Boris Johnson’s euro jump will not get him very far | Simon Jenkins
B.England’s performance at the European Championship was outstanding by all standards. The team reached heights not seen in over half a century – and their off-field behavior was dignified and athletic, thanks to England’s notable leader Gareth Southgate. The competition ended in a draw at the final whistle. The aftermath was a tragedy that required a “result” from a penalty shootout. This involved the ritual disembowelling of young players’ emotions on the altar of entertainment.
A penalty shootout is staged cruelty that should be below the dignity of team sport. It degrades a noble game to throwing the dice. If more goals are desired, widen the goal posts. Otherwise, honor the result: a sport that cannot accept a draw is not a sport, it is show business.
International football is identity politics led to the point of absurdity. Driven to hysteria by the advertising media, it is intended to generate national euphoria. Success offers a psychological “high” that becomes even more heady in the event of defeat due to the equally hysterical depths of depression. Like the hymns of praise for the NHS or the royal family, such public emotions are believed to have a not to be despised binding effect, not least in a country grappling with a pandemic.
But the corresponding split cannot be ignored either. Xenophobia, booing of teams and foreign anthems at last week’s finals were followed by racial attacks on three unlucky penalty takers, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka. Football feeds the anonymized mob rule of social media. It is not good to dismiss this as unfortunate. It’s an integral part of the sports hysteria. Want one and you pay for it with the other.
There is a lot of debate among experts as to whether sporting success brings political gain in the long term. Sports nationalism was exploited by totalitarian regimes throughout the 20th century, from interwar Germany to post-war communism. The consensus is that such morale boosts do not have lasting effects. England’s 1966 World Cup victory, the quarter-finals defeat in 1970 and the success of the 2012 Olympic Games in London had little impact on opinion polls, either for or against the government. Yes, people feel good when things go well. But Olympia should make us fitter. That didn’t happen. Top sport glorifies athletes, not politicians.
Boris Johnson’s exploitation of English nationalism is equally dubious. He is allegedly Prime Minister of a United Kingdom. His dressing Downing Street in the flag of St. George was uncomfortable with his angry insistence in the face of criticism from French President Emmanuel Macron that he was devoted to the whole of the United Kingdom. No flags of St. Andrew or the Red Dragon of Wales fluttered over Downing Street during this European Championship.
Politicians who kidnap sport for personal gain have to face the consequences. Britain has always insisted on entering four teams for international football competitions. But let’s assume that Spain enters Catalonia or Germany enters Bavaria, both of which are more “divided” provinces than Wales or Scotland? That summer, a blatantly Anglo-centric Downing Street presented itself as the ruling nation. If we had set up a team for the UK, they might not have just patched up the troubled union – they might have won.