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Harry Kane, a symbol of English nationalism

...and why that symbol is never examined

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Mark Thompson

Jan 11 2020

9 mins read

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A football pitch is a canvas on which teams can paint their glory; a football team is a canvas on which a manager can paint their likeness.

The duality of Jose Mourinho was fully on show in Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-0 loss to Liverpool, his twin traits of 1) defending and 2) fighting. For a lot of the first half his team looked like wounded prey accepting that they’d soon be eaten, half an eye on an escape route, but fearing that making any sudden movements would trigger Liverpool into action.

But while defensive performances in big games is Mourinho’s brand, so is coming out swinging. Maybe they could’ve come out swinging at the start of the first half, but it seems like the Portuguese manager prefers to do it when his back’s against the wall. When the odds are truly against him. Just a shame that they were 1-0 down by that point.

They never got the goal, although they came close to it, and if you looked at stats for the match as a whole you might be deceived into thinking that it was a tightly-fought match. Mourinho credited his team’s effort after the match, though, a third key trait of his. His side’s results might not reflect it yet, but he’s made himself at home at Tottenham.

But football teams aren’t just a canvas for their manager. They can equally be moulded to represent their fanbase and, on a national scale, the nation as a whole.

Football – all club sport, really – is a perfect jumping-off point for conversations about nationalism because the two operate in the same kind of ways. Supportership, like a nation, is in essence a sort of community, although an abstract one. You’ll never meet everyone in it, and while you’ll have always have something in common with your fellow fan, you’re not necessarily much more similar to those inside the community than those outside.

There’s also messy politics about whether you’re allowed to have more than one allegiance, or even change it in a straight swap. Ditto for criticising your own crowd: do you bang the drum regardless or is a critical eye a sign of (tough) love?

All of this probably makes it easier to understand the anger of fans when a player makes it clear they want to leave. It isn’t just a career decision; even ‘rejection’ can be putting it too mildly; it’s treason. The nation has been betrayed. Only when a player’s become a hero (or when they’ve clearly genuinely tried and clearly genuinely struggled to immigrate) are they allowed some leeway in leaving.

Christian Eriksen certainly felt that in this game, receiving a sprinkling of boos as he left the pitch to be substituted by Giovani Lo Celso. The Argentine was a key difference-maker – as well as the team raising the height of their defensive line by ten yards or so – and if half-time was a turning point in this game, then this one substitution feels like it could be a turning point in Spurs’ season.

Lo Celso pressed, he drove, he was a key part in two chances that Tottenham couldn’t make the most of. Up until an hour in, Spurs’ attacks had largely been lumping it up in consistently hopeless long balls to a Lucas Moura-vs-six-foot-plus centre-back aerial duel. Harry Kane’s body has been so crocked his acceleration rivals a free-rolling caravan, but it would’ve been interesting to see whether his height might have made that strategy a little more effective.

If Moura had an extra couple of inches of height on him, though, Spurs might not have missed their captain in the slightest. It might just be the domestic performances talking, but the striker feels slightly out of place at Tottenham, despite him being ‘one of their own’, in a way that he doesn’t (yet) for his national team.

Perhaps that’s because he’s so stereotypically English in a way that club football no longer necessitates. The opposition forward line today of Sadio Mané, Mohamed Salah, and the goalscorer Roberto Firmino can be embraced as symbols of Liverpool in a way that they probably wouldn’t be as symbols of England (assuming a course of events that saw them qualify to play for the national team). Remember the fuss made at the prospect of Manuel Almunia taking the at-the-time problem goalkeeping spot? Or discussions about whether a foreigner should be coaching the side?

This could be because national football teams bring our ideas of nation and nationalism to the forefront of our minds and, more tangibly, make them flesh. “An imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people,” were historian Eric Hobsbawm’s words.

And who is more of a real a representation of traditional Englishness than Harry Kane? Despite some talk of link-up play (a foreign trait to the English even back to the nineteenth century, when it was a Scottish invention), his game is archetypal English striker: score goals. Performances might not be top-notch, like this season, but he still manages to keep the scorecard ticking over somehow or other.

It helps this perception that he looks the part, like a cartoonist’s take on a 1940s RAF pilot, and it also helps that he’s still at the club he’s been at since he was 11. In the popular imagination of Harry Kane, he’s untarred by modern commercialism in football, and generally seems an unusual island of traditionalism within a multicultural England men’s national team that is, relative to the sport, unusually open in talking about mental health and English identity.

And that might save his England starting spot.

In all teams, the captain’s armband has a way of saving symbols from sitting on the bench when performances may warrant it, and others might deserve the starting spot more than Kane once he recovers from his hamstring surgery. If it does, then I think it’ll be something that goes beyond Kane himself, and touch on something significant about English national identity.

There’s an argument among some historians that ‘England’ is a young nation, one that came out of the end of the British Empire in the mid-to-late-twentieth century. You can pull its creation even closer to the present too, if you add devolution into the mix. Social anthropologist Jessica Robinson floats the idea that this period in the late 1990s of transferring political powers to Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, “made the English nation relevant, as a nation, perhaps for the first time.”

And reading accounts of other historians who focus on football (and as a ‘90s kid I have to go to historians on this) it was only in the 1990s that the St George’s Cross, and not the Union Flag, became the flag England fans took to matches. It’d been the Union Flag that 1966 cartoon lion mascot World Cup Willie wore, the flag that adorned stadiums at England matches, the flag that influenced kit design in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

In the noughties, the St George’s Cross became a design feature of kits for the first time, and although I think this is probably a coincidence rather than a deliberate link to a newborn English national identity, it’s a pretty interesting coincidence.

Where does Harry Kane fit into this?: he fits in because he’s the face of the English men’s national team, but never the face of the discussions of English identity that surround it. That honour/burden usually falls on Raheem Sterling. Kane represents ‘whiteness’ notsomuch because he’s white, but because he escapes these conversations. He was as absent from today’s match against Liverpool as he is when the broadsheet press start talking about the England football team and ‘modern England’. He speaks – when asked in his role as captain – but is rarely spoken about.

The ill-treatment that Raheem Sterling has had from the English written press has often been juxtaposed with similar stories, that have been given a positive spin, about Kane. I wonder if this comparison (by which I mean the presence of Kane stories to be able to compare to) comes about not just because of Sterling – black, Jamaican-born, precocious talent who ‘betrayed’ his club’s fanbase – and all that he is pigeonholed to represent, but also because of the almost-nostalgic Englishness that Kane is felt to represent as well. It’s not just that those elements of the press feel that Sterling represents what ‘we’ aren’t, but that they feel that Kane represents what ‘we’ are, or what ‘we’ should be.

In the end, I chose Kane as the centre of this somewhat-essay on English nationhood because if England is going to come to terms with itself – its national story both past and present – it needs to shift some of the burden of explanation and spotlight away from people of colour and start thinking about its own strain of whiteness, without returning to the assumption that homogenous whiteness is the only course for English community-building.

Before the match, Kane tweeted from his recovery bed. “Surgery went very well. First day of recovery starts now!”. His strapped leg was in the foreground of an accompanying photo, a television screen in the background. On the television screen was young Japhet Tanganga, a fellow ‘one of our own’ – born in Hackney, at Spurs since he was 10. He’s also black, and has Democratic Republic of Congo citizenship through his father.

If they lined up alongside each other for Tottenham, Kane and Tanganga would be seen as two strands of the same tale. If they lined up alongside each other for England, they would not. And those interested in this subject should perhaps, I think, redress the balance by putting the white man under the microscope for a change.

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