The absurd England flag debate proves we will never get politics out of football

As the tiresome debate over the flag on England's kit proves, politics will always force itself on football. We just have to live with it.
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Day four of the Great Flag War. A blow has been struck by patriotic forces after England fans bravely held aloft a tifo of the unedited St. George’s Cross at Wembley ahead of the 1-0 defeat to Brazil. Woke morale is… well, flagging. Victory is close at hand.

Yes, this is all still going on. Somehow, a country which has never really gone in for the kind of fetishisation of the flag in which some other nations indulge has absorbed a miniscule and mildly jazzed-up version of England’s banner into the culture wars and stretched the debate out for days, despite the fact that nobody really cared about all of the dozens of other times that either the cross or the Union Flag was tweaked or colourised or repurposed in the past. And despite the fact that almost nobody can really come up with a convincing explanation for why it bothers them so much.

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By this point, you’ll have already made up your mind about whether this specific design tweak is a desecration and a gross insult to our national pride, or just a paltry little storm in the country’s tiniest tea cup. But there’s one question that this rather tiring furore does raise – does politics belong in the game, or not? Can we finally lay that one to rest?

Because the politicians are all wading in, even the ones who so repeatedly and wearyingly tell us to keep their own profession out of football at all costs. Lee Anderson, an MP who has just defected to right-wing party Reform UK from the Conservatives, having previously defected to them from Labour, also demonstrated that he has defected from rational consistency to ironic absurdity by crowbarring his opinion into proceedings at the first opportunity - despite having previously told us that “fans don’t want politics brought into football” back when the tiresome debate du jour was over players kneeling before kick-off.

What he presumably meant was that “fans” – apparently all football fans are part of a monolithic culture with one collective opinion – don’t want other peoples’ politics in football. Anderson’s own politics are fine, clearly, otherwise he wouldn’t share them in tandem with the sport so quickly. Either that, or he conveniently forgot what his own opinion had been a couple of years ago when he recently told us that the new-look flag was “virtue signalling, namby-pamby, pearl-clutching woke nonsense.”

What Anderson has not yet made clear is what exactly is woke about it. Which virtues, precisely, are being signalled? Which pearls are being clutched? Because according to kit manufacturers Nike, all that the flag is intended to symbolise is “unity.” In the absence of any further suggestions, it seems that the only hint of ‘wokeness’ is the fact that, in its multicoloured stripes, it sits vaguely adjacent to the various flags supporting different elements of the LGBTQ+ community, and to some people, daring to offer any kind of support for such groups of people is apparently unacceptable.

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Let’s be honest, if Nike and England had intended to support the LGBTQ+ community with the kit design, they did a pretty gutless job. It isn’t the pride flag, or the transgender flag. It actually is pretty close to the bisexual flag, although one wonders if the designers knew that given that it’s relatively obscure. The messaging didn’t mention ‘diversity’, less still any specific group of people. If it was a coded ‘woke’ message, it was pretty pathetic.

But anyway, I’m allowing the fine details of Lee Anderson’s gibbering stream of word salad to distract me. This is about whether politics has a place in football. Because politicians from the frothy-mouthed far right aren’t the only ones sticking their oar in.

The Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, has ventured the opinion that “we shouldn’t mess” with our national symbols and that “he prefers the original” England shirt, once again demonstrating that he’s happy to use football as a podium despite the fact that he doesn’t hold any actual interest in it or knowledge about it. He loves sports, you see, it’s just that he’s never met one in person.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer is in there too, telling us that “they should just reconsider this and change it back,” and Sir Ed Davey from the Liberal Democrats said something too, but he said it on the radio and nobody can quite remember what it was. A host of MPs from front-benchers to those whose seat in the Commons is so far back that they need binoculars to see the Speaker have taken to The Artist Formerly Known As Twitter to air their views as well.

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The question is – why? Neither Sunak nor Starmer nor Davey nor anyone else has really come up with a coherent rationale behind their distaste for the tweaked flag. Indeed, the only fully-formed argument on the table for leaving it be is so that we don’t have to put up with all the waffle. Some of the politicos getting involved like football, plenty definitely don’t. There’s just a sense that a lot of people are annoyed by it, and therefore they should make it clear that they’re jolly annoyed too, because then the people who are actually annoyed might just vote for them.

Football has always been used as a prop by politicians, the Royal Family, and social climbers of various stripes. It’s the most popular spectator sport in the country and being seen to love it offers an unrivalled opportunity for someone to look like ‘a man of the people’ when they’re fully aware that they’re anything but. But most of all, it’s simply the biggest stage in the country, and offers a colossal soapbox upon which to stand and look smart.

So when something ‘big’ happens in the game – even when it’s actually something rather tiny, such as a small flag on the nape of the players’ necks – everyone from the world of politics weighs in, because it’s a rare opportunity for widescreen engagement of the sort that isn’t really offered by, say, a parliamentary debate on water quality.

The fact is that football is simply too big and too temptingly easy to make use of for politicians to stay out of it. And because people care and feel connected to the national team in particular, they can’t help but project their own vision of England onto it – the type of flag they want to see on the shirt, the representation that they do or don’t want to see in the squad, the knees they should or shouldn’t take, and so on – and thus people insert their own personal politics into watching the team even if, consciously, they think they want to watch the match as a form of escapism, a way to leave the frequently depressing and inherently political ‘real world’ behind. The England national team is simply too personal to us to be anything other than political.

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In any case, when people tell us that politics and football don’t mix, an awful lot of them really just mean politics that they disagree with. Taking the knee in condemnation of racial injustice? Boo! The captain wearing a pride armband in support of the LGBTQ+ community? Hiss! Singing a song about how wonderful the monarchy is before every match? Oh that doesn't count, that’s fine, we love that, even if we can’t be bothered to learn the correct tempo at which to sing it.

Maybe football would be much better if it was strictly apolitical – but we’ll never find out. Football has been used by political figures and regimes of varying stripes for propaganda and messaging purposes for generations. Prince William and Rishi Sunak use it now. Thatcher used it, as did Blair, who loved a footy-related photo op. Even Adolf Hitler made extremely extensive political use of football, despite the fact that he couldn’t stand it. A war was fought in Latin America because of it. Complaining about politics in football is like complaining about methane gas in the air. It leaves a bad smell sometimes, but it’s always there and there’s no way to get rid of it.

But regardless of the unbreakability of the bond between politics and football, the flag debate has been an exhausting bridge too far. Never has so much nonsense been spewed about such a comically insignificant thing (including this column, admittedly) and if there was ever an advert for wanting sport and politics to be divorced for good, this has probably been it.

Anyway, there’s only one real crime that’s been committed here, and it isn’t the ‘desecration’ of St. George’s Cross. It’s that the debate has distracted us from how utterly gorgeous the new England training tops are. Maybe that’s something that we really can all unite around.