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Nostalgia, Nationalism, and the French Plan for Football

The teleology of sport is imprecise, which means that any attempt to reorganize sport is likely to be evaluated according to uncertain rules of conscience. To put this another way: we shouldn’t be able to pass judgment on an attempt to revise a sporting competition without first saying what we want the competition to do and what values we want it to retain, but since those wants are usually too big and vague to be expressed concretely, we wind up judging the proposed changes according to feelings that often amount to little more than prejudice.

There are, for instance, many reasons to oppose the proposals for a new system of European regulation currently being debated by European sports ministers, but the fact that the proposals were first put forward by the French isn’t one of them. And yet the tone of the reaction in England (“French football attacks Premier League,” screams the Telegraph; “English football at risk from French revolution,” Martin Samuel’s headline writer wails) invokes nothing so much as the reflexive mistrust of foreigners who want to take away the pound. Opposition to the proposals is presented as a matter of vague national pride, and is undoubtedly taken that way by large numbers of people who have been persuaded of the plan’s perniciousness without first developing any understanding of its content.

This is unfortunate, because the proposals really wouldn’t be good for football, and it would be better to debate them and dismiss them on their merits than to throw them out simply out of respect for the dead of Trafalgar. The irony is that the British response is making opposition to the proposals appear stuffily conservative and reactionary, when in fact the proposals themselves are reactionary and should be opposed in part for their attempt to freeze football in place.

It’s very easy to make this argument without alluding to sentiments left over from the Battle of Agincourt. One simply has to point out that the cluster of components belonging to the plan—the creation of a pan-European regulatory agency to govern club finances, the ’6+5′ rule limiting the number of foreign players in a side, and the prohibition of transfers for players younger than 18—collectively attempt to revert to a vision of football in which the regional character of clubs is strongly pronounced and competitive balance is protected by the limited financial options available to any one team. That was presumably, not to put the point too neatly, what football looked like when the current crop of regulators was growing up, and it has always been possible to detect in the moral hostility toward the modern game an anxiety over the loss of the familiar. However, the irony of attempting to impose a local, small-scale, highly individuated version of football culture through the creation of a massive central regulatory agency and artificial control from Europe has barely even been noticed, much less found to be debilitatingly self-contradictory.

One apt point that has been widely made is that attempting to base all of European sport on the DNCG model responsible for one of the dullest and least competitive football leagues in Europe begs the question of why anyone would want to emulate mediocrity. The answer, again, lies in the problem of teleology: if we accept a certain moralistic interpretation of the logic of sport, it becomes very difficult to promote entertainment over the highly aggrieved vision of justice promoted by the DNCG system. If we reject that interpretation in favor of contingency and pleasure, then it becomes very easy; but of course the problem of how strongly football should structurally promote excitement and how strongly it should structurally promote discipline is not likely to be answered in a meeting of European sports ministers.

And that’s why I wish we could have this debate without the fallback technique of sneering about national stereotypes. Football is facing structural problems, some of which—debt and competitive disparity, especially—may require adjustments to the existing system.  My worry is that until we can state more clearly what we want competition to look like, what we want a football league to mean, the implicitly nostalgic attitude represented by the French plan will be the only form of activism capable of seeing a way forward.

There’s a lot more to say about all this—about Platini’s rejection of the plan, about the influence of the proposals on sports other than football, about the political conditions within the EU and UEFA that will bear on the debate—but I’m waiting to see what happens in Biarritz tomorrow before deciding whether to add anything else. This is all very likely to go nowhere, but even that outcome will have some fascinating implications for the near-term future of football. We’ll see.

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Nostalgia, Nationalism, and the French Plan for Football

by Brian Phillips · November 27, 2008

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