Bums gone to Iceland: England, Brexit and Euro 2016 – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Bums gone to Iceland: England, Brexit and Euro 2016

On the morning of the 1966 World Cup final the Daily Mail wrote: “If Germany beat us at Wembley this afternoon at our national sport, we can always point out to them we have recently beaten them twice at theirs.” If anyone had been in any doubt, football had become, as George Orwell wrote, war minus the shooting. Since that point the Boys from ’66 and their victory have been hardwired into English national consciousness and the England men’s football team has become a metaphor for the country – a barometer for its health.

Over the last 50 years, English national identity as articulated by the football press has been built of a range of key signifiers that both draw on and feed into the wider articulation of the imagined community. These include glorious victories of the past both on and off the pitch to the bunglers now betraying the nation. It is a narrative that, like the tactics used by the team, looks increasingly tired, confused and outdated.

Due to the Brexit referendum in the United Kingdom, the Euro 2016 football tournament was played during a time of heightened awareness and reference to what it meant to be English, both in the context of the UK and Europe. The narrow margin of the result did nothing much to answer the question while the ensuing political and economic chaos kickstarted a debate about the state of the nation. The coverage of the country’s men’s football team during the tournament against this domestic political backdrop can therefore give us important insights because in modern societies sport is an important part of identity formation on both individual and collective levels making it a key area for cultural negotiation.

Benedict Anderson defined a nation as an “imagined political community”. This perception of a unique national community is created through a common language, the education system and the mass media. To an extent this shared culture is predicated on a set of traditions which have come to define the nation. Sport is key among them; one that Eric Hobsbawm argues is ‘uniquely effective’ in instilling feelings of national belonging. Events like the Olympics, the World Cup and the European Football Championships provide key arena in which national identity can be articulated. So a nation’s football team, which is adorned with national symbols (be it the English Lion or the Welsh dragon) and begins each match singing the national anthem, has become a powerful symbol of the nation. As Hobsbawm arguesthe imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people”.

The emotive drama provided by football (indeed by all sports, but in England football dominates) means that the press doesn’t just report on England games and relay their results. Instead they play a crucial role in producing a shared set of traditions and expectations for the imagined community that is England. Never was this more clearly articulated than by the Daily Mirror in the run up to England’s Euro 96 semi-final against Germany. The paper declared “football war” on Germany in a front page which used pictures of then-players Stuart Pearce and Paul Gascoigne in army helmets along with the headline “ACHTUNG SURRENDER: For you Fritz, ze Euro 96 Championship is over”. This ‘us’ and ‘them’ rhetoric infused with military metaphors shows no sign of abating 20 years down the line. Two days before England played Russia in their opening game of Euro 2016, The Sun launched a “VARMARDA”, led by Jamie Vardy lookalike Lee Chapman in Admiral Nelson garb, to challenge a Russian submarine in the Straits of Dover.

If the national team is a metaphor for the nation then the manager and the players are national ambassadors. The loss to ‘little’ Iceland, the team with a ‘big’ heart has been framed by a focus on the man, or men who let the ‘great’ nation of England down. In the initial aftermath of defeat there was no analysis of the long-term structural failings that beset the national team, instead England’s ‘misfiring millionaires’ were humiliated by ‘minnows’ Iceland in a defeat branded by The Sun as “CODSWALLOP”. Following Roy Hodgson’s resignation, the Daily Mirror was moved to opine: “In keeping with recent events, an England without a functioning government, opposition, nor any future plan, no longer has a manager for its national football team either.” This provided a mirror for the post-Brexit criticisms of the politicians at the front of the papers: “YOU IDIOT, GEORGE” screamed The Sun at Chancellor George Osborne, while the Daily Mirror labelled “No-show BoJo [a] political pygmy”.

Over the last 50 years, English national identity as articulated by the football press has been built of a range of key signifiers that both draw on and feed into the wider articulation of the imagined community. These include glorious victories of the past both on and off the pitch to the bunglers now betraying the nation. It is a narrative that, like the tactics used by the team, looks increasingly tired, confused and outdated.