Twenty-eight years after they last managed it, England have made the semi-final of football’s World Cup. England’s match against the then West Germany in Turin in July 1990, came in the middle of a tumultuous time for Europe. The Berlin wall had recently come down, and German reunification was on the horizon. This time round, the surrounding tumult is home-grown, a result of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. But could the World Cup euphoria currently gripping England – in a number of papers, England coach Gareth Southgate featured more prominently than the departing David Davis or the Prime Minister – affect English attitudes to Brexit?
The happiness factor
How does sporting success affect politics? The starting point is to consider the correlation between sporting success and national perceptions of well-being. There is quite a lot of cross-country evidence that supports this correlation. In the UK, the ONS noted improvements in perceptions of life satisfaction in the UK following the 2012 Olympics, and researchers at the LSE worked out that the magnitude of these effects was equivalent to moving from the bottom to the fourth income decile. In Australia, performances at the 2004 Athens Olympics raised the national Wellbeing index by 2 to 4 points for 4 weeks, which economists at Frontier Economics worked out was equivalent to a payment of around 368 Australian dollars per household. Even in Denmark, a country reputed for its high level of satisfaction with life, the country’s success at the 1992 European Football Championships (they beat Germany 2-0) is reported to have had a lasting impact on happiness.
The next thing to consider is that happiness bred by sporting success favours the incumbent. If, as Steve Archibald once suggested, team spirit was an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory, then satisfaction with an incumbent seems to be a perception stoked in the afterglow of success on the field. Research by Neil Malhotra at Stanford University, based on results in American football, suggests success by the local team was worth 2.3 to 2.42 percentage points to incumbents in gubernatorial elections. The probable explanation was that marginal voters hesitating between incumbents and challengers favour the former when they feel happy about life.
Anecdotal evidence can also be found to support this thesis. For example, the success of the French at the World Cup they hosted in 1998 simultaneously raised the popularity of both the President, Jacques Chirac and the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. Notwithstanding, crucially, they were in opposing parties (respectively the right-of-centre RPR and the Socialists) and had sharply contrasting personalities.
How could this all translate into Brexit? There are some obvious challenges in applying these findings to a policy question as opposed to an election. Added to which there are further complications reflecting not only the fact that England is one part – albeit the largest part – of the UK, but also that English success may be negatively correlated with happiness in other parts of the UK, notably Scotland! We therefore consider two possibilities.
The soft exit scenario
Under this scenario, the incumbent is the government’s stated policy in support of a deep free trade agreement, which mimics in many ways the single market without calling it that. Success at the World Cup under this scenario strengthens this position and more generally, those in cabinet that would favour a soft exit along the lines of, say, a Norway-approach. Public feeling towards remaining close to the EU is further strengthened as it becomes clear just how closely the EU and English football are linked. Consider the following points:
- Gareth Southgate’s preference for keeping possession based on shorter passes and on avoiding conceding free-kicks, even if it means limiting tackles (long a staple of “true” English football) has been strongly influenced by continental European approaches, and Spain more specifically.
- Contact week-in week-out with European coaches and European players has undeniably enhanced the quality of the English squad. For example, Jordan Henderson’s transformation from derided hot-head to one of best midfield players in the tournament has much to do with his initiation into “gegenpressing” by Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool’s coach. It is true that foreign influence has been longstanding – Frenchman Arsene Wenger has been credited with revolutionising English football following his arrival at Arsenal in 1996 – without the national team having a whole lot to show for it. But this England squad, which is among the youngest of the tournament, essentially grew up in the Wenger era. For Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham’s laddish boozing, think Harry Kane and his personal dietician hired to give him that added boost in front of goal.
- It may be an all European semi-final line up, but it is also very much an English premier league line up. Of the 92 players in the semis, 40 belong to an English club. Tottenham Hotspur have 9 players, the two Manchester clubs have 7 each, Chelsea 5 and Liverpool 4. The star performers in Belgium’s defeat of favourites Brazil were Thibault Courtois and Eden Hazard (both Chelsea), Kevin de Bruyne (Manchester City) and Romelu Lukaku (Manchester United). The Belgians are coached by a Spaniard, Roberto Martinez, who cut his teeth in England (giving it one of its more memorable recent moments when his Wigan side defeated Manchester City in the FA cup final in 2013), seconded by an Englishman and by Frenchman Thierry Henry, who was a talismanic figure at Arsenal.
A harder route
Under this scenario, the majority is the one that voted for Brexit. England’s success comforts voters that the country has nothing to fear from anybody and can carve a path for itself. In short, success drives nationalism.
That there is a strong link between nationalist reflexes and sporting success has been observed through history. Russia’s organising of the World Cup was a bid to exert soft power – the ability to positively influence perceptions abroad. Denmark’s defeat of Germany in the 1992 European Championship came a few weeks after the Danes had voted against the Maastricht Treaty. “If you can’t join them, beat them”, one Danish parliamentarian was quoted as saying. That could well be a refrain adopted by hard-Brexit favouring English fans. (The Danes went on to accept the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, after securing several “opt outs”. They haven’t been beyond the quarter finals of a major tournament since).
Moreover, sporting success is often a focal point for the assertion of nationhood against some larger overarching institution. In the 1990s, Croatian authorities explicitly linked the success of the football team as a way of underlining national credentials in the aftermath of the break-up of Yugoslavia. In Spain, the success of the Barcelona football team, and the national side whose possession-based style largely reflected that of Barcelona, seems not to have cemented links between Spain and Catalunya, but rather done the opposite.
It is also the case warm feelings of internationalism generated by success can be fragile and ephemeral. In England’s case, the width of a crossbar – the one that kept out Mateus Uribe’s kick in the shoot-out against Colombia – is essentially all that separates current euphoria from the usual despondency, and if the latter had been the mood then none of the points made in the previous section would be dwelt on. It’s worth recalling that the French side that won the World Cup in 1998 and the European Championships in 2000 was widely hailed for its multiculturalism – a team of blacks, blancs, beurs – but that this did not stop voters from sending the far-right nationalist candidate into the second round of the 2002 presidential election for the first time in the history of the fifth republic.
The fundamental issue is that a nationalistic appeal is easier to market than a more complex narrative that dwells on the interdependencies between English and European football. This was a key issue in the run up to the referendum – technocratic arguments about rules of origin or regulatory fragmentation (vital topics, but that would put an angry bear to sleep at the best of times) fared poorly against slogans about taking control. Similarly, it is hard to see learned arguments about the influence of possession-based football and short-passing carrying the day over a narrative that stresses national prowess.
Positive sentiment bred by sporting success can have marginal influences on voting behaviour, and these can be significant when margins are small, as in the case of Brexit. England’s run at the World Cup has generated positive sentiments, which are likely to be amplified if the side progresses beyond the semis, especially given (in contrast to 1990) how low expectations were this time. This effect could be played out through contrasting scenarios as far as sentiment about Brexit is concerned. What scenario eventuates will depend on how partisans of the soft or hard camp manage to develop a narrative surrounding English success. The strength of the nationalist reflex suggests that the soft camp will need to organise itself even more cleverly than Gareth Southgate has done his men so far.