On national identity, football really scores

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The “Tebbit test” is a phrase from a lost era, like “Iraqi WMD”. Its inventor, Norman Tebbit, was a rightwing British Conservative politician (portrayed on the satirical television programme Spitting Image as an elderly skinhead). In 1990, Tebbit grumbled to the Los Angeles Times: “A large proportion of Britain’s Asian population fail to pass the cricket test. Which side do they cheer for? It’s an interesting test. Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?”

The “cricket test” passed into the language as the “Tebbit test”: a bizarre method for testing national loyalty. Tebbit reheated it after British suicide bombers of Pakistani origin struck London in July 2005. The horror could have been prevented, he said, “if people had listened to me”.

 Malevolent as his test was, Tebbit was on to something. When he mooted it in 1990, the cold war was just ending, and with it decades of conflicts between communism and the west. Since then conflicts have tended to be ethnic. Whether in Iraq or bilingual Belgium, multicultural Britain or Sudan, people now worry about nations splitting into their ethnic components. In all these places, Tebbit’s question matters: who supports the national team? 

Of course, he chose the wrong sport. Today national feelings usually focus
on the national football team. But by applying the Tebbit test to football in
a few countries, we can see its limits and its merits. 

The Tebbit test must have inspired “57 per cent Irish”, a short story in Roddy Doyle’s new collection, Deportees. In it, the young researcher Ray devises a test to measure people’s levels of Irishness. It is targeted at Ireland’s new immigrants, one of whom, a tough Russian nicknamed “Stalin”, is Ray’s girlfriend.

Ray’s subjects watch a DVD of
Irish scenes while he measures their emotional reactions. Which scenes? Various tenors, the Pope’s mass in Galway, Best of Eurovision, an Irish porn star, and obviously Robbie Keane’s goal for Ireland against Germany in the 2002 World Cup.

After three years, Ray realises that “his work was rubbish”. “His only honest conclusion, not in the official version, was that women didn’t fancy Robbie Keane but they loved the way
he celebrated.”

Certainly the Tebbit test crumbles when applied to immigrants. I used to know a South African immigrant in London whose innate misanthropy had been enhanced by reaching his 90s and living alone with a bottle of whisky. Among his last remaining pleasures were England’s defeats in sport. “Not a bad week. They lost at rugby, cricket and football,” he would croak. (Many years earlier, a surgeon had accidentally sliced through his larynx).

The “anyone but England” philosophy is common among sports-loving immigrants in Britain. Nonetheless this man lived in London for about 70 years, paying taxes, reading Jane Austen, and never, as far as I know, committing terrorism.

Another flaw in the Tebbit test, notes the American-British cricket writer
Mike Marqusee in his book Anyone But England, is that many people have multiple ethnic identities. We support more than one team. This was made visual in June when Holland’s under-21s became European football champions, and several players, whose origins were in Surinam in the Caribbean, ran around waving the Surinamese flag.

The “Tebbit test” is more useful when it comes to determining whether
a nation-state has any emotional reason to exist. Take Belgium, now flirting with break-up into Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia. Yves Leterme, who hopes to become Belgium’s prime minister if it can form another government, has mused that Walloons lack intellect, that Belgium is “a little accident of history”, and that Flemings and Walloons share only
“the king, the football team, and a couple of types of beer”.

Even this modest list is probably too long. The Flemish separatist Bart de Wever retorted: “Ten years ago Belgium had a football team, the monarchy, Brussels and the Belgian franc.
Today Brussels is the last obstacle.”

The fact is that few Belgians any longer watch their appalling football team. In 1999, the side toured Asia accompanied by a solitary fan. For a while this year no Flemish TV channel would even buy the rights to Belgium’s matches. A nation without a national team is hardly a nation. Spain scores only marginally higher on the Tebbit test: the national team is televised but, because of strong regional sentiments, few Spaniards watch.

Iraq, strangely, is a more hopeful case. When its team won the Asian Cup in July, thousands of people braved suicide bombers and recreational gunfire to celebrate outside. Some revived a traditional chant: “Here we are Sunni – yah!
Here we are Shiite – yah! Bring us happiness, sons of Iraq!” Even Kurdish crowds waved the Iraqi flag. It turned out that Iraqi nationalism does exist.

Some commentators thought football might save the country by uniting Iraqis. That was foolish. History is made by men with guns or men in suits, not by men in shorts. Football doesn’t change anything. It just sometimes reveals something about national belonging. Yet that too is useful.
Next January, when Sudan play in the African Nations Cup after a 32-year absence, we should apply the Tebbit test. If anyone in Darfur watches the football, the Sudanese nation might just have a future.

simonkuper-ft@hotmail.com

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