Sunday 24 February 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Sport preparing to pull up stumps'

‘Neil Warnock, splenetic, nativist and perpetually convinced there’s a conspiracy against him, seems a classic Brexit zealot’. Photo: Getty Images
‘Neil Warnock, splenetic, nativist and perpetually convinced there’s a conspiracy against him, seems a classic Brexit zealot’. Photo: Getty Images
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

I remember in September when the final stumps were drawn

And the shouts of crowds now silent and the boys to tea had gone.

Let us, oh Lord above us, still remember simple things

When all are dead who love us, oh the captains and the kings

Brendan Behan

The Captains and the Kings (1958)

 

Neil Warnock is all for Brexit. "I can't wait to get out of the EU if I'm honest. I think we'll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football wise as well, absolutely. To hell with the rest of the world."

Some people might be surprised to find such xenophobia from the manager of a club, Cardiff City, who are owned by a Malaysian, whose chairman was born in Cyprus and whose first team squad includes players from Canada, Denmark, Gabon, Iceland, the Ivory Coast, Ireland and Spain.

Yet the attitude expressed by Warnock, and so adroitly satirised by Behan in his great song, has deep roots in English society. It hasn't gone away you know. Warnock, splenetic, nativist and perpetually convinced there's a conspiracy against him, seems a classic Brexit zealot.

And while all 20 Premier League clubs advocated remaining in the EU during the 2016 referendum campaign, nothing better encapsulates the mindset which led to Brexit than the worldview exposed when many of Britain's leading 'Football Men' talk about the game.

It is, after all, an article of faith among these pundits that any player unlucky enough to be born outside these islands is a cheat at heart, a product of various debased sporting cultures which entirely lack the sense of fair play innate in the British character.

Some commentaries can seem little more than extended diatribes against the sneaky character of The Continental. No-one would deny that professional football is gravely afflicted by theatrical behaviour, but this transcends all borders. Yet it is a distinguishing characteristic of the 'Football Man' that he will entirely ignore the antics of such notable divers as Michael Owen, Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney.

He won't admit the culpability of English acrobats because to do so would be to entirely undermine his core belief that diving is merely the expression of some devious element peculiar to the foreign character. Native offenders are excused on the grounds that they were merely doing the clever thing and that it might be possible to discern some microscopic contact during the incident in question.

It's a different case altogether when Johnny Foreigner hits the deck. Cue the clucking, the fit of the vapours, the exclamation of 'GEH-TAAAP' in the exasperated voice of a man dealing with a waiter who doesn't speak English and a kitchen that won't serve chips.

The odd thing is that this insistence that our lads are honest and theirs are crooked goes into overdrive during European club games. Yet on such occasions the English team usually contains more foreigners than Englishmen and is usually coached by a foreigner to boot. The only implication you can draw from this is that the pundit believes that the very air of England contains some powerful substance which, in a very short time, converts the immigrant to that native ethos of fair play sadly lacking in those lesser breeds without the law overseas. Unfortunately, the minute a player leaves the Premier League he reverts to his old self almost immediately.

On the infrequent occasions that an Englishman is nailed for diving, he tends to be exempted from blame because he's been influenced by foreign players who have caused this kind of thing to 'creep into our game.' There's a telling echo there of the rhetoric which blames immigrants for spoiling the good, honourable and pristine Britain which existed in the idealised past.

This attitude is not confined to English footballers of a certain vintage. Irish players who spent time over there have an identical view of the world. Take Ronnie Whelan, for example, who was 'GEH-TAAAP' ing at a great rate after Virgil van Dijk almost broke Dries Mertens' ankle in Liverpool's Champions League win over Napoli.

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Virgil Van Dijk’s arrival at Anfield has helped transform the defence (Richard Sellers/PA)

It's often argued that the international nature of the Premier League has actually reduced chauvinism among English fans by giving them heroes from other countries. I'm not so sure. So much of the commentary surrounding the game is so steeped in English supremacy it can only have reinforced the kind of attitude which led to Brexit and the current mess surrounding it. In that respect Neil Warnock may be a more representative figure than Gary Lineker.

"We have many goods for export,

Christian ethics and old port

But our greatest boast is that the Anglo-Saxon is a sport

When the darts game it is finished and the boys their game of rings

And the draughts and chess relinquished, oh the captains and the kings."

The irony is that in the event of Brexit, particularly of the no deal Brexit which becomes more likely with every passing week, no sport will suffer more than football. For one thing, the fact that Britain was in the EU meant there were no restrictions on the employment of footballers from the latter.

It was different for foreign players from outside the EU who had to apply for work permits and meet certain criteria before being allowed to play in England. Players from a nation in the world's top 10 had to have played in 30 per cent of their country's international games in the previous two years, a figure rising to 45 per cent for players in the countries ranked 11-20 and 60 per cent for those ranked 21-30.

A BBC survey showed that 332 players from the EU currently playing in Britain would be excluded under those criteria. Only 23 of 180 such players in the Championship would make the cut while not a single one of the 53 EU players in the Scottish Premier League would qualify.

So a player like Ngolo Kante, who arrived unheralded in England, would in future not be allowed to play in the Premier League. Neither would Cristiano Ronaldo or Thierry Henry, who were not international regulars before arriving in England.

Exacerbating things is the fact that EU countries are currently exempted from the UEFA ban on the transfer between countries of players under the age of 17 and 18. Exiting the EU would mean that, unless they can cobble together some new deal, English clubs would be unable to compete for the continent's best young players at a time when the Financial Fair Play rules will make developing such starlets increasingly important for the bigger clubs.

A post-Brexit Premier League will be a very different beast. It will certainly be shorter on quality though perhaps spectators will find consolation because while what they're watching won't be as good, it will be much more English. That seems to be the hope across the board.

Rugby union, rugby league and cricket will also be affected. The governing bodies of these sports have imposed limits on the number of foreigners but the clubs and counties have managed to circumvent this with an agreement to have players from South Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific included in the Kolpak Deal which guarantees freedom of movement for players from the EU. A no deal Brexit means these sports can kiss goodbye to most of their Kiwi, South African and Australian imports.

There will be knock-on effects here. Horse Racing Ireland last week expressed their worry about the probable end to freedom of movement, describing a no deal Brexit as "catastrophic," not only for Irish breeders who export 80 per cent of their horses to England but for the sport over there which needs these horses in order to provide sufficient racing numbers.

The great trainer Nicky Henderson is concerned about that and also about the fact that stables, "all rely quite heavily on people from overseas. I'm worried we might lose them but even so I think that they are worried they might have go to back home." Around 11 per cent of British stable staff are foreign and there is already a labour shortage in the industry.

Meanwhile, Angus Bujalksi, the RFU's legal director, feels Britain will attract fewer major sporting events after Brexit, pointing out that 25 per cent of Twickenham's match day staff are foreigners and that the figure is roughly the same at Wembley and Lord's.

Over here, a hard border would surely mean a drop in numbers crossing it to attend Gaelic football matches, while two Northern golf clubs, Lough Erne in Fermanagh and Ardglass in Down, have expressed concern about Brexit's implications for their future.

Then there's the fear which underpins the thinking of almost everyone in this country, that the restoration of the hard border may lead to a return to the violent nightmare which made the lives of people up there so difficult for so long. That possibility makes every other problem pale into insignificance. Yet in the current climate it can't be entirely discounted.

All this so they could scratch that old imperial itch one last time.

"By the moon that shines above us, in the misty morn and night.

Let us cease to run ourselves down but praise God that we are white.

And better still are English, tea and toast and muffin rings.

Old ladies with stern faces and the captains and the kings.

Old ladies with stern faces and the captains and the kings."

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