The first is a football tournament that at the end of the day only affects one continent, albeit the most important one in footballing terms – it controls the game economically, the best players in the world play on the continent and, after Germany’s victory in Brazil, south America can no longer claim that at least on the field of play it is superior. Nevertheless kicking a ball, or worrying about Ronaldo’s moods, has surely nothing to do with how we decide what is described as a decision that will affect not merely us but our children and their children.
My view is that what happens to the home countries in the Euros could have a big impact. There is history here. My most vivid memory is of 1970 and the World Cup in Mexico, in particular, England’s quarter-final against Germany four days before the general elections called by Harold Wilson. England, the holders, had in the opinion of many a better team than the one that had become world champions in 1966. Its group match against Brazil, where Bobby Moore’s team lost 1-0, was the toughest match this Brazilian team, widely considered the greatest ever, faced in the tournament. Mexico was also the first time matches were being televised live back to Britain which meant sitting up late into the night to watch them. I can recall staying up until the small hours of the morning and then groggy from lack of sleep, but enchanted by the football, struggling to work.
On that Sunday before the poll England led Germany 2-0 at half-time. Geoff Hurst could have made it 3-0 after the break and the match seemed over. Ramsey took off Bobby Charlton to save him for the semi-finals. But then Franz Beckenbauer hit a speculative 30 yard shot. As he told me later he did not expect to score but with Germany’s position parlous, and not having had any chances, he thought he would have a go. It should have been an easy save for Peter Bonetti, the Chelsea goalkeeper, who had played a prominent part in helping Chelsea win its first ever FA Cup. But Bonetti, drafted in at the last minute due to Gordon Banks having a tummy bug, made a hash of it as he did with two more German attempts at goal and England lost 3-2.
At this stage and it was a splendid summer, no rain fell between May 18 and June 11, the nation had paid little attention to the election and, as Wilson’s biographer, puts it, “the Prime Minister toured the country as if on a holiday outing.” Opinion polls predicted an easy Labour victory but the defeat by Germany seemed to wake the nation up with a jolt. After the Brazil match Pele had patted Moore and said “See you in the final”. That is what the nation hoped and expected. Defeat to Brazil would have been one thing but to Germany, and in this manner, was galling. And on Thursday as voters went to the polling booth Labour lost and Ted Heath, much to his surprise, strode into Downing Street.
Political experts say the election turned because just before the poll trade figures showed a £31 million deficit and in those days trade figures were big political issues. But I believe the football defeat made the voters, who had paid little attention to the election, decide that somebody needed to be punished and chose the Labour government. Since then recollections by Labour politicians bear me out for they say that between the Sunday defeat and the Thursday poll they found that the mood on the doorstep had perceptibly changed. We shall never know for sure but football’s effect cannot be ruled out.
So could there be a repeat if there is football calamity for England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the next two days? While there is no way of knowing for sure it cannot be denied that sporting success generates a feel good factor and sporting defeat a desire to kick the cat and in this kicking the cat, as in 1970, could mean rejecting David Cameron’s plea for us to remain in the EU.
And just before you dismiss this nonsense of football having anything to do with politics or Europe consider this. The Premier League, after a unanimous vote of its clubs, has called for a Remain vote. Why should a football organisation take a view on this subject? I do not recall the old unified Football League taking a position in 1975 on the vote to remain in the then European Economic Community. The reason is, as the Premier League well knows, Europe and, in particular the EU, has had a tremendous impact on the League, indeed helped shape it.
It knows a Brexit vote could lead to English clubs finding it difficult to buy overseas players, or at least forced to pay a lot more and make the Premier League, whose emergence as the most powerful league in the world has matched the closer integration of EU nations, vulnerable to challenge from some of its European rivals.
The simple truth is that in the last 20 years decisions by the European Court and the EU has left deep marks on English football. Nigel Farage may not acknowledge that but for all his talk of reclaiming sovereignty those marks cannot be erased.
The deepest cut was inflicted by the Bosman ruling, handed down almost exactly 20 years ago when Jean Marc Bosman, a journey-man footballer, was prevented by his Belgium club from transferring to a French club when he came to the end of his contract. He went to the European court which ruled that the club could not behave like a modern slave owner. This has led to the situation where clubs dread letting their top players go into the final year of their contract because they know once the contract ends they cannot hold on to them. And in the case of international transfers the player can start looking for a new club six months before his contract ends. And it is worth stressing that if Belgium had had the transfer rules that governed English football then Bosman could not have been shackled by his club, there would have been no European court intervention and this was another case that, as Farage and company could say, shows how superior the English systems are.
Bosman also inflicted huge collateral damage on the rules that governed European club competitions, in particular the 3+2 rule UEFA had for clubs playing in Europe. Meant to encourage home grown talent this specified that in European cup competitions a club could field three foreign players and two others not eligible to play for their national team but the two players had to be home grown. So Ryan Giggs, who qualified for Wales not England, could play as a plus 2 for Manchester United as he had been groomed at Old Trafford. The result was Alex Ferguson, then United manager, could never field his best team in Europe, often lost, and it was only after the 3+2 rule went that Ferguson won the Champions League. There have been other EU changes to football including the transfer window, which was very much an EU initiative. English football hates it but has had to accept it.
Whatever the referendum result these regulation will remain. However, a no vote will mean that with Britain no longer part of the free movement of labour, it will not be easy to buy players from a European club. All players coming from abroad will have to get a work permit and fulfil the Home Office requirements which are fairly onerous. At present these rules apply to players playing outside the EU. A Leave vote means they will apply to all imports. Now if Lionel Messi wants to play in this country that will not be a problem, but emerging talent from European clubs, in particular players of African origin, will find it very difficult. And had we not been in Europe it would have made Leicester’s task to work its miracle very difficult.
A key player in the club’s win was Riyad Mahrez. He came to Leicester in 2014 from Le Harve, a French club, under the EU freedom of movement rules. But Mahrez is Algerian and when he signed for Leicester he had not even made his international debut. Under Home Office rules how often a player has played for his national team is an important criteria to judge whether he qualifies for a visa and, potentially, displaces a home grown player. What is also taken into consideration is the international football ranking of his country and Algeria’s rankings would have meant that Mahrez would have found it very difficult to fulfil the Home Office criteria. A Leave vote will mean that many potential Mahrezs, even if they come from French or other European clubs, will fall into this category and deemed not good enough to displace English talent. And, of course, if you follow the logic of what the Leave camp is saying this is surely the heart of the immigration debate. Why should a foreigner who on the face of it is no more talented, perhaps even less talented than our native born players, come here and take their jobs away. Leicester City fans will argue Mahrez proved them thunderously wrong but that is because he could walk in without a visa. Leave the EU and a future Mahrez will not be able to do that.
That does not mean that for the sake of football we should vote to remain. That, of course, ought to be decided on other grounds. But even if the referendum result is not affected by what happens in the Euro it is nonsensical to say that a Leave vote will not impact English football and, in particular, the Premier League. It will.
There is, of course, an irony here. This is that even if we decide to leave, the impact of Europe on our popular culture is here to stay. I am a great fan of Hercule Poirot but now I also watch subtitled European detective series. And in football the European influence is immense and the change from when I started as a football writer on the Sunday Times back in the 1970s absolutely amazing. Then a reporter asking to be sent to report Real Madrid v Barcelona would have been considered under the influence of drink. In the Sunday Times we knew about European football, or rather Italian football, but that was because the paper’s legendary football correspondent, the inimitable Brian Glanville had lived in Italy, wrote for Italian papers and, almost singlehandedly, decided to teach Fleet Street’s football reporters about Catenaccio, the great Italian defensive system. Many of the reporters just shook their head in disbelief and shrugged, well that is Brian, an English eccentric.
Now El Clasico attracts any number of English reporters and you only have to see the pundits on television for this Euro to see how European we have become. They include Italians, French, German, even a Croat. I could not have imagined this back in 1970. That was when, thanks to ITV, we had the innovation of a panel discussing the game with ITV gathering together quite a galaxy of pundits which included Brian Clough, Malcolm Allison and Bob McNab, the Arsenal defender who had failed to make Ramsey’s final squad. ITV would not have dreamt of having anybody from Europe, let alone a Brazilian, on the panel.
I do not know how Clough, an old fashioned Labour supporter, would have voted in the referendum but I can imagine his reaction had he seen so many foreign faces on television pontificating about football and, in particular, how England are playing. He would certainly have felt we have lost our country, the feelings that motivates so many Leavers and may well win them the vote. But even if they win they will have to live with the European world of football.