October 13, 2003


A number of our recent discussion topics coalesced in a quite astonishing piece today in the Observer on the Man U vs England stand-off.

Remember that discussion a while back between k-punk and blissblog on territoriality and capital, when Simon was positioning Grime's ultra-locality as a kind of dirty protest against the clean sheen of a deracinated Global Kapital? Remember what - following Robin Carmody - I was saying yesterday about Eighties AOR signalling that a certain version/ vision of Englishness had capitulated to the $?

Well, here is one Richard Kurt, deputy editor of the Red Issue magazine: 'The fundamental thing is that Manchester United see themselves as an international, multinational club, not a provincial city club. We are a globally visioned brand. We're not about England, but about the world. Nationality doesn't matter.'

Until recently, the FA was as hierarchically class-stratified as the House of Lords - I think I'm right in saying that members of the Admirality used to sit on important committees as a matter of course. The confrontation this week between the FA and United, with the England players caught, somewhat ingloriously, in between, was a face-off between a multinational plc and a national institution, with the national institution cast in the role of stick-in-the-mud resisters to ‘Modernization.’

Alex Ferguson occupies an ambivalent position here. This week, he found himself, for once, aligned with the board and the plc. Yet Ferguson- whose style is routinely contrasted not only with that of the coolly analytic Eriksson, but also with that of the similarly phlegmatic Arsene Wegner - is famously the last bastion of an 'archaic' British version of management, in which the club is run not as the jewel-in-the-crown of a corporate folio, but as a personal fiefdom. The professorial, professional-class Wenger and Eriksson - softly spoken, polite, PR-sensitive - are well-heeled representatives of the European bourgeoisie. The irascible Ferguson, meanwhile, prides himself on his upstart status as a former Clydeside shop steward made good. The point is to make it without becoming one of Them.

In that respect, one of the many striking things about Kurt's comments is their strange disconnection from the national make-up of the United team. Unlike that of chief rivals, Arsenal, the backbone of the United squad is predominantly English. The hapless Ferdinand, the Neville brothers, Scholes, Butt; it's the likes of Van Nistelrooy and Solksjaer who are the exceptions in a squad that has, for the most part, been put together in the old-fashioned way, through careful husbandry of homegrown talent. Van Nistelrooy is one of the few foreign big names Ferguson has bought in and retained. Ferguson's experiment with the slowburn Latin sorcery of 'little witch' Juan Sebastian Veron was prematurely terminated, reinforcing United's essential Englishness. Scholes, Butt, their very names are redolent of the prosaic, pragmatic anglo-proletarianism Ferguson favours. The resolutely unglamorous Phil Neville - who looks like he should be cringing about in an Alan Bennett play rather than representing a 'globally-visioned brand' - is perhaps the most authentic face of Ferguson's United.

Ferguson's sale of Beckham, after all, was something of a thumbing of the nose at the 'globally visioned brand' cultivated by the plc. Beckham was the only United player - the only footballer - with genuinely global appeal; exactly the kind of asset a global brand would want to hold onto. Beckham - whose background is of course as working class as they come - had nevertheless become associated with an aspirational cosmopolitan classlessness subtly at odds with Ferguson's vision of success as class revenge. Be successful, but don't forget who you are, and don't let them forget who you are.

In effect, then, there are three forces in tension here, in a plot of Shakespearian intrigue: Ferguson's United, which far from being impersonally cosmopolitan, is made in the manager's image, a 'Family', as another Observer report had it; the United plc, whose interests, as Ferguson is well aware, are only contingently coincident with his own; and the FA.

Little of this emerges in Kurt's picture, which elides Ferguson's United with the plc. One would expect a corporate lackey to spout the kind of bland brandspeak Kurt happily spools out on behalf of the board. It's quite another thing to hear a fan toe the party line , chillingly and appallingly reminiscent of those sad call centre employees interviewed by the aghast Darcus Howe a year or so back in his memorable documentary, who unquestioningly subordinated themselves to the sinister smiling corporate ethos of the Egg online bank.

Kurt's comments have very little relevance to the United team, but everything to do with how a certain type of United fan sees themselves. 'At Leicester two weeks ago there were six or seven songs - particularly Are You England in Disguise? - and the Leicester fans reacted strongly. Leicester is an England-supporting city and that's the sort of people - flag-of-St-George-waving, Little England, Sun- reading people - that we want to wind up. We'd sing them at West Ham, Leeds, Newcastle, places like that. It is political, but it's also sophisticated. I'm quite proud of it.' The fit between a left-liberal social agenda, anti-nationalism and pro-capitalism is, it would seem, complete. Locality - Leicester! - is equated with a territoriality that is unreflective, 'unsophisticated' and fascistic . (Leicester is in fact is an ethnically-diverse city, home to much Desi beats). The alleged sophistication of Kurt's United fan is, in his account, a consequence of their informed consumption. Leicester fans support Leicester - dullards that they are - just because they were born there. But United fans have selected United in the same way that a discriminating palate might settle upon a vintage wine, their choice reflecting an exercise of informed judgement rather than an instinctual atavism. On the one hand, we are led to believe, we have the stubbornly archaic, pre-capitalistic territoralities of the local community team and the meta-local National team; on the other hand, the brave new world of the ethnically-diverse, Champions-League-pursuing, Kapital Eutopia, in which national rivalry is a thing of the past.

Incidentally, I wonder where Mr Kurt comes from?

Too easy to equate locality and localism with fascism, and internationalism with 'sophistication.' As Simon's analysis of Grime has shown, such a simple binary can hardly be adequate.

The seedier side of Kapital has come out in the other big football story this week. Whatever the truth of this particular story, it's clear that many footballers are now, literally, Kapital's Id running wild, a kind of personification of its won’t-take-no-for-answer voraciousness. The combination of fabulous wealth, alcohol and male hormones have produced a lawless libidinal monstrosity, a breed of young man as casually convinced of their immunity from prosecution as were medieval princes. Forget Kurt's corporate brochure: that scene in the hotel bedroom is the grim reality of contemporary Kapital, a heady brew of seduction, desire and brutality. If it wants you, it’s got you. No matter what.

Posted by mark at October 13, 2003 08:40 AM | TrackBack

wonderful stuff on my 'observer' comments

i come from manchester, by the way

and i meant the terms 'global brand' etc to be tongue-in-cheek, a deliberate apeing of the corpspeak spouted by plc Suits....as, for once, there is a certain chiming between their 'vision' and my view.

what's wrong with cosmopolitanism, though? and yes, 'choosing ' united by reference to its core values - NOT its trophies - seems to be to be perfectly proper and to be encouraged.
curious as to you

Posted by: Richard Kurt at April 2, 2004 04:15 PM