Tone-deaf FIFA Ad Glorifies British Colonialism

I’m a World Cup fan.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really follow soccer 3.9 years out of every 4 (or indeed, sports of any kind), but when the World Cup comes around, I’m there, donning my black, red, and gold, and shouting my head off. I spent the summer of 2006 in Berlin when they hosted the World Cup, and I caught the bug. There was so much hope and excitement in the air – I couldn’t help it. I’ve tuned in faithfully ever since, out of both nostalgia and a growing appreciation for the game.

So it’s without malice that I ask: what were they thinking with that ad for today’s Tunisia vs. England match?

The commercial’s images tell the story of the waxing and waning of the English national team’s prestige and power.

But the voiceover tells a slightly different story:

England: They once conquered the world. ‘It’s kind of our thing.’ But ever since, the empire has crumbled. But empires can be rebuilt. Tunisia vs. England.

The English teacher in me is going to ignore that someone started not one but two successive sentences with the word “but.” I have bigger fish to fry.

The ad copy plays on a deliberate ambiguity: the “empire” of the English national team dominating the other national teams at the World Cup, and the history of the British empire’s transnational sovereign control, including its geopolitical subjugation of the nations of the Global South. The rhetoric of “empire” would do this in any case, but in particular the reference to empire “crumbling” echoes anxieties over the ability to maintain colonial control present in British political, scientific, and literary discourses beginning in the late-nineteenth century. At the same time, David Beckham’s swagger that “conquer[ing] the world” is “kind of our thing” seems to reference not only the illustrious past of the national team in Beckham’s day, but also the pride in British imperial power and scope that characterized English culture for centuries.

The wording is clearly meant as a cheeky double-entendre. I don’t know if Fox or FIFA (or both) were responsible for the ad, but either way I don’t claim there was any malicious intent. However, lighthearted nostalgia towards a colonial regime with a history steeped in racism and oppression, not to mention the apparent hope expressed that such an empire “can be rebuilt,” strikes me as poor taste, in any circumstances, but particularly given the context.

The context is England vs. Tunisia, a matchup that, once entangled in the rhetoric of empire, recalls some uncomfortable historical truths about the history of British colonial engagement in Africa. True, Tunisia was never a British colony (after the Middle Ages, it was controlled first by the Ottoman Empire, then by the French, finally winning independence a decade after WWII). Nonetheless, framing that match as a clash of civilizations, and an effort to assert English imperial power over an African nation, cannot help but reference the British colonial enterprise in Africa – an enterprise responsible for perpetuating and expanding the Atlantic slave trade (until banned by the Slave Trade Act of 1807), the codification and intensification of apartheid in South Africa, and a slew of other policies that enforced racial segregation and oppression.

Many historians have noted that even after gaining independence, former colonies have continued to be politically and economically haunted by the legacy of British imperial control. In an article in The Journal of the Historical Society, Martin Wiener, Professor of British History at Rice University, has summed up the lingering barriers identified by postcolonialist historians:

Colonialism, Davidson and others argued in the 1970s, had left an inheritance that undermined, even doomed, efforts at solidifying national cohesion, at making a democratic and constitutional politics work, and at moving the mass of the people out of poverty. New nations had been crippled at their birth by the continuing institutions, arrangements, and culture of their colonizers. Neither exploitative economic structures nor hierarchical and Eurocentric educational and cultural institutions were easily remolded to more beneficial ends. Nor was it to be wondered at that tribal and religious divisions, encouraged, indeed virtually “invented,” under colonialism’s policies of “divide and rule,” now flared up, nor that as soon as the first generation of leaders faced such predictable difficulties they fell back on the authoritarian and militarist ways of their former rulers, or the repressive laws still in many cases in operation. “A genetic code for the new states of Africa,” the respected political scientist Crawford Young wrote in a 1994 summation of the basic theme of a generation of scholarly studies, “was already imprinted on its embryo within the womb of the African colonial state.”

To be fair, Wiener points out that, as much as earlier scholarship tended to view British colonialism through rose-colored glasses, contemporary scholarship may at times be overzealous in attributing all problems faced by former British colonies to a legacy of imperial control. Yet even Wiener and his cohorts would not deny that the history of colonialism continues to have lasting negative impacts on African nations. And anyone with any awareness of that history would balk at the idea of rebuilding that empire.

Again, I don’t attribute to the makers of the ad any malicious agenda of white supremacy;  I don’t know these people, I have only this one ad to go on, and I think it’s entirely possible that the ad was a product of simply not thinking through the implications of the language. Nevertheless, it serves as a striking example of elements of our rhetoric, steeped in a problematic history, so often go unexamined, allowing old attitudes and values to persist into the present.

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