It is hard to remember a time sans Covid, with Britain on the verge of Brexit, and Boris Johnson its foreign secretary. A time when campaigning on that referendum was briefly overshadowed by Johnson’s—at best insensitive—comments about former American president Barack Obama, accusing him of removing a statue of Churchill because his “part-Kenyan” ancestry made him sensitive to British colonialism. Admittedly, at the time it escaped me why Obama, a sitting president, would bother to respond to such petty comments, instead of focusing on more pressing domestic issues.
It dawned on me later that the diplomatic impasse was about icons, legacy and language.
The United States and the United Kingdom have a long relationship, in many ways akin to that of siblings: constantly bickering and making-up, for the good of their shared origins. Like siblings, they share an original birthplace, a language, and an “Anglo-Saxon” mentality.
However, just as they are observed to be divided by a common language, so the cultural differences across the Atlantic are often stark.
The latest such apparent misunderstandings occurred in sequence this week. First, plans were leaked of the creation of the Super League, a breakaway football competition formed by some of Europe’s biggest clubs. Manchester United, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool, and Italian club, AC Milan are all owned by American corporations or funds, many of whom are thought to be the driving force behind the creation of the ESL. Critics of the plans—which include practically everyone outside the clubs involved and even many within them—have questioned the role of American owners and a model that appears to be based in part on the equal redistribution used by the American National Football League (NFL).
The league’s mis-launch was inevitable after the backlash by fans and the UK government, which threatened regulatory action to ban English clubs from joining. The tawdry affair serves to highlight, among other things, the deep-rooted cultural differences between the UK and the US, particularly when it comes to sports as pleasure versus sports as a source of commercial revenue. Fans here instinctively abhorred the plan, invoking their sense of powerlessness and rupture from an iconic tradition that means much more to fans than the business it is for its owners.
As the ESL unravelled last night, 10 Downing Street announced it was scrapping plans for White House-style press briefings. After an eye-watering £2.6 million was spent on renovations to accommodate the US-inspired media briefings, the government has apparently admitted that what is good for the US goose is not necessarily so for the British gander and that it is another cultural gap not so easily bridged.
Football is as popular and as politically populist as it gets. However, as a court in Minneapolis delivered a popular verdict and one welcomed by President Biden and countless others around the world last night, there are reminders here that not everything translates so happily from one common language to another.