If a soccer team bears the hopes of a nation, it is also saddled with that nation’s particular fears and neuroses. Everything is about hope, up to the exact moment the team crashes out of an international tournament, and then fear takes over. Blame must be meted out, and the way in which that happens tells a story. This is, and always has been, particularly true of England.
Two days after #Brexit happened, England, the land that invented the sport, was knocked out of the European Championship by Iceland, a place with the population of a London suburb. England was dreadful throughout the tournament. Anyone with a passing familiarity with soccer could see there was simply no team there to speak of, no collective purpose. Roy Hodgson built everything around captain and record goalscorer Wayne Rooney, who was bizarrely deployed as a midfield playmaker having spent his entire career as a forward. Early on the English press purred, comparing Rooney’s early displays in the tournament to Andres Iniesta and Andrea Pirlo. You did not have to have seen Rooney’s matches to know that this was likely insane. It was painful to watch this delusion set in, as the English side stunk its way out the tournament. As philosopher Simon Critchley noted, “The team suffered from two main deficiencies: it could neither attack nor defend.”
So whose fault was it? And whose fault would it be said to be?
When England lost to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup, David Beckham was blamed. He had been sent off for kicking out pointlessly at Argentina’s Diego Simeone in the round of 16 and the team lost in penalties. An effigy of Beckham was strung up from a noose outside a pub. It wore a homemade “Beckham 7” shirt, and a sarong of the kind a breathless and baffled tabloid press had pictured him wearing earlier that year. The effigy shamed the pretty, stylish Beckham both for the ineffectual act of aggression which had gotten him sent off, and for having flouted the homophobic, misogynistic codes determining the kind of man who ought to be representing England on the football field.
In 2016, it’s Raheem Sterling’s fault. Not the manager, who has already resigned, saying “These things happen.” Nor Joe Hart, the goalkeeper who made a string of basic errors, (but likely deflected much of the criticism he might have faced by demonstrably punching himself in the face on camera following Iceland’s second goal.) Nor any number of other players who performed poorly, nor even the English Football Association that presided over this mess. Sterling was booed by England supporters during the first match against Russia, and the vitriol aimed in his direction has only gotten more poisonous since.
Sterling is the best English winger of his generation, a speedy, versatile, tactically sophisticated player who has excelled in a number of forward positions at a young age, including the notoriously difficult ‘false nine’ position. In other words he embodies exactly the qualities the English team has lacked over many years. He had a disappointing tournament, yes, but he’s a 21-year-old who was off form and low in confidence.
Thursday the Sun and the Daily Mail (the two biggest selling newspapers in the country and two principal authors of Brexit) both ran prominent stories on Sterling having purchased an expensive new home, purportedly for himself. “OBSCENE RAHEEM” was the Sun’s headline: “England failure steps off plane and insults fans by showing off blinging house.” Down the page, the paper described Sterling as a “footie idiot.” The Daily Mail took a similar tack: “England flop Raheem shows off blinging house.” The Sun carried another story on Thursday about a young semi-professional footballer who had become a drug dealer. The story was accompanied by a picture of Raheem Sterling, who has nothing at all to do with the report.
Both newspapers direct their readers’ exasperation at England’s humiliation not just towards the extreme wealth of the team’s players, but to the wealth of a single black player, and to black wealth in general. Hence both newspapers’ fixation on “bling.” It is a classic example of the ways in which class issues—such as resentment of the rich in an increasingly unequal society in the grip of the government’s interminable “austerity” program—are often played out in British public life in a racist, nationalist idiom.
It turns out Sterling bought the house for his mother, who raised him by herself. Sterling’s father was murdered when the player was nine years old. But that won’t make any difference, because it’s the idea of black people being comfortably at home in Britain in 2016 which is at issue.
People aren’t just angry with Sterling, who was born in Kingston, Jamaica. They are angry at black Britain for existing, and especially their current cultural contributions, which are some of the only ones coming out of the country that the rest of the world is currently interested in and seduced by. These cultural offerings, like Grime music or the hilarious Hood Documentary, are fresh and innovative, syncretic forms, which cut and mix from all kinds of traditions to produce distinctively modern modes of expression. Britain’s mainstream culture in recent years has consisted in large part of twee, nostalgic re-runs: Downton Abbey, Sherlock Holmes, Mumford and Sons, endless commemoration of military victories, fawning celebration of the Royal Family, and the rest of it.
It’s no coincidence that the main Euro 2016 advertising campaigns run by Adidas and Nike follow a virtually identical formula: world soccer stars—Paul Pogba (Adidas) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Nike)—grafted onto a narrative of black British aspiration and creativity. Black British family life. Black British leisure.That’s what sells around the world right now, as much as the mega-celebrity endorsement.
You can’t use Sherlock Holmes to sell Nike track pants. But you could use Raheem Sterling.
Since the Brexit vote last week, there have been many reports of racial harassment in the UK, with the discussion focused particularly on aggression directed at people from Eastern Europe. But racial prejudice and xenophobia in public life don’t fixate on their targets one at a time. The question of Britain’s decades-long EU membership, and the people who’ve come to live in the country as a result, is front and center in public debate right now. But the vicious, racialized scapegoating of Sterling reminds us that there are deeper histories at play here—in particular, the centuries of slavery and colonialism on which Britain built its modern economy. Those histories are still with us. They are part of who we are as a society, and we still haven’t dealt with them.