I know that was then, but it could be again…

In a previous post I’ve attempted to critique the widespread elision of ‘football’ as ‘game’, ‘clubs and institutions’, ‘people’, ‘Englishness’, masculinity, war and the past, in regards to the National Memorial Arboretum’ s Football Remembers memorial. This post muses over what would happen – in memorial terms – if football did ‘come home’. I suggest any such future-memorial(s) needs to be honest about its overtly patriotic and militaristic context.

Detail of the NMA memorial to the legend of the Christmas truce, ‘Football Remembers’

The 1996 Lightning Seeds track featuring Baddiel and Skinner – Three Lions – focused on the sitting room TV experience of watching England’s football fortunes, going down the local pub, role-playing football matches in the local park. It was written in the context of Euro ’96 and the tournament returning to the UK. Yet it takes this further and explores the dream of restoring a lost moment of England’s footballing history. It fantasises that a major competition might again be won by England. Following England’s quarter-final 2-0 win against Sweden on 7th July 2018, ‘football’s coming home’ has been everywhere in the media and social media. Maybe football is ‘coming home’? The song is back at the top of the charts. 

In London, a small group of England fans entered an IKEA store singing the song, some jumping on beds. Seemingly climbing onto buses, cars and ambulances and thus causing criminal damage is a celebratory practice for a significant minority, with West Midlands police recording the highest number of 999 calls in their history following the victory. If previous tournaments are anything to go by, domestic violence spikes around major England performances too.

None of this is the specific fault of a song or a chant, but let’s look at the song in more detail.

World Cup Sculpture “The Champions”, Upton Park, Newham, London – Wikimedia Commons

The song mixes nostalgia for a lost past – the fleeting and unique victory of the 1966 World Cup – but also celebrates the hope and pain of being an ‘everyman’ fan in quotidian settings in suburban ‘England’, dedicated to the hope of a future England World Cup victory. It is a song for English football, but also a song for the English: local clubs and local landscapes. It is also fair to say it is not simply an English perspective, but particularly/exclusively for younger/middle-aged English men.

But there’s a difference between ‘England’s male adult team winning the FIFA World Cup’ and the specific allusion that such a victory would constitute ‘football coming home’. Let’s think a bit more about that in the contemporary context, even if it was never intended in the original song.

Returning ‘home’ is the present-day embodiment of nostalgia in a mobile society that has, since the song came out, increasingly envisioned itself as under threat from external immigration and has blamed the EU for its woes. With the rise of nationalism in  Wales and Scotland, England feels left out and hard done-by. In this new environment, the allusion asserts that football as a global game has its roots in England: in England’s everyday landscape of housing estates, parks and pitches. Moreover, it seems to be suggested that somehow if the FIFA World Cup trophy returned to England it would constitute  a ‘homecoming’: the game returning to its home country and to its beginnings. England coach Gareth Southgate has explicitly seen the diversity of the England team as a potential dimension of wider social changes and forging a positive new identity for England, regardless of a win or not, so it isn’t pure fantasy to explore the 2018 significance of ‘homecoming’.

Now, despite imprecision regarding its antiquity and geographical origins, England (and/or Britain) is clearly asserted as where football originates in the 19th century, and thus presumably where its ‘heart’ resides. And home is where the heart is… The myths, legends and history of football’s Victorian and Edwardian origins extend to the celebration of football on the Western Front in the First World War, linking football to masculinity, service to the nation and conflict.

In making the assertion that ‘football’s coming home’, the rest of Britain, the rest of these islands, the rest Europe, and indeed the rest of the globe where football has long been played (and other games involving spherical implements kicked by the foot), are cast as passive receptors of ‘the game’. The world is the grateful inheritors of this English ‘gift’, and perhaps it is only fitting, it seems to be argued, that they give it back, if only for a while.

This narrative might be seen simply as a cosy, fun, not-too-serious and heart-warming sentiment. I certainly like the song, I confess. However, the specific undertones of ‘homecoming’ in early 21st-century England cannot be extracted from a post-colonial England’s anxieties about its identity and its direction. In his resignation speech as Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson speaks of Brexit and the desire to ‘repatriate’ UK taxpayers’ money. The links to the homecoming in death of British service personnel cannot be overlooked too, with RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire as the established place where dead men and women return for burial.  Coming home is the mantra of our time: “taking back control”.

‘Homecoming’ is therefore not neutral, politically or culturally. We can celebrate the multiculturalism of England’s homecoming, but it remains a homecoming nonetheless. It might be readily argued to embody a somewhat chauvinistic patriotism fuelled by Brexit that claims a global game as uniquely English, thus overtly contradicting FIFA’s aims to ‘say no to racism’ and celebrate a global sporting event that ‘brings nations together’. It also doesn’t quite chime with the multicultural team of young men who have delivered such superb results in the tournament thus far. Equally though, it isn’t justified or legitimised by this diversity. Moreover, it also involves a kind of weird anthropomorphising of ‘the game’ as a long-lost traveller, rambling the world lost and directionless. In this vision, only England’s footballers can secure the game’s return to the home country as a kind of post-colonial colonialism.

Take or leave this interpretation as you wish, but as an archaeologist it feels like a popular bid for the return of a cultural ‘treasure’ or sacralised human remains to its country of origin following conflict or to rectify past atrocities and ‘theft’: a kind of perverse inversion of Greece’s protracted attempts to get the Elgin Marbles back from the British Museum.

So what if football does actually return home? What then? A few entertaining sporting events will bring wealth to pubs and supermarkets as well as media channels. There will be celebrations no doubt, interviews, awards for the players and manager and lucrative financial gains for those involved and by individual clubs where England players earn their living.

But it’s also about pride: ‘two world wars and one world cup’ will become ‘two world wars and two world cups’. Specifically and more worrying for me is the precise timing of any England victory. I suspect many die-hard England fans will share my dread at the possibility of the inevitable attempts made to garner political capital from the victory by the beleaguered Conservative government, buoyed by the media harping on about the victory ‘lifting of the spirits of the nation’. The ability of the establishment to spin a narrative for the victory in the face of foreign-induced adversity, in which Brexit is some kind of antidote, is all too horrendously tangible. The success thus far of the England team has apparently ‘brought the nation together’, tweets opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn: all too aware that football is as valuable in legitimising the left’s claims to represent working class people as it is opium for the masses exploited by the right. So if England win, the media and social media will be full of political and patriotic manure dredged from the sporting event.

From an Archaeodeath perspective, I’m also interested in what memorials might be made to materialise the ‘nation’s celebration’ of this much anticipated victory. Having recently discussed an emotive and powerful monument to the Hillsborough disaster, what kind of monument might be created to memorialise a positive sporting event? Are there any precedents?

Hillsborough Disaster memorial focusing on the suffering and mourning of fans

The 1966 World Cup victory seems to be memorialised by statues. The first is by Philip Jackson: the bronze World Cup Sculpture (‘The Champions’) at Upton Park. It focuses, not on the entire team, but on capturing the famous photograph of key players around the trophy on the pitch: Moore, Hurst, Wilson and Peters. It was unveiled in 2003.

Another sculptural monument, again in bronze, commemorates Bobby Moore at Wembley where England won the final against Germany in 1966. Below, the 11 men of the tream are represented in a line-up. It was unveiled in 2007 and was also by Royal Sculptor Philip Jackson.

Bobby Moore: Wembley (Wikimedia Commons)

Meanwhile, England manager Alf Ramsey has a life-size bronze statue at the home of Ipswich Town F.C. where he was manager.

What options are there for public art in commemorating an England victory? Would it be a sculpture like the 1966 examples?  If so, would it valorise key players as with the 1966 memorials, as individual ‘heroes’, or would it show the entire team? If the memorials to 1966 are akin to the Victorian statues to successful generals and admirals, and thus be regarded as overtly old-fashioned, should a 2018 memorial be more like a First World War memorial: egalitarian in its naming of players, coaches, managers, physios and the rest? Or should we try to do something completely different, or simply not bother with more memorials? After all, those statues that we have discussed above were commissioned many decades after the game.

If there is a single memorial to this fantasised World Cup victory, where would it be situated? Outside Wembley as with Bobby Moore’s statue? Would it supplant the Moore statue? Alternatively, would there be a rash of memorials across the nation as every individual club associated with the victory seeks to mark it in some fashion? Again, like the First World War, would every community wishing to claim a link to the event invent its own independent schema for memorialisation?

How will it/they be made enduring and vandal-proof? Undoubtedly stone and bronze will be involved. Still, statues are readily sprayed on and carved into: an England fan recently hit the headlines for allegedly vandalising a Russian football statue outside the Spartak Stadium. Any England World Cup victory memorial would undoubtedly attract violence, so this needs to be thought through carefully for any prospect of a monument or monuments.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out, in the still-unlikely event of an England World Cup victory (they have still to beat Croatia and then either Belgium or France).

Part of the ‘coming home’ backlash

From an archaeological perspective, I have a suggestion. Since this narrative of ‘homecoming’ mirrors the repatriation of the bodies of the British war dead, and given the overtly patriotic and militaristic dimensions of football’s popular narrative, let’s just be honest and build a memorial to the 2018 World Cup team at the National Memorial Arboretum. Such a monument might readily evoke romantic notions of England’s landscape, history, and military service, just as many of the monuments already there do. This wouldn’t be a memorial to the fallen, but to honour the ‘heroes’ who have done service to the nation. If England does win, and ‘the people’ do want a monument, we might as well be honest that we are celebrating Brexit and conflict as part of an early 21st-century crisis regarding Englishness, and not football at all: celebrating the ‘coming home’ of this illusory cultural treasure: ‘the beautiful game’.

England beats Sweden… Southgate goes shopping…