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The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain

Recently, while teaching at Pitzer College in Los Angeles, I noted almost immediately how little news there was in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere about Britain.

A shift of sentiment in the Beijing housing market or a speech by the Japanese Prime Minister was far more likely to feature than any news from back home.

And why shouldn’t it? Britain is a tiny island 6,000 miles from Southern California whose cultural, political, and economic reach, although out of proportion with its size, seems less significant with every passing decade.

My students, although familiar in passing with bits of British pop culture, comedy, and music, were neither Anglophobe nor Anglophile.

The Game of Our Lives: The English Premier League and the Making of Modern Britain

Britain appeared too small a feature on their radar to evoke such extremes, but for one thing: football. For what it is worth as sociological evidence, the course that I offered on British national identity since the Second World War attracted just nine students.

My football course was four times the size and could have been double that again.

Perhaps I just wasn’t concentrating, but over a few days spent in Manhattan and Brooklyn I failed to see a single Mets or Yankees shirt but I saw a lot of Chelsea and Manchester City tops.

But then the combined television audience in the US for the final day of the English Premier League (EPL) in 2014 was larger than the UK audience.

I’m not suggesting that football is the only way America engages with Britain—our mutual security services and military industrial complexes have a lot to talk about—but it is a rare popular bridgehead.

The popularity of English football is, I think, a function of the much wider rise of football as a recreational sport, commercial spectacle and popular culture in the United States, yet the EPL is not the only game in town; there are, amongst America’s many soccer cultures, devotees of La Liga and Serie A and diasporic support for teams in the Mexican Liga.

However, measured by the value of TV rights if nothing else, the EPL reigns supreme among American cosmopolitan football fans.

Why? In part it must be a matter of language and a long established if little known presence of English football fans left over from the days of the North American Soccer League (NASL).

In part it is because the spectacle is tremendously good.

Now the richest league in the world and blessed with an extraordinary roster of global talent, the EPL also offers a style of play—a seemingly relentless end-to-end intensity—that the more measured Mediterranean leagues cannot match. In contrast to the almost invariably half empty stadiums of Spain and Italy, the EPL delivers loud full houses on almost every occasion.

The UEFA Champions’ League is perhaps the most favored foreign football of all, but you cannot lose your heart to a tournament or love a football confederation, for that you need a football club.

Every one of my students had their English football club and all the strange and serendipitous reasons that people acquire them; family connections, time spent in Britain, a club that felt in some way like the baseball or basketball franchise they supported in the States, because they were winners, because they weren’t winners, liked the uniform, liked a player and got hooked on the club, etc.

I imagine that most if not all American readers of this book will have a similar tale to tell.

But by whatever route you have arrived in English football and whatever your intentions, you have stumbled across the most extraordinary prism for understanding England and Britain.

I apologize in advance for the use of the first person plural in this book.

I wrote it in my head as a direct address to England and English football.

It is not intended to be exclusionary and recognize that in our post-modern global world, the nature of “we” is always shifting, communities of fate cut across national boundaries.

Perhaps then it is better to read “we” in this book as those who consider English football more than a mere commodity and spectacle for a disengaged global audience, but who think that its values and its pleasures grow out of an old, deeply rooted and richly textured sporting culture that is unmistakably, idiosyncratically English.

The “we” are those who believe that a cosmopolitan outlook is predicated on respect for the local, and that is not a matter of citizenship or location.

These are surely the dispositions and attitudes that a global cosmopolitan culture requires in profusion.

Making these notions the common sense of the global order is an inconceivably hard task, but that we might achieve a fragment of this from our engagement with football is our good fortune.

The Game of Our Lives

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