rica and Germany, with French referee Stéphanie Frappart the first woman to referee a match in the men’s World Cup.
This is a long way from Vinnie Jones and Gazza, or a football dominated by lads culture or casuals, but it’s catnip to those for whom England’s imagined Greatness is a totemic idea — undermined by the imagined liberal hegemony, the terribly woke BBC and ‘bloody women!’
But if the shift to greater inclusivity is to be applauded there is something odd also about the emphasis. It is estimated that more than 6,500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka died in Qatar since it won the right to host the World Cup 10 years ago, primarily in the building of stadia, roads and construction. Very little was said about this brutal fact during the tourament. In the light of this the focus on whether you could wear a rainbow bucket hat or that there was another woman pundit seems strange.
But there’s another aspect brought up by Liew’s analysis, that English football culture gets confused by the Premier League, with its vast pools of money sloshing about. If the SPL and wider Scottish football is impoverished and arguably distorted by the duopoly of Rangers and Celtic, and its useless governing authority, English football culture’s own expectations get distorted not just by nationalist jingoism but by the idea that surely they must deserve greatness being the home of such a lucrative corporate beast.
The amount of money poured into the bloated English game has a wider impact. During the pandemic it was revealed that clubs in the Premiership didn’t require actual fans. Most of their income was brought-in from the lucrative tv deals, advertising, merchandise and corporate plans. Fans were now redundant. In this sense, Scottish football has something of an advantage in that clubs are still dependent on the gate money to support them. That slim tendril of connection is still there, just.
The Qatar world cup has been the pinnacle of corporate football, characterised by deep corruption; a game wholly disassociated from the supporters (even to the extent of creating ‘fake fans’) and piped chants; a competition staged in a country with no footballing culture nor legacy. With its air-conditioned stadia and its (failed) attempts at Sport-washing, Qatar was the epitome of late capitalist football, a pitifully soulless spectacle.
As we watch the brilliant Morocco and Croatia how can we change from expected failure to an aspiration to success? As we watch English football culture morphing and changing into something completely different, can we change Scottish football into being something beyond a reality that ‘being a Scottish person means growing into your sense of defeat’?