English football’s media-industrial complex – You are the problem!

Posted on June 24, 2014

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england faith

Without a doubt, the World Cup I most enjoyed as a youngster was USA ’94. Aside from my Merlin sticker book, Baggio’s trickery, Bebeto’s goal celebrations and Valderama’s hair, what, in hindsight, was most enjoyable about the tournament was the fact that England weren’t in it. If my ten-year-old self could have known what would follow, I would have tried to savour it even more than I certainly did. Because every subsequent outing has felt like being forced to participate in a mass cult ritual, in which wild delusion is quickly followed by despair, recrimination and self-loathing. There are multiple aspects to England’s insistent mediocrity in major tournaments, but I would argue the primary one – the one which will prevent any change of fortunes in the foreseeable future – is the pernicious influence of a powerful media-industrial complex that conspires against a team it claims to support. Let me explain…

Although after 1994 it took several years and disappointments for me to work out what was going on, Euro ‘96 should have been the first sign of trouble. This might seem a strange thing to say. It was, by popular consensus, the last time that England performed well at a major tournament. But all the signs of the now familiar debilitating collective neurosis were there. Led by an army of tabloid hacks, TV pundits, celebrities and bandwagon-jumping politicians, fans lurched rhythmically from agony to ecstasy and back again to a soundtrack of “Three Lions on a Shirt”. The entire tournament was wrapped in the mystical superstition evoked by Baddiel and Skinner’s lyrics. After all, England were hosting a tournament on home soil again, exactly 30 years after the famous triumph of 1966 (the footage of which was repeated so frequently that I felt like I’d been there). And every twist and turn that followed was interpreted as some kind of hidden revelation that could only be deciphered by a priesthood of BBC commentators and tabloid headline writers.

England started with a disappointing 1-1 draw with Switzerland. The Doom-mongers fretted, but wait, Ramsey, Moore and co. started with a draw against lesser opposition too. Then Gazza put the tearful demons of 1990 to rest with his ‘wondergoal’ against (little) Scotland, before England revenged the orange disaster of 1994 with a (freak) mauling of the Netherlands to finish top of their group. The mysticism went into overdrive. Subsequently, a dreadful quarter-final with Spain ended goalless, but England won (yes, won!) on penalties, with Pearce, who had missed a kick in 1990, driving the ball home. Surely it was written in the stars… Or maybe not. A, for the most part, poor quality semi-final ended level and the Germans repeated their feat of 1990 by winning the penalty shoot-out. While some were shocked that the prophesy of English victory failed to materialise, others reinterpreted it in mystical terms. So painful was the defeat – against Germany, on penalties, AGAIN! – that pre-destination seemed the only fitting explanation. And following in the footsteps of Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate played the role of worldly vessel for that divine intervention; a convenient scapegoat in the absence of any deeper analysis.

England have never got as close again to reaching a final, but the same toxic cocktail of hype, mysticism and demonisation have followed them at every turn. At the France 1998 World Cup (at a time when the England manager actually employed a faith healer) the highs and lows came equally thick and fast. Michael Owen ‘avenged’ Maradonna’s unscrupulous brilliance with a memorable goal, before Beckham ‘betrayed’ the nation by being sent off. The following day The Sun disposed with custom in its player ratings by giving Beckham a zero, and all of England’s other brave lions 10 a piece. This included David Batty, despite his decisive miss in the penalty shoot-out. Because one villain is always sufficient.

In the years that followed, actual football seemed to become less and less central to the relationship between English fans and the national team. During the 2000s the ‘golden generation’, a crop of reasonably talented, but hopelessly unworldly and tactically inflexible players, found themselves at the centre of an unprecedented media circus. Expectations grew, but attention focussed as much on celebrity WAGs as on tactics, let alone the team’s unreformed playing style. As a result, big names were shoehorned into hopelessly imbalanced sides that never learned to pass the ball to one another.

Strangely, the higher the pedestal was elevated, the less momentous the failures became. The media coverage still harped on about 1966, omens of victory and unresolved national grudges with Fritz, the Argies and the belatedly discovered (but no less perfidious for that) Portuguese. Yet somehow it became more and more focussed on petty incidents and personalities. When the newspapers and broadcasters weren’t talking about the players’ private lives they were hunting for controversies to explain away the seemingly endless succession of anodyne quarter-final exits. Seaman’s blind-spot. Campbell’s disallowed goal. Rooney’s sending off. Ronaldo’s wink. Lampard’s disallowed goal. Sven Goran Eriksson recognised this dynamic and walked away with a tidy £24 million over six years by keeping a low profile and indulging England’s celebrity culture, while getting the bare minimum out of a hypothetically promising team. After 2006 I gave up on England altogether.

Fast forward to 2014. For the first time, probably since Euro ’96, I went into the tournament with fairly positive feelings about the manager, playing staff and the team’s preparations. Let’s get this straight: this was not a strong team. Its best players were either over the hill or unproven talents. There was considerably more promise in attacking positions than in defence or at the base of midfield, as was cruelly exposed by Luis Suarez and Mario Balotelli. For all his knowledge and experience of international football, Roy Hodgson is no tactical mastermind. And yet it was extremely refreshing to enter a World Cup with such low expectations. Even the cartel of talking heads and ex-footballers strewn across various media seemed to embrace the low-key build-up. As a result players like Sterling, Sturridge and Barkley were able to enter the tournament without the self-conscious dread that clearly weighs on the shoulders Gerrard and Rooney, the last remaining members of the golden generation. Could this be part of a larger shift towards a more professional, less image-obsessed breed of English footballer?

But then proceedings got underway and something seemed to go awry. For me, the first sign that nothing had really changed was The Sun newspaper’s free “This is our England” edition, which it sent to 22 million homes across the country. That a morally bankrupt and probably criminal institution should want to use the World Cup to reassert its deceptively vicious brand of plastic-hat nationalism (almost daring politicians to oppose them) is not a surprise. This is a publication that has made billions by destroying the reputations of English footballers, supposedly in the name of English football. What should be surprising is the fact that after so many years of two-faced anti-patriotism, News International could, with a straight face, present the stunt as being anything other than cynical power politics.

A more sincere, but for all that probably more troubling sign of the continued malaise came from the BBC’s television coverage. Before the football kicked off against Italy, a montage depicting English football history through framed portraits trod the familiar old ground: Bobby Moore lifting the cup; the hand of God; Gazza’s tears; Beckham’s red card. The Corporation, carrying the flame of England’s seemingly endless post-imperial identity crisis, was once again holding a young team up against the bar of a mythical past that no-one actually remembers, before a ball had even been kicked. Clearly the realism that preceded the tournament simply couldn’t survive once it had begun.

This media culture not only shapes the way the fans understand the game, but comes to affect the game itself. When football has been framed primarily in terms of national symbolism, whether through the cynical chauvinism of The Sun or the nostalgic insecurity of the BBC, it ceases to be football, and non-footballing explanations will always be sought to account for failure. These may differ, but they will never help. The tabloids seek out individuals to blame (often those they have grossly overrated to begin with), accusing them of “letting their country down”. Recent research suggests that expectations of public rebuke have a huge psychological impact on players in high-pressure situations like penalty shoot-outs. It is no exaggeration to say that the red-tops have probably been directly undermining the England team on the pitch for a generation. A softer, but no more constructive response to defeat is that favoured by the TV broadcasters, of seeking solace in comforting myths about national character traits. After England went out with a second defeat against Uruguay, in the absence of any other straws to clutch hold of ITV’s Adrian Chiles brought up an incident where an English player could have dived to get an opponent sent off. “Is the problem that we’re too honest?”, he asked a generously graceful Gus Poyet.

It is of course painful to face up to the fact of being slightly inferior to two underwhelming sides like Italy and Uruguay. But that is exactly what football analysts and the wider media should be explaining to us. English football faces a huge number of structural issues – a weak youth system; an unsophisticated football culture that values running over passing; a lack of tactical nous among players and managers alike; and an overcrowded national league, where opportunities for regular football are rare, combined with a seeming inability for English players to go and learn their trade abroad. These challenges would be difficult enough to overcome alone. With a media intent on learning and disseminating the wrong lessons from defeat, it becomes impossible.

Perhaps the best we can hope for in the coming years is that expectations will fall sufficiently that it will seem barely worthwhile for English football’s media-industrial complex to hype up the team’s chances in future tournaments. Somehow I don’t see this happening. Wild delusion seems to be part of the appeal for a core section of the fan base, and in any case, any sniff of success would soon bring the old habits creeping back. Long-term change might have to come in smaller steps. So I have a suggestion. Let’s start by making sure we never mention three words around the time of an international tournament: nineteen sixty six.

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Posted in: Football, UK