From the ‘Cricket Test’ to Three Lions: sport and identity
The surprise success of the England football team at the World Cup this summer reignited the debate about the role of sport in national identity. After years of associating the England flag with far-right or racist groups, it seemed that ‘English’ was finally an acceptable identity for people to celebrate. Indeed, research found that after the World Cup there had been a significant increase in people, especially young people, saying they are proud to be English.
But if the World Cup gave a renewed impetus to a generic ‘English’ identity, it also prompted a clash over what this English identity means. For some, the success of the national team was yet another demonstration that fears of doom and decline post-Brexit were overblown. For others, the success of the notably diverse England team was an indicator that Britain can only thrive by being open and pro-immigration, values associated by many people with the Remain camp.
The World Cup prompted discussions in other countries, too. German footballer Mesut Özil quit the national team following Germany’s embarrassing exit and controversy over reactions to his meeting with the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Özil, who is of Turkish descent, claimed he was being racially abused for having met Erdogan. In a long and impassioned resignation letter, he said that to German fans: ‘I am German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose.’
In the US, Black Lives Matter protests by NFL players during the national anthem have prompted heated discussions about what it means to be a patriotic American. In rugby, the perennial debates over what it takes to become eligible to play for a particular national team, and by extension the nature of national identity, continued over the selection of Brad Shields, who was born and raised in New Zealand, for the England squad.
Of course, sport is no stranger to spawning controversies over, or giving meaning to, national identity. Famously, a leading Conservative politician, Norman Tebbit, suggested in 1990 that, given immigration from South Asian and Caribbean countries, supporting the English cricket team should be seen as a marker of cultural integration. In 1998, France’s first World Cup win with a diverse team of players with roots in former colonial countries was seen as a riposte to Jean-Marie Le Pen and the Front National, who had suggested that the team were not really French.
However, it is a sign of the difficulties involved in contemporary debates about national identity when the same observation about the triumphant French team in 2018 was made by a number of supposed progressives, who championed France’s World Cup win as a ‘victory for Africa’. Nonetheless, sport has always presented particular questions to immigrants and their descendants: how compatible is support for the team of their forefathers with their place, and possibly their acceptance, in a new land?
What are we to make of these associations between sport and national identity? Is sport merely a superficial prism through which to understand the complex business of national feeling and political contest? Is sport somehow a unique crucible for dealing with difficult national and international issues? Perhaps the fixation on sport suggests that ‘normal’ political channels are not as accessible or functional as they ought to be? What’s the role of sport in shaping national identity?