People of England: Beating Belgium Is Not the Same as Winning Brexit


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Tanya Gold
, New York Times


PENZANCE, Cornwall — England plays Belgium in the World Cup on une 28 while Prime Minister Theresa May is in Brussels, for Brexit negotiations. I know which I’ll be watching: football, because nationalism is more fun with balls.

Football is simple and beautiful. Governance is neither. But I should be wary of loving, and certainly of trusting, football, even if I have already devised a sophisticated fantasy in which England wins the World Cup. (It is based on the 1987 victory of a spirited youthful team in the Oxford-Cambridge boat race, and the aggressive tailoring of Gareth Southgate, the England team manager.)

I know that nationalism can begin with sports — I watch children in their white England football shirts adorned with the three lions, those symbols of English kings, awaken to it — but it does not end there. In 2012, when the Olympic Games were held in London, some people said the games would usher in a new age of prosperity and unity. It didn’t happen. The opposite happened and fear of the other, of immigrants, blew us out of the union that had kept us safe for 45 years. Now our nationalism is resurgent, and our football team is in Russia, the country that perhaps benefits most from the collapse of the European Union.

As one British newspaper columnist likes to say: You couldn’t make it up.

In fact the English football delusion — we sing, “It’s coming home!,” a well-worn line from the English anthem of the 1996 European Championships (held in England), even though football was probably invented in China — is very similar to the Brexit delusion. Both say we will win against all odds, and if we don’t, who cares? Brexit is an angry dream based on a half-remembered history of an empire that has gone, and so is the possibility that we might win the World Cup.

When our delusion is exposed, we drink in that peculiarly savage way that led to English clubs being banned from playing in Europe from 1985 to 1990 after a riot at Heysel Stadium in Brussels, in which 39 people died and more than 350 were injured. Nationalism and violence are natural bedfellows, and they won’t be kept apart for long.

On June 24 I watched England play Panama from a pub here in Cornwall, on the far southwest tip of England. This is deepest Brexit land: poor, angered by European Union fishing quotas, remote and in decline. Cornish people like to pretend they aren’t English and that their taxes go to Westminster because of a bureaucratic error that has yet to be fixed.

But they were English that day. England winning by a preposterous 6-1 did it easily. As the score mounted they sang a song about the planned Nazi invasion of Britain in 1940. Neither they nor their parents were alive in 1940, but still they sang, of the Royal Air Force:

There were 10 German bombers in the air

But the RAF of England shot them down.

There were nine German bombers in the air

But the RAF of England shot them down.

There were eight German bombers in the air …

Another England chant is even more direct: “Two world wars and one World Cup, doo-dah, doo-dah.” And this World Cup, FIFA has warned fans not to sing an expletive-laced chant about Europe, of which “We all voted out” is the only line I can quote in this newspaper.

England decided to leave the European Union because we’ve been lucky in the past, and we think we will be lucky again. In 1588, when the Spanish Armada, with plans to collect an army from the Spanish Netherlands — now Belgium — tried to invade but was blown away by English winds, Britons survived because of luck.

We were lucky in 1940, when the RAF held the skies, and Hitler canceled the invasion, as though it were a dinner reservation he no longer wished to keep.

And in football we have a national style called “kick and rush,” which is more about hope and speed than skill: the hope that an English kick down the field toward the opposition’s goal will meet an English boot. Maybe we’ll score. Maybe the other team will contract Ebola. Maybe they won’t turn up.

Is our deliverance miraculous, or assured? It depends on whether you voted for Brexit. I think luck, but I am a pessimist. Some Brexiteers like to say that the historically euroskeptic nations in Europe — England and Denmark — are the ones that, post two world wars, have the least to be ashamed of. Assured, then. Certainly you cannot construct a coherent argument against destiny.

I am afraid that if we do well in the World Cup we will believe we can “win” Brexit, which is hurtling toward us as fast as a football, and we still don’t really have a team. The comedown will be swift and pitiless. But who will care about that when we are in the last 16 and England is covered in bunting? Hope is a drug, and so is football, but neither will help May in Brussels. Perhaps she will sing: “Two world wars and one World Cup, doo-dah, doo-dah” at the European Union delegation. Because Belgium, you may recall, collapsed in May 1940, in 18 days.

If you are hoping for a more sophisticated or modern strategy, we have nothing.

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