Entry from July 6, 2010

England, as you may have heard, is football- (i.e. soccer-) mad and so is in national mourning since the national team went down to defeat — and defeat by Germany, of all other countries — in the World Cup the weekend before last. In today’s Guardian, which I have taken to reading since The Times retreated behind a fee-paying wall, there is an interesting article by Simon Hattenstone purporting to explain this national humiliation by citing “football”s debt to socialism,” in which the “football legend” and former England player from Jamaica, John Barnes, is quoted as saying that “England will never win the World Cup unless they understand football is a socialist sport.”

The best football teams are socialist in nature. They play for each other, and individual brilliance is often subservient to the common good. Even the language of team sport is socialist — solidarity, unite, goal, come together. Why do you think the word United is so beloved by football people that 15 clubs in England”s top four division divisions have it in their title? Barcelona, possibly the world’s most successful club, are the living embodiment of our old clause four (remember that?) — owned by the supporters for the supporters, they have indeed “secured by hand or brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof” as some of us used to say.

To me this is like attributing a nation’s economic success to socialism on the grounds that its most successful corporations inspire in their work force a sense of unity and common purpose to make them strong against the competitive forces of the market-place.

“Socialism,” that is, does not mean, as both Mr Hattenstone and Mr Barnes appear to believe, the spirit of teamwork and cooperation, something that long antedates socialist thought and that can only arise from the bottom up, but an attempt to enforce these things from the top down by punishing individual success. Socialism as it exists in Britain is, by contrast, anti-competitive and part of the inspiration behind that sort of educational thinking that frowns upon allowing young people to engage in competitive sports and other activities. That is what ultimately lay beneath England’s defeat, according to the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, writing in the Daily Telegraph.

Somewhere along the line the nation that invented or codified virtually every sport seems to have lost its lust for competitive games. I don”t want to exaggerate this. We did amazingly at the 2008 Olympics, and we have recently beaten Australia at rugby. But in our game, the world game, we should be doing so much better. I am sure the problem is partly to do with all those foreign players in the Premiership, but it”s more fundamental than that. We are still paying the price of an educational establishment that developed an aversion to competitive games and an obsession with bureaucracy and elf and safety that made it hard for the voluntary sector to fill the gap.

And speaking of the Health (aka “‘elf”) and Safety, today’s Telegraph has an amazing “debate” between two mothers over the case of the suburban London family, the Schonrocks, who have been threatened with being reported to Child Protective Services for allowing their children to ride their bicycles to school. It looks like it’s going to be a long dry spell for English football.

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