I know nothing about football, I mean really, not even background knowledge. I grew up in a motor racing household, active and passive, and we did not watch football, ever. My father, if pressed, will admit to going to two matches in his life and not liking it (one, at Stamford Bridge, we think mum and dad both attended, at opposite ends of the ground, before they met). So I have absolutely no access to this communal memory of Euro 96 or subsequent failures, and insofar as any of it has got through to me over the last twenty years, I wasn’t in the least surprised because practically everyone involved in football, playing football, managing football or talking about football seemed to be such an emotionally stunted tosser, woofing on about “passion” and “pride” and “drive” and other nebulous grunt-clusters that people with zero self-improvement capacity and enormous unmanaged aggression think means the difference between success and failure. I was pretty sure I knew what I thought about football, basically.
Say, is this reminding us of anything?
I sort of don’t want to link football to Brexit because it is undeniably a relief to have one thing, one bloody thing in the news that isn’t about Brexit. But the trouble is I feel it diametrically is about Brexit – it’s about the absence of Brexitiness. I like these people now. I like this team of clean-cut boys with an epic novel’s range of foibles and story arcs – one feels they might make a good job of a journey to Mordor. I like (as anyone following me on any social media is aware) Gareth Southgate’s M&S waistcoat and how he’s gone out of his way to talk about his team’s diversity, and by the way quietly destroy the Foreign Secretary with the classic “it is of no interest to me…” formulation. I like the way they, team and manager, talk about their play and use vulnerability as it really should be used: as strength, as a basis for self-improvement. For the first time in my life, the people in English football sound like people I could have a pint with. The hair-gelled chancers and bluff old gammony men of old with their inflatable spitfires and fragile, dangerous egos repelled me because, well, pattern-matching is what women do to get through life, and those kinds of men are generally not friends to me and mine. These kinds of men, from how they appear to me so far at least, often are.
The best bosses I have ever had, and the boss I have tried to be, is the one who makes you understand that you can start from exactly where you are, follow a clearly defined process, be nurtured and supported, and succeed according to your merits, and except for the inevitable stress points be relatively cheerful about the whole thing. The very best bosses of all create this culture without their team even quite knowing they are doing it; it just becomes background reality. I mean on one level it’s all so fucking simple – the whole point is that there isn’t any magic to this. But you cannot have ego in it, which is what “pride” really means, “drive” is too often a cover word for bull-headed aggression, and “passion” is kind of meaningless here unless it’s the passion that comes at the end when you’ve succeeded. Those words are usually tells of magical thinking of the most unappealing kind.
All of this is the stuff Brexiters fundamentally don’t understand about their own process, which has been replete with ego-driven magical thinking. It’s apparently something a lot of the senior people in football fundamentally haven’t understood too. It is telling that Roy Keane apparently said, on Southgate’s appointment, that he must have some kind of nasty streak to have succeeded at the top for as long as he has. I mean, maybe, yes, but don’t we think it’s far more likely that statement represents Keane’s own character and imaginative limits? I’m sure Southgate is no pushover, but Keane can’t even detect the space between “nice/pushover” and “has nasty streak”. I would surmise (knowing nothing, as I say) that nobody knew it was possible to do top football with this set of attitudes until it was done. But it works just as well in football as it does anywhere else.
What does this mean for The Nation?
There’s a question I thought I’d never coin. The “nation”? How many other borderless left and liberal types normally mouth that word with a reflexive wince, as I do? Gary Younge, in a storming piece on the Tories as a disease well on the way to killing its host, has an excellent quote:
“There are two kinds of European nations,” the Danish finance minister, Kristian Jensen, said last year. “There are small nations and there are countries that have not yet realised they are small nations.”
I have long wondered if, but for the historical accident of empire, we wouldn’t be a little bit like Denmark by now? If there was ever to be any upside to Brexit, it had to be this, that the ego balloons that made it happen would swiftly be pricked (with catastrophic consequences for ordinary people) and then after, oh, thirty-odd years of awful suffering, we might settle down into being the humble, chipper, north-western European fringe country smelling faintly of the sea and taking care of itself that was our true destiny all along. Hopefully with something resembling healthcare intact. That this might happen just in time for the mid-21st century’s climate-driven Wars of Resources presaging The End was, frankly, no more than we (or our ruling classes anyway) deserved for four centuries of oppressive, ego-driven, “proud”, “passionate” folly, but at least, in the manner of the best moral arcs, we would have come good in the end. Hopefully we’d even manage to rejoin the EU before the first button is pressed.
How pleasingly ironic it would be if Southgate’s team, an institution once a fulcrum of unthinking ego-jingoism, continued to succeed and pointed a moral and emotional path towards that humbler, nicer, more measured way of being. The fundamental reason, the real slightly-warm-universe reason I am being pulled towards football, I think, is that a vacuum has opened up in it. The forces of Gammon that used to colonise it have been distracted, they have got something altogether bigger and more toxic to shout and go puce in the face about than football now. That means there is space for different qualities, qualities worth celebrating, to come in.