My girlfriend saw the ad first. It was the third day of games and I wasn’t paying attention to the TV because Twitter was there and it wasn’t like there was football on. “Did you see that?” she asked me once the spot was over. “I think they just made a plug for reinstating the British Empire.”
I didn’t see it again until a few days later; I rarely pay attention to ads and I wouldn’t have noticed it if I hadn’t been watching out for it. It’s the preview to the Tunisia – England game, both teams’ first game of the World Cup. David Beckham reminds the audience that conquering the world is “kind of [England’s] thing.”1 And while the Empire may have crumbled in the meantime,2 we’re reminded that empires can be rebuilt.
By Harry Kane, of all people.
There are a lot of things to unpack about this ad. The first and foremost thing we should establish is that Tunisia was never a British colony. Which, if you think about it, is quite surprising given they colonised more than half the world at some point or the other. Of course, the lack of a Union Jack on Tunisian soil3 didn’t stop the British from interfering with Tunisian affairs and trying to prevent the French from planting their flag in the country for as long as possible. They tried. They failed. Tunisia became a French colony, instead. This was, of course, in no way a better outcome for Tunisia, but there’s no need to stoop to inaccuracies.
Now that the biggest travesty of the ad has been addressed, let’s talk about the message that played, over and over again, on the televisions of hundreds of thousands of people whose families once lived under the British Empire. And I don’t mean the Boston Tea Party, Hamilton sing-along Empire. I mean the Empire that—when my grandparents were only a few years younger than I am now—killed and displaced about 15 million people when it partitioned India and Pakistan. The Empire that put into place the apartheid in South Africa that lasted until the early 1990s. The Empire whose victims are able to bring suit against them because they’re still alive. The Empire that still had 28 colonies in 1966 when England first (and last) lifted the Cup.
I mean the Empire whose remnants, more often just referred to as ‘the U.K.’, have been systematically destroying the details of the crimes they committed to prevent any of it coming to light.
This isn’t ancient history we’re talking about. This is barely history, in fact. The shadows and spoils of colonisation didn’t miraculously vanish when two-thirds of the world began to celebrate their independence days. The day-to-day lives of people in countries that were both colonised and that did the colonising are forever shaped by the legacy of everything that happened during this period.
And the World Cup semi-finals are as stark an example of that legacy as any. Between them, France, Belgium, and England owned more or less 80% of the world at some point or the other.4 All three teams are evidence of their nations’ colonial past, and all three teams have generated conversation on what it takes to be the descendant of colonial subjects and citizens of the colonising nation at the same time.
It’s absurd not to acknowledge the role that colonisation has played in the construction of these team rosters, just as it’s absurd not to acknowledge that the economic prosperity of Western European countries (and their dominance in the sport as a result) is largely a result of the many centuries they spent brutally subjugating entire swathes of the world.5
So no, we don’t need David Beckham to remind us that conquering the world is ‘kind of England’s thing’ because forgetting the history of colonisation isn’t really a privilege that most of us have.
Putting aside Beckham and everyone who thought this was the best way to introduce England taking on a formerly colonised nation, though, it’s taken me weeks to sit down and write this piece. It’s taken me weeks to be able to joke about how, if you’re going to be incredibly tone-deaf and offensive in your messaging, at least make sure you’re accurate about it. When I first saw the ad, I burst into tears at the sudden and unexpected reminder of how one of the bloodiest periods of my (and so many other) nation’s histories can be an off-handed punchline during one of our favourite sporting events. This World Cup, for so many of us, was supposed to be the distraction we desperately needed as everything else around us is burning (even more so than usual).
The football itself has been wonderful. This has been a Cup of mistakes, surprises, and chaotically beautiful upsets. We’ve danced with Senegal, rejoiced with Mexico, cried with Egypt, stood and screamed with amazement with Japan. The world around us feels like it’s hurtling towards something more awful every day, but between the whistles, we get to pause the world around us and just breathe in the beautiful game.
But I’m tired. The outside world has crept into almost every facet of this World Cup, from unnecessary6 reminders of colonialism, to an oddly positive slant on Stalin’s legacy, to The Telegraph thinking a headline joking about racist foreign policies is fair game, to the instances of racism and racist stereotypes that we’ve learnt to wearily expect. Sure, we’ve seen a lot of this before, but the language and gestures that we have had to contend with this summer feel even more egregious and shameless than normal.7
Even while we joke about how we don’t know what we’re going to with ourselves after the World Cup, this summer has barely been the respite from the howling abyss that we thought it would be. And barring the champion donating all their winnings to the countries they colonised,8 there are a few things we can still cling to:
- There’s a donation drive set up by football fans to raise money for LGBTQ and anti-racist charities per game won and goal scored.9 Over 3000 USD has been raised so far.
- Football fandom has been a constant source of joy, and there have been several articles written about everything right (and wrong) about this World Cup.
- It’s been great to hear players like Sterling and Lukaku eloquently voice what they’re dealing with, both at their clubs and at the national level.
- The Pogba family.
And of course, there’s the football itself. We have a few more days left of this peculiar, incredible, infuriating tournament. Enough, hopefully, for us to lose ourselves a few more times before the final whistle blows.
1 With a tongue-in-cheek nod at that one time back in 1966 where they won the World Cup, and not in any way referring to the British Empire which committed untold atrocities across the world for centuries.
2 Since 1966, the graphics lead us to believe because the Empire they’re talking about is entirely football-related, and has nothing to do with the British Empire which held on to Zimbabwe till 1980, Brunei till 1984, and Hong Kong till 1997.
3 Yes, that’s an Eddie Izzard reference.
4 If the Netherlands or Portugal had been in the semi-finals with them, I’m pretty sure we’d have the entire globe covered.
5 And before you start: Ireland was also a British colony and Harry Kane’s dad is Irish, so there.
6 And inaccurate. Did we already establish that?
7 That’s not even getting to everything relating to Russia’s record with racism and homophobia, of course.
8 We’ll figure something out for Croatia if they end up winning.
9 I’m squarely on Team Chaos for the rest of this World Cup and have pledged $10 for every own goal.