“Where Were You When We Were Getting High?”: English Football, Politics, and Culture Since Euro 1996

Anyone who watched the UEFA Champions League Final on May 29, 2021 might be forgiven for thinking that English football dominates Europe. For the second time in three years the final had become an all-English affair. In 2019, Liverpool raised the Champions League trophy after dismissing the always disappointing Tottenham. In fact, the entire final four of the 2019 tournament consisted of English squads, Arsenal and Chelsea comprising the other two.

Here’s the thing: English football clubs are certainly among the best in the world. It’s just they aren’t always all that English or even British, for that matter. While several potential English internationals played in either the 2019 and/or 2021 final – Mason Mount (Chelsea), James Reese (Chelsea), Raheem Sterling (Manchester City), Phil Foden (Manchester City) Jordan Henderson (Liverpool), Kyle Walker (Manchester City) and Harry Kane (Tottenham) to name just a few — the starting eleven for both sides, as well as the game’s substitutes in the most recent final struck a remarkably international pose: Tiago Silva (Brazil), N’Golo Kanté (France), Timo Werner (Germany), Kevin De Bruyne (Belgium), Céasar Azpilicuete (Spain) and Sergio Aguero (Argentina) among several others including American, Christian Pulisic. Indeed, today between 60 and 65 percent of the English Premiership (EPL), the nation’s top flight league, hail from abroad.

That said, England’s potential side for the upcoming European Championship, which begins on June 11th and will be held across the continent, looks nearly as promising, perhaps equal to or better than the squad it sent 25 years ago to the same competition then played across England. England’s current national manager, the somewhat tweedy Gareth Southgate, played for the 1996 team managed by the irrepressible and frequently ethically compromised Terry Venables.

Even in its structure, Euro 96 mirrored political developments on continental Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the dissolution of Eastern bloc countries such as Yugoslavia compelled UEFA to expand the 1996 European Championship to 16, the largest fielded in the competition’s history at the time. Around the same time, songs like the maudlin “Winds of Change” sung by the German pop metal outfit Scorpions (and possibly promoted by the CIA), embodied the belief that if not democratic winds, better days lay ahead for much of the continent that had persevered under Communist rule.

In contrast, England had emerged from roughly five years of club football isolation in 1990 as bans on international competitions resulting from pervasive hooliganism, notably the Heysel tragedy in which Liverpool supporters killed over three dozen of their Italian Juventus counterparts during the 1985 European Cup final. Though England had performed admirably at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, it failed to qualify for the 1994 competition.

Euro 96 offered the chance for England to reintroduce itself to its continental neighbors and occurred amidst the heady concurrent rise of both Tony Blair’s neoliberal “third way” New Labour Party and Britain’s 1990s pop music ascension; Oasis and Blur dominated radio and record sales internationally, while bands like Pulp captured the more elusive hipster market. “As all good pop music should it ruffled the feathers of the middle aged and Middle England. In late 1995, it was heaven to be young,” writes Michael Gibbons of the moment. “Lad culture” had just become the lingua franca of British male youth.

England’s performance, losing in the semi-final to Germany, was hailed as a sign of things to come an unfortunate conclusion to draw in retrospect; less inspiring performances by the English national team in subsequent international competitions drew increasingly greater ire. “Rage became all the rage,” observed Gibbons in 2016, “From Euro 96 onwards it was possible to map a rising hysteria with all things relating to the England team.”

Still, looking back twenty years later Gibbon could confidently assert that whatever followed, Euro 96 remained a “cultural watershed” in the UK. “The tournament was the first public spectacle in the UK to have the ‘Twas there’ sense of event driving its influence to all corners of the country.”

Yet, the changes that have unfolded politically, culturally, and economically, to Britain, specifically England, since 1996 and the current state of international affairs are much different, Euro 96 provides a useful vantage point to track changes in the sport, the UK, and internationally.

Footie and Politics

Football and politics are a fairly typical couple even if both the left and the right have found occasion for critique. “The scorn of many conservative intellectuals comes from their conviction that soccer worship is precisely the superstition people deserve … Animal instinct overtakes human reason, ignorance crushes culture, and the riff raff get what they want,” renowned soccer writer Eduardo Galeano observes. Then again, plenty on the left viewed the game warily. “[M]any leftist intellectuals denigrate soccer because it castrates the masses and derails their revolutionary ardor. Bread and circus, circus without the bread …” That said, Antonio Gramsci praised soccer as “this open aired kingdom of human loyalty.”

Authoritarians have long sought to marshal the sport for its own ends. Nationalists hailed Italian victories in the 1934 and 1938 World Cups as successes indicative of Benito Mussolini’s fascist Italy. When Dynamo Kiev, a club team from the Ukrainian city of the same name, defeated “Hitler’s team” in 1942 despite warnings that victory meant death, they were summarily executed and pushed off the edge of a cliff still wearing their club shirts. Fortunately, deploying sport in this manner does not always guarantee long term stability, as the military junta that ran Argentina’s 1978 World Cup discovered when it was dumped only a few years later.

More recently, Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi deftly used his own ownership of A.C. Milan, nationalist rhetoric around the Italian national team, and the power of his telecommunications empire in his rise to political office. Much as with a certain American politician, Italian voters ignored Berlusconi’s buffoonery and the fact that many of his businesses stood on the precipice of collapse, electing him to Prime Minister first from 1994-1995 and two more times from 2001-2006 and 2008-2011. “The amalgam of football, television, and politics would indeed create and reshape the social relationships of Italian society,” argues Goldblatt.

As already noted during the 1980s, Britain witnessed increasing fan violence and for political leaders like Margaret Thatcher, whose administration had embarked on amneoliberal pilgrimage liberalizing the economy, deregulating capital markets, privatizing state industry, and breaking unions, football represented a nation stuck in the past. Under Thatcher’s reforms, older manufacturing seats in the English midlands, northern England, Scotland and Wales all endured costs. When England’s Football Association sought a partnership with Barclay’s in 1987 it did so for primarily financial reasons but undoubtedly, by tying themselves to the august bank, the FA had affiliated itself with “a brand of impeccable conservatism.”

How could anyone root for a side that dressed like manager Kevin Keegan and his Newcastle United coaching staff?

By the early 1990s however, a public exhausted from Thatcherism and the failures of her successor Prime Minister John Major set the table for the arrival of New Labor Party behind the leadership of young forty something Tony Blair. Drawing more from the centrist liberalism of Bill Clinton than the traditionalism of his alumna mater Eton, Blair, for a politician at least, cut a youthful figure. Even if some observers questioned the depth of his fandom, after all, Blair claimed loyalty to the tragic Situationist comedy that is Newcastle United.

The convergence of Oasis, Blur, and Pulp, as well as the Factory Records scene in Manchester (Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays) aligned with a new hope for British politics in the form of Blair and the Labor Party. The release of Danny Boyle’s darkly hysterical Trainspotting in February, replete with a soundtrack featuring Blur, Pulp, Sleeper, and Elastica, only furthered the UK’s cultural momentum. Add to it, Oasis’s “Don’t Look Back in Anger” which dominated the airwaves, going platinum in March 1996. In a tidy bit of unintentional synergy, Noel Gallagher had even attended the Trainspotting’s debut at Cannes. More than a few observers noted the symmetry with the 1966 World Cup when England took the competition amidst images of “Swinging London,”: “young women sporting miniskirts, Carnaby Street as fashion capital, and the entire world humming Beatles tunes…”

Blair capitalized on what some had dubbed, dubiously mind you, “Cool Britannia.” When Oasis won Best Group at the 1996 Brit Awards, Noel Gallagher offered an explicit endorsement. “There are seven people in this room who are giving a little bit of hope to young people in this country … That’s me, our kid, Bonehead, Guigsy, Alan White, Alan McGhee, and Tony Blair. And if you all have got anything about you, you’ll go up there and shake Tony Blair’s hand, man. He’s the man. Power to the people.” Granted, the Gallagher brothers spent much of the 1990s drunk and/or high and no one ever fought a war in the name of “Champagne Supernova,” but it demonstrates what Blair represented in the moment. “Blair later went to collect autographs from Oasis, keeping a nervous arm’s length from the coked up euphoria at their table.”

European leaders also saw in Blair hope for the European Project. German chancellor Helmut Kohl openly stated that the Eton graduate was the continent’s last best hope for incorporating the UK into Europe. “Now we are surer than ever that we must wait for Tony Blair.” On the back of Euro 96 and his “youth” appeal, Blair was swept into office a year later in 1997.

Politically, the concurrent project of devolution in which Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland gained control over their own affairs, contributed to a nationalistic fervor that led to a proliferation of St. George flags and imbued a new importance regarding the apparent “Englishness” of the team. When one considers the Brexit referendum twenty years later, these signs take on a darker hue.

Football in England 1996

Ironically, the formation of the English Premiership in 1992 under the auspices of Barclay’s worked against the very cultural momentum that would culminate at Euro 96. Football club finances have always been famously dodgy. In terms of profits, as demonstrated by Colombia’s cocaine fueled football rise during the 1980s and 1990s (see the documentary, The Two Escobars) clubs serve much better as means to launder money than make it.

“In the Thatcher era the Conservatives acted as cheerleaders to the money-fuelled transformation of a game that had become synonymous with dilapidated stands and hooliganism,” a May 2021 Economist editorial argued. “The most famous teams such as Liverpool and Manchester United became global brands with a rising number of foreign players and fans.” The internationalization of the sport, while resulting in the most athletic and skilled generation of footballers thus far witnessed, has also had a homogenizing effect. Styles and tactics that had once been unique to various nations seem to be diminishing. Though variance does still exist – some teams play counter attacking football, others focus on possession, and so forth- but much as the NBA, the EPL seems to be adopting a more uniform model of play one could argue a similar process had been unfolding in international football.

The rapid internationalization of the game was not solely due to financial largesse, but rather a 1995 legal decision by the European Court known as the Bosman ruling which enabled players who had fulfilled their contracts to freely move to a new club. Previously, most domestic leagues in Europe including the EPL had citizenship requirements regarding team composition, in many cases allowed only three non-national and two “assimilated players.” In the context of the ruling, Euro 96 turned into “a giant supermarket for English clubs with cash on the hip.”

In the ensuing years, much as the creation of the European Union resulted in the migration of workers from Poland to England, and migrant labor elsewhere in Europe, so too did the EPL open its doors to players from around the globe. During the 1996 tournament, evidence of xenophobic undercurrents appeared frequently. English journalists brandished a wicked jingoism in moments. Editor of The Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan, published headlines such as “Ten Nasties Spain’s Given Europe” which referenced Franco, syphilis, and carpet bombing.

To the F.A.’s credit, during the 1980s, the league began incorporating the talents of Black working class England. As with most things, take this with a grain of salt. While the league may have incorporated Black Britons at a greater clip than ever before, they did little to shield players from racial abuse. John Barnes, only the second player ever signed by Liverpool at the time and considered one of the most accomplished players of his generation, endured numerous racist incidents; Liverpool fans even flung bananas at him on occasion. “Meantime, the FA saw nothing and the TV coverage and commentary teams miraculously rendered it all invisible,” noted Goldblatt.

Where Does It Leave Us Today?

Unlike in 1996, the English national team is coming off a promising performance in the 2020 World Cup. Southgate’s leadership of the club has reinvigorated hopes and the team has legitimate world class international talent. Though if England reintroduced itself to Europe twenty-five years ago, in light of the past five years, it appears more insular than ever. Devolution was one thing in the 1990s, but in the wake of Brexit, Scotland’s secession from the UK seems more and more likely every day.

Brexit and the xenophobia it unleashed on Polish workers and others suggests a nation in decline not one dominating cultural trends. Thankfully, the “lad culture” that defined the UK during the 1990s and 2000s, embodied by publications such as Loaded and FHM has been displaced by a new awareness regarding gender and sexuality as exhibited in recent films such as Promising Young Woman (not British mind you but a sign of the new era) and television series like I May Destroy You.

Covid has laid waste to the world sparing no one and while the uninspired leadership of Boris Johnson might be lamentable, and whatever we think of the former prime minister following his own numerous missteps (Iraq anyone?), there is no Blair in the wings to challenge him. The Labor Party, led by Jeremy Corbyn could not even defeat the floppy haired, Trump lackey nitwit who now occupies Downing Street.

Even ginger fans got in on the Super League protest, 2021

If Euro 96’s competitors reflected a Europe trending toward democratic openness, Europe in 2021 leans toward populist authoritarianism. Poland, Belarus, Russia, and Romania, to name just a few, do not seem interested in pursuing greater openness. Far Right parties in France, the Netherlands and elsewhere enjoy increasing numbers of supporters. Of course, Americans cannot say much to this end as our nation seems to be pursuing its own quest to undermine democracy through far-right extremism.

Since Euro 96, football as business and cultural totem has only grown, particularly in England. Somehow, football absorbs an even greater share of popular culture than it did a quarter century ago. Yet, for fans this has only resulted in increasingly higher prices. Take this year’s European club champion Chelsea. Between 1992 and 2005, the cost of one’s average ticket rose from 8 pounds to 40. If the stands once consisted of working and middle class faces, by 2002 alone one-third of Chelsea season ticket holders earned more than 50,000 pounds a year, double the average income of the nation. Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich owns and runs Chelsea; the American Glazer family runs Manchester United; Red Sox owner John Henry controls most of Liverpool; Abu Dhabi investors operate Manchester City. Meanwhile, fans have been left largely out in the cold. Predictably anger runneth over, as demonstrated by the various protests that unfolded this season. Players agreed with fans; former captain of Manchester United and celebrated English international Gary Neville called the Super League a “criminal act.”

Ironically, the very individuals who either applauded this corporate growth, Boris Johnson, or contributed to it, Rupert Murdoch, now feign loyalty to the “little man.” In 2005, when the Glazer family bought Manchester United, Johnson celebrated the news, pointing to the entrepreneurial qualities of American ownership. Today? He blasts the same billionaire owners for “dislocating football from its host communities.” Much like his American counterparts on the right, Johnson now berates “untrammeled free markets” and the “cult of selfish individualism,” famously telling England to “fuck business.”

Murdoch once tried to buy the same Manchester United team now run by the Glazers and has been a catalyst in the game’s commercialization, but also claims to fight for the fan in the stands, notably in response to the disastrous announcement of a European Super League that quickly went down in flames: “It is your game, and you can rest assured that I’m going to do everything I can to give this ludicrous plan a straight red.” Winds of change indeed.

Former Chelsea player, Ruud Gullit, a prodigious talent from the Netherlands who never stood silent on racial issues

And what of race? Again, the EPL has improved on this count. It responded to the Black Lives Matter movement with words and symbols of support such as a moment of silence before each match during which players take a knee dedicated to eradicating racism. Though admittedly, some players such as Ivory Coast international and Crystal Palace forward, Wilfried Zaha no longer take a knee, citing the action as superficial and insufficient, “at the moment it doesn’t matter whether we kneel or stand, some of us still continue to receive abuse,” he told reporters. When online harassment of Black footballers mounted during this past season, the league shut down its social media for an entire weekend in protest. However, Piers Morgan’s feud with former royal Meghan Markle and the general British tabloid media’s treatment of her suggests a festering racism that continues to persist. A 2018 report found commentary regarding Black players in the EPL suffered from clear racial bias.

All this is to say: enjoy the 2021 tournament. It’s been a rough 18 months for everyone, and the European Championships can bring joy to millions around the world, but also put a pin in it. I’m not sure anyone in 1996 would have predicted we’d be where we are internationally today. Considering all this, maybe it is okay to look back in anger.