The idea that the English have formed a cultural identity based around a decline of power and economy is not a new argument (indeed it forms an essential part in most recent historical writing on the period) but it takes on a different form in these studies of popular sport. As a set of ideas or indeed as an ideology ‘declinism’ suggests not only a recognition by the public that a country is in decline but that the decline is (or was) avoidable. Therefore a society focused on declinism would expect governments to find ways to improve economic performance and return that country to its pre-decline status.
An interesting article written in 1996 by Jim Tomlinson on the topic of an ideology of decline in British economic policy in the post-war years argues that a continual declinism in Britain is a misleading notion; a closer look at the last 100 years suggests instead a periodic reinvention of decline which differs depending on the specific difficulties of that time. The declinism of the 1950s and 1960s is, however significant. Tomlinson argues that this is the moment when the idea that Britain was now lagging behind the growth of other Western European countries and America received currency in political and cultural thought. At the centre of these concerns was a new appreciation that the economy should be driven with the target of improving the standard of living.
So back to sport! It seems that an ideology of declinism during the 1950s and 1960s combined with what can only be described as mental scars left over from the Second World War meant that media coverage of football reflected (and perhaps still does) the popular mood of the country. When England was doing well, the national team also did well. When England was doing badly, serious questions were asked about the under-performance of the national team. What would be interesting in all of this though is a little more comparison. Christoph Wagner does attempt to touch upon the German viewpoint of England in their rivalry but this is still too limited when dealing with these wider questions. Dilwyn Porter does ask for other comparisons in his paper – perhaps newspaper coverage of Scotland vs. Germany. But I would say we need to go further than that. What about rivalries between other countries during the 1950s and 60s with differing economic, political, and cultural climates? How do they express rivalries and cultural identities in their reports? What about other sports? Can we see a similar expression of declinism in cricket coverage for example?
Jim Tomlinson, ‘Inventing “Decline”: the falling behind of the British economy in the postwar years’, Economic History Review, XLIX: 4 (1996), pp. 731-757.