World Cup: now it’s the Football of Fear

Before a ball has been kicked, our festival of the beautiful game has already been depicted as an ugly carnival of all that is wrong with the world.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

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What terrible series of events could have been predicted by authorities and experts to produce an increase in national and racial hatreds, public disorder, domestic violence, depression, binge-drinking, obesity, heart attacks, drunk driving, human trafficking, suicide, and even global warming within the next month or so?

The answer, of course, is the 2006 World Cup in Germany, which kicks off on Friday 9 June.

I am speaking at a pre-World Cup debate in London on Wednesday 7 June, alongside such luminaries as Richard Caborn, the sports minister, and DJ Spoony of Radios One and 5Live (see What does football mean to me?). The question to be discussed is ‘What does football mean to me?. To judge by the portentous tone of much pre-World Cup coverage, however, the question might be ‘What doesn’t the World Cup mean to doom-mongering idiots these days?’

Before a ball has even been kicked, our once-every-four-years festival of the beautiful game has already been depicted as an ugly carnival of all that is supposedly wrong with the Western world today. We have analysed before on spiked the way that every public and private matter, from bird flu or climate change to sex and food, is currently viewed through the distorting prism of the Politics of Fear (for example, see spiked-issues on bird flu, the environment, and obesity). As if that wasn’t bad enough, it seems that we now have to put up with seeing the World Cup turned into the Football of Fear.

Apparently football can no longer be seen as ‘just a game’, far less savoured as a simple thing of joy. Instead it has to be weighed down with all of the life-draining baggage of our miserabilist age, the anti-Panglossian belief that everything must be for the worst in the worst of all possible World Cups.

The multiple scare stories so far attached to the event range from the banal – such as the health risks involved in consuming junk food and beer while getting over-excited in front of the television, especially during those cardiac arresting penalty shoot-outs – to the exotic. These include claims that between 40,000 and 100,000 foreign prostitutes, many of them working under duress, are to be shipped into Germany by human traffickers to service the fans; and that global warming in England could be increased by the extra fuel motorists will have to use to counter the ‘flag drag’ caused by those flapping red-and-white flags on their cars.

Even the familiar panic about the prospect of football hooliganism has been ramped up this time around, by tying it into fears around immigration and racism in Europe. There has been much speculation that hordes of Polish and other east European hooligans are planning to invade Germany under cover of the World Cup (alongside the English, of course). Others have expressed worries that the World Cup might prompt racist attacks against foreigners by the German far right, and outbreaks of Islamophobic violence around Iran’s participation.

Meanwhile, back in England, the Metropolitan Police is reportedly making plans to protect isolated immigrant communities from English fans – including the Swedes, whom England will play in the qualifying group. Good luck to the Met in finding a Swedish ghetto in London, never mind defending it. These various worries about hypothetical ethnic violence had taken hold before anybody even started to consider the possible threat of a terrorist attack on the tournament.…

Underpinning all of this nonsense are our society’s other fashionable obsessions – fear, misanthropy and mistrust. At a time when humanity is continually cast as a dangerous villain, more so when people’s passions get a chance to slip the leash, it is little wonder that a mass event such as the World Cup should be seen in such a gloomy light by some in high places. When we are not being branded as a mob supposedly fit to be sparked into a pogrom by a referee’s decision or a German-baiting song, then we are being pitied as vulnerable victims, allegedly incapable of handling a few beers or a penalty shoot-out defeat without sinking into a slough of near-suicidal despair.

It is striking how Britain’s insecure elites now fear any rise of nationalistic sentiments around the World Cup. In the past, when British nationalism was a real force in society, the authorities would encourage a flag-waving ‘Falklands Factor’ around football (while tut-tutting about the ‘national shame’ of patriotic hooliganism). Today’s football-related flag-flying is a pale imitation of that traditional nationalism, a sort of ersatz English patriotism that means little or nothing in political terms. Yet such is the loss of self-confidence among the political and cultural elites that they appear to fear their own flag.

Thus the authorities are warning England fans not to upset their German hosts by singing jingoistic war songs (indeed they have suggested that they sing in German), doing Basil Fawlty impressions or waving inflatable Spitfires around. It seems it is the English FA and the British government, rather than the German fans, who don’t ‘get’ irony now.

New Labour is desperate for England to do well at the World Cup. It has for some time seen football as one of the few things that the nation (at least the English parts of it) can still unite around, at least for 90 minutes. Tony Blair was never going to leave Downing Street so long as there was the slightest chance of him hosting a victory reception for David Beckham and ‘the lads’ in July. Yet at the same time, the buttoned-up authorities are wary of what they fear could come with a successful (or indeed unsuccessful) World Cup – the crowds and the emotions and the drinking and the disorder. On both sides of this ambivalent attitude, the authorities endow football with the sort of magical hold over the public imagination of which the isolated and impotent political class can only dream.

On the left, the confusion over the meaning of football seems even worse. Some on the liberal left react to the appearance of the Cross of St George all over the place as if it were a sign of English fascism on the march. Others of the Billy Bragg school talk about ‘reclaiming’ football-centred English patriotism for the left, making the flag a symbol of our multicultural society. Both sides see a political significance to World Cup fever that exists only in their fevered imaginations. They are as out-of-touch with the reality of football matters as those who claim that Peter Crouch is a good substitute for Wayne Rooney.

In truth it is only because of the gaping hole in society where politics should be that many can attribute such political importance to a game of football today. And it is proof of the utter poverty of our public life that a basically irrelevant and trivial sport, even so magnificent a trivial irrelevancy as football, should be blown up into such an over-inflated state. The sense of collective excitement around the World Cup for a couple of weeks should surely be tempered with a feeling of disappointment that people do not have anything more substantial to generate such a sense of belonging. However, those who worry about these things would do better to debate how we might change that situation, than to displace their anxieties on to football and wring their hands about the World Cup.

Football is expected to carry a crazily heavy burden these days. A couple of years ago, during the football fever surrounding England’s involvement in Euro 2004, I coined the phrase ‘soccerism’ to describe the tendency to ascribe many of society’s problems to the game, and at the same time to look to football for solutions to everything from obesity to racism. The scourge of soccerism now seems to get worse around every major tournament. It cannot solve anything in the real world. But it does risk ruining our enjoyment of football.

A good thing, then, that the matches themselves are played away from all this madness, on Planet Football. That is why some of us will be even gladder this time when the action starts, and we can escape for a while from watching the World Cup being kicked around as the Football of Fear by a team of champion miserabilists, misanthropes and killjoys.

Mick Hume is the editor of spiked. He is speaking at the debate What does football mean to me? at The Football Arena Adjacent to The Vibe Bar, Brick Lane, London on Wednesday 7 June. The event starts at 7pm and entry is free.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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