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The Premier League, Performative Grief, & Mandatory Patriotism

With the world watching, England’s most visible export, the Premier League, takes a step toward nationalism and provinciality.

Liverpool v Manchester City - Premier League - Anfield Photo by Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images

“I don’t get all choked up about yellow ribbons and American flags. I consider them to be symbols and I leave symbols to the symbol minded.” - George Carlin

Premier League fixtures have been postponed this week, ostensibly to grieve the passing of the 96-year-old monarch, Queen Elizabeth II. Now, whether anyone, let alone a whole nation, should grieve the loss of any billionaire with nearly a century of obscene privilege behind her is another discussion. I certainly have my opinions on the subject, but I digress.

In isolation this move is understandable. Regardless of your feelings on the monarchy, the passing of a queen certainly doesn’t happen every day, as her 70-year reign can attest.

However, the cancelation doesn’t happen in isolation.

For one, there’s the practical matter of finding a time to play all of these postponed fixtures, especially in a season that is already curtailed by a still-baffling mid-season World Cup. Teams, especially those with European commitments (and the same ones who are likely to make deep runs in the domestic cups) will already be playing matches every 3 or 4 days from now until the end of the season. To shoehorn yet another match—or possibly two—into this condensed season will, at best, lead to lackluster football, and at worst, injuries.

Moreover, this comes amidst a rising tide of right-wing nationalism in the UK and the world over. It is yet another act of forced and enforced patriotism by the powers at be. It is an inherently political move by the same establishment who will quickly bemoan anyone who attempts to proffer a conflicting view. It is a not-too-subtle reminder about who is really in charge, and that even your weekly distraction from the stresses of real life can be taken away.

These are the same powers that mandate that poppies must adorn every player and manager—regardless of their country of origin—every November for Remembrance Day. When players, for understandable reasons, refuse to wear the poppy, it makes national headlines in tabloids and reputable news sources alike.

It is easy to forget that mandatory patriotism, by way of poppy, is a relatively recent edict. The practice started all the way back in 2012, just 10 years ago. But now this symbolic patriotism, even by non-British players, is so deeply entrenched that any opposition to it is nearly unthinkable.

The poppies, like the mourning of a monarch, might be nice, in isolation. Either might even be applauded, if they came from a place of real and organic sincerity. And if they were voluntary, not obligatory.

That is clearly not the case. Every club issued condolences, even though some—and I very much suspect Liverpool’s—felt rather forced. I suspect they were. Or, if not “forced” per se, they certainly felt pressured to comply and conform. To cry crocodile tears with the rest.

With the eyes of the world turned to England, to watch the most popular domestic league in the world, English authorities once again doubled down on nationalism, provincialism, and isolationism. Although the Premier League is the happy benefactor of billions in revenue from global audience, fueled largely by the global talent of players and managers, they instead decided to make this weekend strictly about England.

This mandatory and enforced symbolic patriotism will only become more extreme once football has resumed. Teams will, no doubt, try to outdo each other with their performative grief once people are back in the stadiums.

This is not to say that some weirdos will not be deeply saddened by the passing of Elizabeth, but many—if not most—will either feel ambivalent, indifferent, or even happy about it. But those who do not agree with the prevailing sentiment will still be forced to partake in the pageantry, to sit on their hands and keep their feelings to themselves, just as they were forced to take a weekend off today and tomorrow.

There have even been discussions about performing the national anthem before matches. As we have seen with the poppies in England, and similar enforced patriotism in American sporting events (especially post-9/11), something that starts as a one-off send-off to the queen can quickly become a routine, and one that cannot be questioned or opposed.

These are dark times in the UK, and for liberal democracies the world over. But not because of an old dead lady. And it is incumbent on all of us to call out and resist the forces that wish to distract, and to promote nationalism, all in the guise of goodwill symbolic gestures.

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