England has now left Europe twice in four days, with the second departure allowing this writer some small sentiment of retributive justice for the stupidity of the first. After the unmitigated and unfolding disaster of Brexit, the English national football team was defeated 2-1 by Iceland yesterday in the European Football Championship. Iceland! That’s right. With a population of around 330,000, with a fair scattering of part-time players and a coach who also works as a dentist and a goalkeeper who is also a filmmaker, Iceland defeated England, the country who first formulated the game of association football in the nineteenth century and has the richest league in the world and most of the game’s best-paid players.
On both occasions, leaders resigned without taking questions from the press. A puffy-looking David Cameron announced, using quaint shipping metaphors, that he would be leaving office just as soon as anyone foolhardy enough could be found to take his job. And the hapless England coach, Roy Hodgson, read out a prepared statement immediately after the Iceland game (when was it prepared, one asks?) stating that he was quitting as coach. Shipping metaphors are appropriate in this instance, as the last confrontations between England and Iceland were the so-called “Cod Wars” that stretched from the 1950s to the 1970s, which Iceland also handily won.
What connection is there between these two European departures? At a superficial, factual level, absolutely none at all. But, probing more deeply, there is a felt link. The referendum for Brexit was not about national sovereignty against the allegedly faceless bureaucracy of Brussels and the EU, nor was it some triumph for democracy where the people take their country back, as Donald Trump declared. No, this was a referendum on immigration. Pure and simple. The campaign was ugly and watered with lies and racist scaremongering from the “leave” camp. Promises were made to end immigration and defend the values of nation, from the cynical Tory Boris Johnson and the truly awful Nigel Farage, leader of UKIP. The majority of the people of England (but not of Scotland or Northern Ireland) voted against immigration because, to put it brutally, they simply don’t like foreigners and very many of them seem to be simply racist.
It was the numerical weight of English voters—who make up more than 80 percent of the overall population—that allowed Brexit to happen, not the other members of what is whimsically still known as the United Kingdom. For very many decades, the English national team served as a vehicle for xenophobia and the most stupid and atavistic form of nationalism. This led to generations of soccer hooligans, whose presence in the sport reached embarrassing levels in the 1980s. Anyone who thinks that this is a thing of the past need only observe the behavior of England fans in Marseille and Lille this month in their running street fights with Russians fans—who are better organized and more brutal (and who clearly now want to assume the mantle of top dog in the world of international hooliganism, doubtless in preparation for hosting the 2018 World Cup. I can barely wait).
What makes Iceland’s upset so sweet is that the humiliation of the English national team touches many “leave” supporters in the only place that really hurts: their deluded sense of national pride. Before the shameful defeat to Iceland, England fans could be heard singing in the streets of Nice, “We’re not in Europe any more!” The England team played quite possibly the worst soccer I have ever seen. The movement was slow and ponderous. Wayne Rooney lost possession repeatedly, Harry Kane seemed to be unable to kick the ball into the box from any position, and the goalkeeper, Joe Hart, made another elementary mistake. He simply was unable to save the ball when he dived to his left. I could go on, but truly the quality of England’s movement and passing was execrable. The team suffered from two main deficiencies: it could neither attack nor defend.
I say all this with no particular joy. I am English and a soccer fanatic and, despite everything, I still have tremendous fondness for the national team and remember moments like the 1966 World Cup Final, when England beat the erstwhile West Germany with a hugely controversial goal. (The Russian linesman awarded a goal to England when the ball clearly had not crossed the line.) It was rather amusing to read last week that Bild, the scurrilous but very widely-read German tabloid newspaper, even offered to recognize the legitimacy of that goal if the British decided to stay in the EU. Sadly, not that many “leave” voters follow the German press.
But Iceland’s victory against England also reveals something very important about the nature of soccer. Unlike sports like golf and tennis, or even baseball, cricket, and basketball, soccer is not individualistic. It is not about the individual players, no matter how gifted they might be, but about the team. Soccer is collaborative. It is about patterns amongst players, about shapes, grids, and matrices, which can be made up of truly gifted individual players, like Barcelona, or of less gifted individuals who function as a fused group, like Leicester City in the English Premier League last season, or a team like Costa Rica in the 2014 World Cup. Iceland follows this pattern. They are a team who are physically extremely fit, where each player knows exactly what is expected from him in the formation, and they play with great intelligence. One might object that Iceland plays very simple soccer. But, as the late, great Dutch player and manager Johan Cruyff said, “Playing football is very simple, but playing simple football is the hardest thing there is.”
The collaborative nature of soccer extends to the patterns of sociability amongst the players, and the contrast between the team whose members play for each other and the team where each plays for himself—the Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo dialectic, if you like. Iceland plays as a team, for each other and not for themselves. These patterns of sociability find both their echo and their energy, both effect and cause, in the sociability of the fans. The great joy of the European Championships so far has been watching the Iceland fans and their interaction with the players. For an example, watch this video of the celebrations following the victory against England.
It is estimated that up to 10 percent of the Icelandic population have been in France with their team and close to all the rest watching at home. In keeping with this collaborative spirit, Iceland, which is not a member of the EU but part of the European Economic Area, has invited the UK to join it and Norway in a “triangle” of north Atlantic countries that are close economically to Brussels. But it is far from clear if the go-it-alone English will oblige, especially after such a defeat. The Iceland national team and their fans have given us all a small and valuable lesson in what the real values of nationhood might be.