And if you know your history… use it


In the aftermath of England’s disastrous bid to host the 2018 World Cup, the British media has been relishing the task of identifying the culprits to blame for this latest “national disgrace”. In reality, Russia – which, it should be remembered, is three times bigger than England, has never hosted a major football tournament and has a population that is crackers about the game -deserves the victory.

The subsequent response of the English Football Association to their losing bid has been to variously resign, complain and accuse all and sundry of being as bent as a three quid note. That last part may or may not prove true, but the time to withdraw from a dodgy process is not after you lose to it. The English should have withdrawn as soon as they got wind of the dodginess. What did Roger Burdern learn last Friday when he resigned from his post as acting chairman of the FA, that he did not already know on Thursday morning before the 2018 bid results were revealed? Play the game gentlemen. And if it’s not a fair game, withdraw and refuse to participate further until it becomes so.

And, more to the point, focus on the real game being played by FIFA. Last week in Zurich, England risked a much greater blow to our national pedigree than losing the 2018 tournament. Minutes before the results were announced, FIFA chairman Sepp Blatter signalled that, aside from being about to deny England any future glory, he was also intent on undermining our historical position too. “Let me say a few words about the importance of this game we call association football,” were his opening words to the assembled journalists and executives. “It has been originated in China but has been organised in Great Britain”.

There is no greater strategic advantage than to be seen as the creator of something

It’s a subtle shift in inflection but one that football lovers across this country should fear. FIFA has long objected to the cultural provenance of the beautiful game originating in a country its members largely detest. Blatter’s attempt to shift the origination of football from England to China enables him to oust an old enemy while simultaneously enamouring a new friend. There is a reason the wily old executive has remained on top for so long.

While England might continue to see itself as the home of the sport, FIFA it seems will spend its not inconsiderable political and financial capital to wrest this association from global perceptions. And the English reaction to last week’s events suggest that the move to discredit our footballing provenance will go largely unopposed. We are far more concerned with squabbling over the lost opportunities of four weeks in 2018, than defending a heritage built up over the past 150 years.

And if you don’t believe that provenance can be rechannelled and history rewritten, you weren’t paying attention last month when a similar saga played out over the filming of The Hobbit. The New Zealand government moved heaven and earth to ensure that filming took place in the “established home of Middle Earth” rather than the alternative option of the UK. This is despite the fact that JRR Tolkien continually confirmed that his imaginary kingdom of The Shire “…was based on rural England, and not any other country in the world”.

Not that you would know that today. New Zealand has successfully supplanted Britain in the global consciousness as the authentic home of all things Tolkien. The British did precisely nothing to defend its literary provenance and New Zealand is hundreds of millions of pounds to the better as a result.

Alas, it’s a very typical Anglo Saxon response. One of our most pronounced and unfortunate traits is our almost total disregard for history. We believe it’s all about the future, and the relative value of protecting and understanding the past is seen as irrelevant. I see it all the time with British and American brand managers who deem it entirely appropriate that they run a brand without actually visiting – or in many cases even knowing – the original people and places from which the brand was born.

And I see this in stark contrast to how many non-Anglo-Saxon brands manage their brands. For the past ten years I have worked with some of the biggest French, Italian and Spanish luxury brands and I am always struck by how these engagements have usually begun – not with data, or strategy or market research – but rather with the origins and history of the brand and a biography of the founder. In many cases the project starts with a guided trip to the original home of the brand. The message from Latin brands is simple: we always remember that our brands start with a person, a place and a particular moment in time. Only after we understand and acknowledge that, can we move forward.

It’s a great lesson for any brand manager and it’s one that the FA should also absorb. There is no greater strategic advantage than to be seen as the original creator of something. Authenticity and originality are trump cards in the game of brand positioning. When English fans sang “Football’s Coming Home” on the terraces of Euro 96 they meant it. And when German fans sang the same song after they won the trophy that year they mischievously, but reverentially, paid homage to the English origins of a game.

FIFA appears intent on removing the one part of football that we can still take great pride in – our past. We must fight back. And the first step is the battle for football’s provenance is to accept, against our instinct, that history is important.

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