From the Beautiful Game to le beau jeu
On French footballers playing in England, and the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.
Perhaps the English need to feel that whatever they endeavour to undertake, success must always come against the odds. This gives them something to kick against. And if (or when) things go belly up, then it's just a case of 'told you so'. Being overtly good at anything just goes against the underdog spirit and breeds arrogance, a quality that a certain English contingency often associate with their cross channel neighbours (in fact, according to a study entitled Why the French are the Worst Company on the Planet by the professor of political and social communication Olivier Clodong and the journalist José-Manuel Lamarque it would seem that this view of France is shared amongst their European neighbours to the apparent delight of such French-bashing articles as The Daily Telegraph's 'Europe Unites in Hatred of French' where its author Henry Samuel claims that "the French refuse to accept what arrogant, overbearing monsters they are", but to great comic delight in Agnès Poirier's Guardian article 'You Love Us Really': "A country where trains arrive on the dot, the health system is still the best in the world, girls are beautiful (and thin), best friends of 20 years fall out over the European referendum and grammatical issues, people kiss endlessly almost everywhere, take to the streets at the slightest whim, discuss for hours the way to cook coq au vin, cry when they read Voltaire. How can they not be arrogant when they have so many reasons to be proud of their country?").
But back to England and its culture of disenchantment, a scenario in which the last thing you need is for pundits to agree that this is the best England football team for 'forty years of hurt', i.e., since the last time England won the World Cup. Things start to feel uncomfortable. Belief in the possible success of your country still makes you feel a bit dirty. It remains easier to discuss how flying the Cross of St George is a way of reclaiming the flag from the likes of such right-wing extremists as the British National Party, rather than admitting you are willing to unashamedly and ostentatiously express a basic notion of tribal belonging because of your strong belief in your nation's inevitable victory.
Talking as an Englishman of mixed heritage the best outcome would be similar to the Black, Blanc, Beur (Black, White, Arab) rallying neo-tricolour of France '98, where the English national flag is no longer seen as a symbol of exclusion but one of inclusion. Things appear to be moving in this direction as sales of the flag have doubled compared to the last World Cup four years ago. It has been attached to workmen's vans and politicians' bicycles, it has been hoisted above 10 Downing Street the official residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (and not just England, though none of the other home nations have qualified for the tournament), and perhaps most fittingly of all: most of the flags sold in England are made in China. You see, even I am turning this into a socio-political debate rather than concentrating on what we're really talking about: believing that England will beat the rest coz we're the best (etc.).
The makers of the chocolate bar Mars have been perhaps the most blatant in cashing in on this new burgeoning self-belief with their 'Believe' campaign. So far this has included a believe-athon with 'popular psychic guru' Uri Gellar (I'm not sure which adjective deserved the inverted commas so I went with all three), as well as television ads where 'Bill Lever', the new John Bull with a dodgy pun thrown in, tries to convince people to keep the week of 11 July free so that they can enjoy the victory parade. Perhaps most sickening of all is that Masterfoods, the company that makes Mars, have actually changed the name of the bar to 'Believe' for the duration of the World Cup.
What will happen next? Will they push people to believe that those who don't eat Mars bars are partaking in a blatantly unpatriotic act? Get the crisp eaters! Maybe the manufacturers believe that the high levels of serotonin produced by eating vast amounts of chocolate will soften the blow when England eventually get knocked out. But perhaps where the advertisers have been really clever is in having a 'seed of doubt' section on their Mars Believe website, which includes a number of gags such as a world cup shape appearing on the wall of a burnt out pub called the Three Lions, and a trailer featuring Bill Lever's dad questioning his son's sanity in view of his naïve belief in England's chances.
But with all this dilly-dallying not knowing whether to be cynical or undoubting what a relief then when Wayne Rooney, the wunderkind striker, broke his toe last April. At last we can once again vent our pessimistic scepticism. The ensuing soap opera, the will-he-won't-he-be-fit-to-play saga, has allowed us all to start disbelieving again. Phew. So when a friend suggested that this might be a blessing in disguise because it would allow England to field a more integrated team rather than a team built around one man, I did what any mature rational man would do; I stuck my fingers in my ears and shouted 'I can't hear you' repeatedly.
This isn't the first time such an ailment has come to the rescue of English self-deprecation. In April 2002, David 'Metrosexual' Beckham broke the second metatarsal in his left foot, leaving the nation mourning for what might have been. He recovered enough to captain England in Japan, but was obviously far from fit. Having reached the quarter finals of the 2002 World Cup, England crashed out to a 10-man Brazil, leaving us with the familiar feeling that the England football team is just a bit rubbish.
If only Thierry Henry were English. The one footballing story that almost managed to eclipse Rooney's race against the clock to get fit, was another will-he-won't-he saga, this time featuring the Frenchman and his possible move from the London club Arsenal to Barcelona. Most would agree, men and women alike I'm sure, that the English Premier League would be much the poorer without Henry. Things came to a head when the final of this year's European Champion's League, possibly the world's greatest club tournament, pitted both clubs against each other, or perhaps more poignantly opposed arguably the two best players in the world: Henry and the Brazilian Ronaldinho. But the match posed a dilemma: this being the only major trophy Henry hasn't won with Arsenal, a win would surely offer him closure and signal his moment to move on. Arsenal fans, therefore, had the truly English sadomasochistic pleasure of revelling in a lose-lose situation.
Arsenal lost and Henry subsequently announced that he was staying on in England. For the English, beyond his athletic abilities, Henry epitomises French sophistication. Watching him play the beautiful game is a lesson in the art of seduction. But his style, touch, and flair, gelled together with the right amount of continental cheek, appear to be just as much a part of his character off the pitch. So when two Arsenal fans working on promoting the Renault Clio saw Henry, they immediately realised that here was the man that would redefine the maker's 'va va voom' slogan. And so began Henry's four year postmodern quest with the advertisers Gerry Moira and Ira Joseph to find the meaning of 'va va voom' and its French translation in a series of television adverts which had him driving through seedy neon-flooded streets in one episode and playing the drums with Animal in another repeatedly asking "Hey Bobby, what's the French for va va voom?" Of course, he never discovered the answer because in true postmodern-style, he himself was the French for va va voom.
As from this year he is no longer the face of the Renault Clio, but because he will forever be associated with va va voom, the longer he stays in England the longer the slogan will echo through him on the football pitch. The fact that Henry is staying on in London will have made the UK branch of the French carmaker give off a huge sigh of relief.
Thierry Henry was not the first French footballer playing in England to establish himself in the English cultural psyche enough to end up promoting non-sporting related products. David Ginola famously uttered a Gallic "because I'm worth it" to promote L'Oreal shampoo, and perhaps because of this deserves to be credited with single-handedly putting an end to any future possible comeback of the perm in sporting circles. Ginola was a maverick player, and like Henry was adopted by the English fans because he did what the English expect of the French: he favoured the beautiful over the game. His ability to make the ball move along impossible flight paths seemingly through the power of philosophical thought he always seemed to prefer the arguments of skill over physical effort saw him cast as the new-age guru of a retreat for the rich and famous called The Centre in a BBC spoof documentary. The parodic mantra of this fictional Wiltshire spa was 'Be Well, Be Safe, Believe.' The BBC were ahead of their time.
But no commentary on French footballers playing in England would be complete without mentioning the roi himself, Eric Cantona. Having retired from professional football almost 10 years ago at the height of his career at Manchester United, King Cantona is still a huge cultural icon in England. From his karate kick on a the fan of an opposing team after being sent off by the referee for a dangerous tackle, to his attempts at explaining it away with a seemingly philosophical statement ("When the seagulls follow the trawler, it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea"), Cantona was admired for his Mediterranean passion (he is orginally from Marseille). But, away from not having been involved in adverts for non-sporting products, perhaps what sets his style apart from his compatriots was precisely his ability to mix the beautiful with the dirtily honest, or as Darren Tulett put it in his Observer article 'The Assailant' , to mix charisma with an edge of menace. He was perhaps the Paul Cezanne of football. And because of this, more than simply being the adopted son of the footballing nation of England, if he had wanted it, Cantona would probably have been offered a British passport.
It comes then as no surprise then that Michael J. Browne's 1997 painting entitled 'The Art of Game' Cantona holding the Cross of St George with the likes of Beckham at his feet and the Scottish Manchester United manager Alec Ferguson seemingly blessing his favourite son. Even Nike saw the potential of this growing cross channel phenomenon and cashed in with the the slogan '66 was a great year for English football. Eric was born.
Both Cantona and Ginola went on to have careers in cinema and one wonders what awaits Thierry Henry when he retires. I think he could be the first French James Bond. If there's a marketing man out there who thinks he can make that idea work, then I'll be first in the queue at the premier.
But back to the near future and the England football team's chances in this year's World Cup. To be honest, who knows?
But which of today's players could make up an English version of this holy trinity? The permutations would make for endless rants down the pub. Perhaps the first two that would spring to mind would be the England captain David Beckham as the Father, and Wayne Rooney as the Son. Rooney may be the proto-footballing athlete, built as he is like a powerhouse, but it would take some stretch of the imagination to qualify him as having a sense of French savoir-être. Beckham poses an interesting problem: his keeness to define himself along continental lines off the football pitch, by doing such daring things as wearing a sarong by the French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier, has led to much confusion among sporting fans. After all, when he's on the park his primary role is as the quintessential English winger, crossing balls in from the right. He does this brilliantly, with ample sophistication, indeed, beautifully, but remains just a bit gauche when trying to transfer this sophistication to his life outwith football.
What about the Spirit? Steven Gerard? Frank Lampard? Joe Cole? In fact, it is in trying to resolve this issue that we come closest to England's answer to French sophistication. My choice for the English incarnation of the Holy Ghost has to be Peter Crouch. The 6'7" striker has already become hugely popular in England, not so much for his scoring ability but because of a robotics-style (the qualifier is defintiely required in this context) dance first performed in a World Cup warm up game against Hungary on 30th May. This truly was a vision to behold: the tallest man ever to have played for England personnifying the Arctic Monkeys' line "Dancing to electro-pop like a robot from 1984". Crouchy may not have the suave elegance of Henry, but doing a break-dancing arm wave like a wedding day father-in-law is a lesson in English self-derision that if reproduced on the world stage this month will guarantee him the status of World Cup cult hero. And if, or when, we find ourselves on the losing side, we'll at least be able to turn to Crouchy's antics, raise our pints, and cry 'mad dogs and Englishmen!'