England's potential World Cup glory may shape country's attitude on Brexit

By

Kylie Digges

When England won a penalty shootout against Colombia on July 3, it earned itself a place in the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990. English fans were overjoyed — including Prime Minister Theresa May, who told the team via Twitter to “keep the flag flying for us.”

While May hopes to keep England’s flag flying at the World Cup in Russia, she’s struggling to find a way to lower a the European Union flag back at home. This week, the U.K.’s withdrawal from the European Union, known as Brexit, faces a political crisis after the resignations of Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Brexit Secretary David Davis. Arizona State University Professor Andrés Martinez sees a telling contrast between the political chaos surrounding Brexit — which has been widely interpreted as a rejection of globalization — and the English team’s success at the World Cup.

On the eve of England's semifinal match against Croatia, ASU Now spoke with Martinez, a professor of practice in the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, the editorial director of Future Tense, and a special adviser to ASU President Michael Crow. He is currently working on a book about the globalization of the English Premier League, supported by a seed grant from ASU’s Global Sport Institute.

Question: Before the World Cup, you wrote in The Los Angeles Times that if the English team were to find success in Russia, it might make the country want to "revisit its Brexit vote." And now during the final week of the tournament, Theresa May's government is coming apart at its seams over Brexit, and England is making a rare appearance in a World Cup semifinal. You really think these stories are related? 

andres Martinez
Andrés Martinez

Answer: Well, I do see a connection, and a contradiction, between what has been taking place in English politics, on the one hand, and on the playing field of the world’s most popular sport on the other — a sport the English themselves will always remind you they gave the world. To put it bluntly, English politics, much like politics everywhere in recent years, are retreating from globalization, while English football and sports more generally have been doubling down on globalization, and thriving as a result. The question now is whether sports or politics are the leading indicator of where society is headed.

Q: You mean that England is embracing globalization by succeeding in the most popular sporting event?

A: More than that, I am talking about English football being strengthened in recent years by its opening to the outside world. The English Premier League, the country's domestic football league, is a massive globalization success story. English football was very insular as recently as the early 1990s, but the league has within the last generation overtaken the Spanish and Italian leagues to become the world's strongest. Driven by the deregulation of the media marketplace, an openness to foreign investment, and EU rules allowing for the freedom of labor movement within the Union, the English Premier League has attracted foreign owners, foreign players, and foreign coaches. English owners, players, coaches — and fans too, when you think of the massive TV audiences the EPL commands in Asia and elsewhere — are all now a distinct minority in their own league. Imagine if in the NFL you had Americans as a minority in all those roles.

Q: Have fans in England resented this internationalization of their league?

A: Well, it’s interesting. For my research, I have been traveling to places like Manchester, Leicester and Swansea, cities in which their football clubs often date back to the 19th century and are more embedded in the local community than our sports teams. Now these teams are owned by billionaires in Abu Dhabi, America and Thailand, and they are followed by far more fans outside the U.K. than inside. All of this is both flattering and disturbing to local fans whose families have been rooting for these teams for generations, long before they played in what's become a world's all-star league. There’s an appreciation for how much the game has improved, but also a sense of the unease we see in other arenas when it comes to globalization, especially around the erosion of local identity. And obviously some foreign owners do a better job than others at preserving their clubs’ identity and community roots.

But the biggest criticism of the league’s globalization until now has been the protectionist charge that welcoming all the outside world’s stars to make their homes at the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool stunts the development of English-born talent, and ultimately hurts the English national team. 

Think of it as the sports equivalent of the classic import-substitution pitch to protect domestic industry from globalization and foreign competition. In a globalized Premier League, it's true that there are fewer starting positions for English nationals, and you can only send English nationals to represent your country at the World Cup. Foreign stars who play in English league still represent their countries of origin in international play. And in recent years, England’s team has not fared well in big tournaments like the World Cup and the Euros. The Premier League might be top notch, but England as a nation has been a second-tier football power, compared to perennial contenders Germany, Brazil and Argentina.

Q: So how significant is it that England has made it to the World Cup semifinals, and how does that affect whatever resentment fans have about their league being populated by outsiders? 

A: I’d say it is very significant. The relationship English fans have with their national team and the World Cup is rather amusing to us outsiders; a combination of existential angst, eternal hope, self-loathing and hubris. The English have only won the World Cup once, when they hosted the tournament in 1966, and have made the semifinals on only one other occasion, in 1990. And yet, English fans sing about the cup “coming home” if they win, as if it’s their birthright. The story of England in World Cups is one of almost invariable disappointment and spectacular collapses, and critics of the Premier League’s open-border strategy warned that the league’s cosmopolitanism would continue to keep England from becoming a dominant football power.

But now the widespread excitement in Britain around this team of young stars like Harry Kane and Jordan Pickford coached by the understated, vest-wearing Gareth Southgate is giving credence to a counternarrative and a counterthesis about the consequences of being open to the world and of welcoming outside talent. And that is, that these English players are better because they have to compete against the best players from all over the world every Saturday in their domestic league. And however commendable a job Southgate has done with the squad, he benefits from the fact that Harry Kane is coached year-round in his day job at Tottenham by one of Argentina’s best coaches; by the fact that John Stones has become a better defender under the guidance of Barcelona’s former coach, Pep Guardiola, at Manchester City; by the fact that midfielder Jordan Henderson has become a more aggressive passer under the coaching of Liverpool’s brilliant German coach Jürgen Klopp. And so on.  

The success of this team is a refutation of the Brexit thesis that Britain’s integration into the European Union and the outside world made the country weaker and less competitive. Quite the opposite. 

Q: But isn’t that a big leap? I mean, we’re talking sports here. Could there really be a spillover effect into English politics and other areas of life?   

A: I’m interested less in the sports story as such, or in the politics story, and more in the question of how people situate themselves in the world. How do we see ourselves connecting to place, and to others, both here and elsewhere? I think culture plays an important role in answering that question, and sport looms large as an influential identity-shaping form of popular culture.

It’s hard to quantify, of course, but I do think if you’re English you are going to feel better about your place in the world after this World Cup. And you will feel less likely to buy into arguments that all those imported stars — whom you might already appreciate if your home team is winning — are “hurting” English football.

The question now is whether you then analogize to other aspects of life. Is Britain made stronger or weaker by having its financial system be the hub for all European banking and a springboard into Europe for companies that can be headquartered anywhere? Are English companies made stronger or weaker by having to compete with foreign companies in a borderless world? And likewise, do English workers in the aggregate win or lose from having access to goods from all over the world, and being integrated into an EU-wide workforce?

There is undoubtedly a great deal of anxiety everywhere — we’ve certainly seen it in our politics here — about globalization and trade, and the dislocations that come with it. And there is an ancillary temptation to blame technology-driven dislocation and change on foreigners. 

But overall, I think there is a pretty compelling case to be made that for England, Europe and the rest of the world have represented more of an opportunity than a threat. And if you are a fan of globalization, you should root on the English team, because its success will make it easier to make that case going forward.

Written by Mia Armstrong