All four European club finalists this season were from the Premier League. The men's national team, after an encouraging semifinal run at last summer's World Cup and success in various youth tournaments, reached the semifinals of the first UEFA Nations League with a vibrant young team. The national women’s team, after success in the SheBelieves Cup, heads into the Women's World Cup as realistic contenders. English football has never had it so good. And yet the summer begins amid a profound sense of unease and dissatisfaction.
Perhaps success never feels quite as good as people think it will, but it shouldn’t just be the disgraceful scenes in Porto over the past couple of nights, of boorish England fans fighting Portuguese police, that give cause for concern. This, in truth, has been coming for a while and remains, for now, an issue of a section of those who go to support the national team. Before anybody goes condemning English fans en masse, it should be remembered that last weekend there were only 10 arrests among the estimated 70,000 Liverpool and Tottenham fans who traveled to Madrid for the Champions League final.
But recently an unpleasant edge has returned to the national support. Whether it has been caused by the same forces that led to the vote to leave the European Union or not can be argued, but it is certainly now percolated through Brexit. Although the brutal attacks by Russian fans in Marseille five days before the referendum in 2016 rightly drew the bulk of the attention and condemnation, England fans had also clashed with locals and police in that first week of Euro 2016. After the Brexit vote on June 16, 2016, police and passers-by were taunted with chants of “F**k off Europe, we voted out.”
Since then, just about every time England has played away, there have been similar incidents ranging from the antisocial loutishness of the canal boats doused with beer in Amsterdam to the missiles thrown at police this week, much of it perpetrated with a xenophobic sneer, legitimized and unleashed by the base nationalism of so much of the political discourse at home.
The causes of Brexit are much disputed, but what is widely agreed is that, for many, the Leave vote was a gesture of rage at austerity and of being left behind by elites, of the impossible gulf that exists between rich and poor, of the destruction of communities by uncaring distant forces. Yet football demonstrates the same pattern. Whatever role clubs once had in their immediate environments, at the highest level at least, is in danger of being subsumed by their position as global brands. That may make financial sense, it may even produce “better”–in some strange abstract sense–football, but for those who grew up with their club, for whom it is as much a part of their identity as their family or city or faith or school, it is profoundly unsettling.
The disparity of wealth is beginning to have an impact on the game itself. Manchester City’s 6-0 win over Watford in the FA Cup final was a grimly brilliant procession: if top of the league is so unfathomably better than 11th, how can the league go on? What’s the point when resources are divided so inequitably? There were 67 games last season in which one team had 70 percent or more possession, as opposed to three in total between 2003-04 and 2005-06. That’s more than one in six games that are no longer a contest in any meaningful sense.
To an extent the spasm of disgust provoked by that game, and the fact City in the past two seasons has recorded the two highest points tallies in history, is a result of how well-targeted its investment has been. The extent of its resources would provoke concern even if it weren’t coming from a state with a deeply dubious record on human rights whose only interest in football is to launder its reputation. The effectiveness of that sportswashing is seen by the number of City fans who leap instinctively to the defense of Sheikh Mansour and Abu Dhabi.
So, yes, English football is, in some sense, on a high. Its top clubs are, finally, starting to produce the results in European competition that their resources suggests they should. The FA’s England DNA project, launched in December 2014, does seem to be bearing fruit (although it may be noted that having won the Under-20 World Cup in 2017, England failed to qualify for this summer’s tournament, the sixth successive champion to do so). The men's national team, in part due to a VAR ruling, could still take third in the Nations League, hours before the women face Scotland to begin their march on building on the World Cup bronze won in 2015.
But there are times when it feels like what’s happening on the pitch is a fragile façade over far darker currents beneath it all.