Nessun Dorma

Posted: July 7, 2016 in football, politics and ideas
Tags: , , , , ,

Like everyone else, I’ve been thinking a lot about the EU referendum outcome and what it all means. I went on holiday immediately after the result so there is a distinctively Italian flavour to my ruminations, as you’ll see. To me, the result is best explained in terms of “outsiders looking in to someone else’s party”. I explain this further below, drawing (of course) on a mediaeval horse race and the 1990 World Cup to build my argument. Read on.


You spend an absolute fortune in the hope of getting lucky, but with no guarantees. If it finally does happen it’s all over in less than 90 seconds, usually leaving you feeling embarrassed and inadequate. What is it? Why, the Palio di Siena of course. What did you think I was talking about?

The Palio is apparently the oldest horse race in the world. Twice a year, horses and riders representing the seventeen contrade (or zones) of the Tuscan city of Siena compete for victory over three laps of a dusty track in the main city square.

I took a photo of the square – you can see it below.

Pretty much the entire population of Siena turns up to watch, guarding their spaces in the centre of the square for the entire day in the full glare of the summer sun. More comfortable track side seats in the surrounding cafes in Piazza del Campo sell out a year in advance for upwards of €400 each.

My partner and I knew none of this when we arrived in Siena the afternoon after this year’s July race. We didn’t even suspect that anything exciting had just taken place in the city – none of the shops or restaurants were open but we just assumed that was normal for a Sunday evening.

Then the noise started.

Our hotel was in the Lupa section of the city. Lupa hadn’t won the Palio for 27 years. That’s longer than Manchester United waited between the last Busby title and Fergie’s first championship. Too long. People in their fifties would have remembered the last victory as a moment of promise from their youth. At the time they probably expected the 1989 victory to be the first of many – and in a year of world historic optimism. And then nothing for twenty seven years.

Older citizens – people in their seventies, say – might have missed the last victory, allowing it to pass them by while they were occupied instead by bringing up children and providing for ageing parents. Then Palio followed Palio and they feared they’d never see another one go in Lupa’s favour.

And young people in their mid-twenties would never have seen Lupa win the race. You know, like 20-something Liverpool fans these days. Siena isn’t very big – some of the seventeen contrada we walked through seemed only about three or four streets in dimension – so there would be no hiding from the ridicule of fellow pupils or colleagues as defeat piled up on defeat year after humiliating year.

And then on 2 July 2016 – the day before we arrived in Siena knowing nothing about any of this – Lupa won the Palio.

I dread to think what the Saturday night was like if Sunday was anything to go by. Around 11pm, just as we were settling down to sleep, some bells started ringing. Quite nice – it must be exactly 11pm, we thought (although we must have missed the bells marking the previous hours that evening). The bells continued. Maybe they’re doing a 24-hour clock approach and ringing 23 times? Hmm. Surely they’re not ringing the bell once for every minute we’ve had today? Or every second?

The bells rang and rang and rang, finally ceasing at 2am. It was like trying to sleep inside a clock tower.

Our fellow hotel guests were rather bleary-eyed and confused at breakfast the next morning, but news of Lupa’s win was eventually shared with them by the understandably distracted staff members who had the misfortune to be on duty the Monday after Palio Saturday.

By this stage we had worked out that the headquarters of the Lupa team was directly below our window, and this proved to be very much the source of all subsequent celebratory noise. Speaking of which, the start of a new day was the cue for some singing.

First up was Freed From Desire by Gala. You know the one. I really like that tune, and the locals seemed to have amended the lyrics into something meaningful to them (not “Will Grigg’s On Fire” – I’d have recognised that one). Then they sang it again. Great – it’s such a good chorus. Oh, a third rendition? Go on then. A fourth? Well…

They sang Freed From Desire nonstop for fully six hours.

And then the bell-ringing started again. Not content with looking a bit like Quasimodo in a certain light, I started to empathise with his hatred of ‘the bells’.

At other times, the sound of kettle drums indicated the start of regular victory parades through the city. Here’s my photo of the procession snaking out of the piazza and down a side street:

And then every night the entire population of the contrado would congregate along long tables in the central piazza to eat, drink, sing Freed From Desire and ring bells until they dropped. I photographed the scene from our hotel room window (and yes I am aware that I’m not very good at taking photos):

It was quite something to behold. Man, that victory meant something to them.


A year after Lupa’s last Palio victory, the Stadio Comunale in Siena’s neighbouring city of Florence hosted four matches at the 1990 World Cup. If these four games are remembered at all it’s usually as background context to more heralded tales, but they merit revisiting. The first three were the Group A games that did not feature Italy; while Florence was the scene of a midfield masterclass from Lubomir Moravcik and two goals from Tomas Skuhravy in Czechoslovakia’s 5-1 win over the USA, Italian eyes were on Rome and the emergence of Toto Schillaci. Later, Florence’s fourth and final World Cup fixture was the quarter-final between Argentina and Yugoslavia in which Maradona took the worst penalty ever, three days before scoring the best penalty ever against Italy.

Much as Italia ’90 is often sniffed at these days as the nadir of negative tactics, the relatively scant coverage of foreign leagues at that time meant that every day was a school day for British viewers. The emergence of Schillaci is a case in point – the way his story is recounted you’d think he’d been plucked from the crowd to save Italy in the group stages. He was centre forward for Juventus at the time! He was a late developer certainly, but his ascent is comparable with Jamie Vardy’s journey to the England squad this summer rather than, say, me suddenly getting an international call-up. Similarly, the aforementioned Skuhravy followed up his goals in the group stage with a second round hat trick against Fucking Costa Rica, earning him a transfer from Sparta Prague to Genoa. These days he’d be a household name from Sparta Prague’s regular Champions League appearances, but there weren’t many Czechoslovakian games on the telly back in 1990 so his very existence was news to British audiences during Italia ’90.

Pete Davies’s All Played Out is the definitive account of Italia ’90 through an English lens, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. (You may want to purchase it under its revised title of One Night In Turin, which appears to be about £100 cheaper on Amazon, but if you really want my hardcopy of the original I’m happy to negotiate). One of the key themes of the book is the idea of being an outsider looking in to someone else’s party – and then casting off your inhibitions and embracing the exotic and unfamiliar.

England were confined to Cagliari on the island of Sardinia for the group stages in what was experienced by the fans as a form of collective punishment for the many and varied outrages committed by supporters of their club sides through the 70s and 80s. The first game of the group was the famously awful 1-1 draw between England and the Republic of Ireland that inspired the geographically-iffy but aesthetically spot-on headline “No Football Please, We’re British” in an Italian newspaper. Gary Lineker communicated his view of the situation through this symbolic gesture. Meanwhile the carabinieri administered thrashings first and asked questions later.

And then…suddenly England were using a sweeper and outplaying the Netherlands in the second game, with Gascoigne reminding the Dutch what the Cruyff turn looks like. They followed that up with a nerve-jangling win over Egypt that earned them permission to join the fun on the mainland. Thereafter they distinguished themselves with a joyous last-minute winner over Belgium and a performance for the ages in the semi-final against West Germany.

The tournament started with the government essentially permitting Italian cops to attack England fans. The media vilified Bobby Robson and his players prior to the finals and caned them even harder when the action got underway. And yet by its honourable conclusion, England’s campaign was bathed in acid house pleasure. English clubs were re-admitted to European competition immediately afterwards and Gazza was suddenly the most famous and popular man in the country, knocking Eddie the Eagle Edwards off his perch.

Continental things like passing the ball properly and not getting beaten up on special trains were now in fashion. If you were a woman, or Black, or not very macho, you could now own up to liking football and actually participate in the culture. Thereafter matters took their course quickly. You know the drill – the Premier League, Fantasy Football, Fever Pitch, Beckham’s sarong, Arsenal’s entirely foreign first eleven, the ‘golden generation’, £100 a ticket, etcetera, etcetera.

English football was transformed, perhaps forever.


The forces that changed football in the 1990s – increasingly free movement of labour and capital; the rebranding of sport as a desirable lifestyle accompaniment; violent redistribution of wealth in favour of the elite, funded by the eye-popping sums of money paid for broadcasting rights – are perhaps illustrative of how the dynamics of globalisation have been experienced in British society more broadly. I’ll explore this with reference to the seismic Brexit vote.

The EU referendum result took most political commentators by surprise. In its aftermath a curious tango is being danced between the so-called ‘post-truth’ contingent of activists of various stripes who are immune to empirical evidence or reasoned argument, and political observers who have lost confidence in their analysis of events and indeed their very eligibility to pass comment on them. The fable settled upon between these nihilists and fatalists alike is that Remain was backed by the ‘haves’ (all 16.1m of them) and Leave by the ‘have-nots’ (all 17.4m of them). A more nuanced version has it that Remain voters are metropolitan dilettantes (all 16.1m of them) and Leave voters are salt of the earth types angry about immigration (all 17.4m of them). A satisfactory explanation of how we got here surely requires greater imagination than this.

While it’s always important to apply health warnings to Lord Ashcroft Polls, his post-referendum analysis makes for intriguing reading.

Taking social class first, a clear majority of social classes C2/D/E (i.e. poorer voters) backed Leave, but 36% of those polled by Ashcroft opted to Remain. That’s a lot of ‘have-nots’ failing to comply with the prevailing narrative. Likewise 43% of social class A/B voters (i.e. professionals and managers) opted to Leave. So much for the ‘haves’ all loving the EU.

Immigration was cited by the Leave voters among Ashcroft’s survey participants as the second-most important influence on their decision (after restoring political sovereignty). As such the voting analysis by ethnic group makes for interesting reading. 47% of White voters opted to Remain, while 33% of Asians, 27% of Black voters and 30% of Muslims wanted to Leave. The argument that Brexit was driven by white people rejecting immigration needs a bit more work.

The most interesting and revealing section of Ashcroft’s analysis looks at the social attitudes of his survey sample. Voters who consider globalisation, multiculturalism and immigration to be forces for ill were overwhelmingly inclined to leave the EU. By contrast, voters who are comfortable with globalisation, multiculturalism and immigration mostly backed Remain.

(To widespread amusement, Ashcroft’s poll also indicated that voters who consider the internet a bad thing were inclined to vote Leave. However a quick check of the raw data reveals that the number of people who think the internet is a bad thing was mercifully tiny in the first place. It wasn’t the internet wot lost it.)

What then to make of this?


It’s clearly insufficient to attribute the Leave victory to 17.4m ‘have-nots’ when we’ve seen that 43% of the more affluent UK citizens were among them. And it wasn’t only White voters who were propelled towards Brexit by a desire to exert control of borders and reclaim supposedly lost sovereignty. So we can’t explain the referendum result as a howl of anger by the White poor. In this light I think that the “outsider looking in to someone else’s party” simile I mentioned in relation to England at Italia ’90 is more helpful in making sense of the Brexit vote.

The relevant data seem to me to be as follows. The strongest anti-immigration sentiment is generally recorded in areas that have experienced comparatively little immigration. The anti-immigration sentiment recorded by Ashcroft coincided with an overwhelming preference to Leave. And better-off voters were almost as likely to vote Leave as Remain. As such (and acknowledging the liberties I’m taking in the absence of comprehensive data) it may be argued that far from being a nihilistic act of vengeance by poor people locked out of the economy, a significant proportion of the Leave vote was delivered by people who are doing absolutely fine.

At the same time, a significant proportion of the poorer social classes (albeit well short of 50%) opted to Remain. Again, I’m stretching the available data here, but when we remember that a huge proportion of the poorer UK citizens live in urban areas, and urban areas predominantly backed Remain, it seems reasonable to argue that a significant component of the pro-EU vote was delivered by people who are doing badly from the current economy – but who perhaps appreciate some of the associated lifestyle benefits they gain from a more cosmopolitan society.

In this way you can be relatively affluent but feel excluded from the vibrancy of modern life, or poor but enriched by pluralism. Wealthy Leavers find themselves outside the window looking in at the poor Remainers who are enjoying the party of modern life.

Except the poor Remainers aren’t really enjoying much of a party either, and this is where the political difficulties arise.

Let’s return to the England fans at Italia ’90. They were finally re-admitted to Planet Earth after the group stages and their lives improved immeasurably as they embraced the colour and pleasure of a World Cup everyone else had already been enjoying for a fortnight. But then they got home and quickly found themselves priced out of a commodified and gentrified sport they previously thought of as their own. After a while the best most football fans could hope for was to follow cheaper non-league games or watch the Champions League in the pub. The colour and vibrancy of modern football was something happening elsewhere; a party to which most people were no longer invited.

And yet not everyone feels this as an impoverishment or loss. There was hardly ever any football on TV when I was young whereas now you can see pretty much any game you want. I’ve watched Premier League games on telly in Cambodia and Vietnam while kids played football outside in Chelsea shirts.

So it’s a matter of perspective. If you were once heavily invested in the game but can no longer afford to go, you’ll feel locked out of the party of modern football and understandably rage against the elites who enrich themselves while you look on helplessly. You don’t even need to be priced out to feel this – plenty of affluent football fans have walked away in disgust at the corporate takeover of their sport. At the same time though, there is no shortage of people who were previously excluded from the prevailing football culture but who can now access a dizzying range of matches from all over the world. It might not be the same as being able to afford a season ticket but it’s arguably better than nothing.

I think there is a parallel here with the influence of globalisation on the referendum result. The vote seems to have been decided by a population group made anxious by a lack of control – control over borders, control over the economy, control over the UK’s cultural make-up, control over decision-making. Meanwhile a lack of popular control over football is the main thing railed against by those who despair of the direction the game has recently taken (despite popular control and official accountability having never, ever existed). At the same time – and this is the key point – a huge proportion of the Remain vote was delivered by people who have no sense of control over any of those things either. Many Remain voters might even be objectively disadvantaged by free movement of labour and capital. They just value other things more highly. They might be seen as analogous with the football fans locked out of stadiums who get their kicks from watching games on TV or online. They’re no more in control, but they are making the most of the diversity of modern life.

Which brings me back to the Palio di Siena. Tourism has emerged as a major contributor to the global economy over the same period and for the same reasons as football has undergone its transformation – free movement, growing (albeit polarised) affluence, the commodification of ‘the experience’ as a guarantor of authenticity. And as I discovered by accident, the Palio is a huge draw for tourists and must be worth a fortune to the local economy in Siena. But the locals clearly don’t care about the tourists while the Palio is on. It’s not about the tourists – it’s a deeply felt local tradition. In this way the Palio seems to me to be an act of resistance against the constant change of the modern world. But is that a good thing or a bad thing? It depends on your perspective, just like the rise of the Champions League or the impact of the EU on British life.

So when Leavers look through the window they think they’re locked out of a party that’s getting out of control. But plenty of the Remainers on the other side of the glass think they’re outside the party too.

And amid the noise, no one sleeps.


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