Football is obsessed with nostalgia. At no time is this more evident than during international competition wherein football cultures, nationalisms, and emotion blend into a heady liquor which draws in even the most casual of sports fans. It is no surprise, therefore, that in a football landscape dominated by human-rights-abusing petrostates and governing bodies who are both morally and financially corrupt, we are all (even those of us who weren’t alive then) drawn towards the seemingly ‘Golden Age’ of the game. In that pre-Sky Sports age of shorter shorts, baggier shirts, bigger haircuts, and, as some would like us to believe – better players – many people see the antithesis of the sterile and corporatised experience we have now. Leaving aside discussion of these assumptions which have been covered in myriad ways by football writers much more capable than myself, what the current Euros have shown, perhaps more than any major sporting event in recent memory (until next year’s World Cup, of course), is just how readily and cynically states and corporations will commodify this nostalgia not just to sell us ideas and products, but also to whitewash their image and practices.
For kit-making companies such as Nike, Adidas, and Umbro in particular, this is not a new thing. In presenting their new kits, designers from these companies will more likely opt for modern takes on classic designs than completely original templates in an attempt to capture some of the supporters’ historic passion for the team, to be channelled towards their current endeavours. One could quite easily argue, with Don Draper’s smoke-filled office at the front of the mind, that this is all the corporations are aiming for: a deeper connection between brand and consumer where emotional associations are made and capitalised upon. What is particularly exasperating about the way in which football advertising is used to this effect, however, is that the very forces who are dismantling our game attempt to place themselves within the public consciousness of what that game means and involves. The corporatisation of the sport has brought about ironies that would be laughable if they weren’t so harmful, in particular when it comes to its governing bodies.
Although Pride month has now ended and the British media can go back to its favourite pastime of vilifying trans folk, the weekly outrage in our press during the group stages came when UEFA’s virtue signalling was exposed in the Allianz Arena lighting fiasco. The organisation’s labelling of rainbow flag lighting as a ‘political act’ doesn’t, as they would love, seat them at the vanguard of the fight for an apolitical sport open to all, but instead lays bare the fact that, as with their bigger brothers at FIFA, their values change depending on whichever dictator or oligarch they’re trying not to piss off. Fans of the Champions and Europa League will be all too familiar with the ‘Why do we love football?’ ad, in which a carefully curated cast wax lyrical about the respect and equality inherent in our beautiful game. The irony of this message will not be lost on the likes of Glen Kamara or Demba Ba – two of the many people who have been let down by UEFA’s approach to racism in its competitions, an approach echoed by many of the sports’ governing bodies who have always prioritised the sanctity of their TV and sponsorship deals over the wellbeing of players.
Football’s organisers have, for a long time, been at the whim of state attempts to ‘sportswash’ their public images and these Euros have been no exception. Before getting knocked out by Spain, Switzerland had travelled 8,510 miles between their matches, with a large portion of this coming from travel to their multiple matches in Baku. The capital city of Azerbaijan, a petrostate with a history of horrific human rights abuses by the autocratic government of Ilham Aliyev, has forced its way into popular consciousness by hosting recent events including Eurovision and the Europa League final. The latter infamously denied Henrikh Mkhitaryan the opportunity to represent Arsenal due to his native Armenia’s long dispute with Azerbaijan over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. As I write this, two Danish fans in Baku’s Olympic Stadium have just had their rainbow flag forcefully confiscated by stewards, a lovely indictment of the compatibility of UEFA’s #EqualGame campaign with its actual practices. Nevertheless, figures such as Aliyev and Hungary’s Orban will continue to ply organisations like UEFA with backroom deals in order to impose themselves onto the international order whilst presenting a strong front to their increasingly discontented populations.
By positioning themselves within football’s key values of inclusivity and opportunity, organisations commodify the emotion behind the game to serve their own ends, along with the nefarious motives of the puppeteers who finance them. The powerful play upon the football fan’s nostalgia towards their sport in an attempt to normalise their ownership over it, and their slow degradation of its original form.
The use of football as a political tool is as old as the game itself, and football historian David Goldblatt lays this out brilliantly in his seminal book ‘The Age of Football’. Never ones to miss out when it comes to capitalising on nationalist fervour, England’s own tyrannical government has been waving a St. George’s flag of gradually increasing size as the competition has progressed. Indeed, Boris and Priti have followed the lead of many of the tinpot dictators Goldblatt describes as utilising the populism of football fandom, moulding it into a very specific strain of reactionary nationalism which allows them to imagine the national team almost as a colonial force through which to dominate others. Reactionary nationalism is very much the calling card of contemporary UK politics, so it comes as no surprise that just last week these opportunistic sleazebags were encouraging England’s pink and bald brigade to boo the ‘Marxist’ act of kneeling in solidarity with those experiencing institutional racisms of their own design. We know, of course, that the Tories are currently trying to convince us that the pandemic is over, and the Euros are providing a welcome red and white smokescreen for them to hide the piles of bodies they’re responsible for leaving behind. I write this as I isolate with the Delta variant, and glancing at the news it is clear that the ‘opening up’ date will ignore warnings of a third wave. These Euros have offered just the right mixture of news-time and morale to distract from murderous incompetence.
How then, do we football fans retain a sense of ownership over our beautifully frustrating national teams, in spite of the forces attempting to commodify this passion? Jonathan Liew brilliantly captured the feeling of myself and many of my friends in his piece, ‘What it means to support England in these divided times’. Rather than supporting any of our national teams as an act of “progressive defiance”, we should simply hold onto our own ideas of what they mean, ignoring the insidious attempts to define this for us. From an English perspective this could mean, as Tom Victor pointed out, younger fans opting for vintage shirts to capture the nostalgia of a bygone era, separating ourselves from the idea of supporting the national team as a form of patriotism. Instead, we can enjoy a young, socially conscious, and non-tribalistic squad who seem to stand opposite a supporter and media culture designed to revel in any of their missteps.
Gazprom do not ‘light up the football’, fans and players do. Deliveroo is spending more money on their jarring Karl Pilkington ads than paying their workers. Betting companies are not fundamental aspects of the game, despite what a smiling Crouchy might be telling you. We can recognise all of these things, yet still enjoy our sport because we know that all of this posturing and hyper-commercialisation doesn’t take away the connection we feel towards the players on the pitch, and between our friends as we sing their names. When they tell you to ‘keep politics out of football’ and in the same breath use our happiest moments for political clout, just laugh at them. We know that despite winter World Cups, shameless autocrats, and sly owners, this game will always belong to us.