This is a shoeless kid mid kick of a foot ball and a figure of an adult in the background watching. The sky is orange, and greyish, almost like flames. It represent the power of soccer in "The English Game".
Manu Mangalassery

The English Game is a bore and just passable.

When you watch TV shows, how often do you think about whether the story is historically accurate, racially biased or fair? It’s exhausting isn’t it? To constantly be upset, outraged or disheartened by the lapse in representation or by the misleading portrayal of minorities. It’s a labour almost akin to carrying the burden of activism and historical pain around you even in quiet spaces intended to enliven you. But, it’s an effort that is necessary because it forces artists and gatekeepers in media and creative spaces to be accountable to the type of stories they tell and how they do it. And unfortunately, stories like “The English Game,” a historical drama based on the creation of the British football association in the 1800s and its first president Arthur Pember, is at the heart of this trouble.

For all the reasons explained earlier, “The English Game” is a bore and just passable; there is nothing exceptional about this Netflix mini series. The plot follows the first professional footballer Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie) and his opponent Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft) a stockbroker turned player who loved the game so much that he fought for the expansion of the game to include working class men and professional players. This in turn, certified the credibility of his football association made up of close classmates from his university days. It’s a simple story that insidiously presents a warm telling about progression and how football could be harnessed into changing lives but it completely erases history and the dark implications of some of the narrative that is cheerily propelled throughout the series.

It’s actually quite a shame. This show had the potential to be something like the movie Whiplash in diving into the gut of seemingly ordinary industries and exploring how nuanced, charged and layered the interactions and stories housed in those institutions hold. Instead though, the story brought upon feelings of pity and disappointment at the shallow nod to the mistreatment of women at the time, or working class people, and worse, of the complete disregard of minority voices. As it stands, the story provides a superficial look at the history of football, its commodification and adoption as a British creation without so much as a fair acknowledgement to the people who played the game before them. “This is a game for amateurs and gentlemen. It’s our game,” Arthur said offhandedly. “Eton, Charterhouse, Harrow. Lots of schools played a part, but the point is we took a raggle-taggle pastime with different rules wherever it was played, and we turned it into a proper game. For gentlemen,” he announces to his wife Alma as they argue about his sportsmanship on the field. And in that little exchange, he managed to entirely change the way we view football so that it would become a British invention, instead of a game of the world as it should be.

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It’s sad because this story is familiar. Whitewashing is in all parts of are history, from the American reinvention of slavery which minimizes the true egregious actions of slaveowners, the burning of manuscripts in ancient libraries in Africa that demonstrate that Africans had a literate and organized society before slavery, to the simple fact that the creation of the terms BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini which in Latin means, for year of the Lord) innately diminishes the religions of humans before the roman empire conquered so much of the world. These terrible attempts to delete history is so pronounced that people still don’t know or are unwilling to admit that the Egyptian queen Cleopatra was likely a white woman because it would force people to contend with the knowledge that the enslavement of black people spans so far back into human history that it’s impossible to determine when it started and also how reliable our history books and the information we have of the past really is. After all, history is shaped by those who win in wars. And so, in the wake of “woke” culture, it’s extremely tone deaf of Julian Fellowes to create a show, that fails to recognize an authentic recount of history.

Every part of “The English Game” feels devoid of reality and wholly romanticized, from the relationship between Arthur and Alma (Charlotte Hope), the treatment of women, elimination of minorities, and simplification of the hardship of the working class in that period. Perhaps, the argument is that it’s a mini series and not a documentary meant to teach viewers, but since the show avoided portraying the truth with these less appealing subjects, it felt like a fantasy with little weight; it was missing character. The narrative was very withholding and so impressed a feeling of indifference. Arthur went from being represented as a gentleman obsessed with soccer and an absent husband, to a semi-present husband. The bar is so low for him. So low, Alma can never comfortably express her dissatisfaction with her marriage or with Arthur because everyone excuses him even when he abandons her in trying times. When she tries to speak up, she’s told: “You mustn’t blame him you know, he’s a man and they can’t deal with anything messy. His father was exactly the same,” his mother admits. Her advice to her daughter-in-law to try and close the gap in their relationship is to “run faster” after him, to essentially beg for his affection.

The sexism in “The English Game” which is veiled, is disturbing, precisely because of how nonchalantly its represented. For instance, in the show, Alma and her girlfriends are instrumental in helping their husbands (and gatekeepers in the game), to be more inclusive and yet no credit is afforded to them beyond a fond smile thrown their way. The fact that the wives of the FA members are part of the conversation in deliberations about how the game should be changed, means that they are also heavily contributing towards the game and therefore history yet, because they’re not enabled to play, their opinions aren’t respected. They’re solely used to prop up the men and stroke their egos. It’s why the women’s foundation in the show, meant to help disenfranchised single mothers, asked women to humiliate themselves in the form of an interview which was really meant to shame them for their agency and sexuality. But more so, for daring to be their own individuals, absent of men in their lives to live for and serve.

“The English Game” is a weak show. It doesn’t offer anything beyond a flat account about how white English men, took ownership of the creation of a sport that was already played around the world and leveraged it for money. (Just look at how Cartwright (Ben Batt) was able to make winnings from the game early on, while giving mingy takings to the players to pacify them as they worked tirelessly for him.) However, the series demonstrates what it might look like when the gatekeepers of industries confer together to determine your worth—if you’re even lucky enough to be considered.

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