I was four years old when I engaged in my first act of political activism. It was in the school playground one breaktime, where I discovered that if you found a stone hard and sharp enough, you could carve illicit messages on the red brick school walls. What to say, then? Being as unoriginal a writer then as I am now, I decided simply to copy a slogan I had frequently seen scrawled on the shop fronts and bus shelters of my neighbourhood, without having the faintest idea what it meant.
And so it is that to this day, there remains a west London primary school building discreetly defaced with the words ‘NO POLL TAX’: one child’s solemn, solitary and, you’d have to say, ultimately successful act of rebellion against the dying embers of the Thatcher government.
Perhaps that’s why I felt an instinctive twinge of solidarity with Declan Rice when it emerged earlier this week that he had posted an Instagram comment about the IRA in 2015. Rice may have been a few years older than I was when he made his intervention – “Up the Ra” – but it’s likely that the 16-year-old Rice was about as familiar with the nuances of the Republican paramilitary movement as the four-year-old Liew was with the notion of progressive taxation. Either way, Rice was dealt a harsh and summary lesson, hauled over the coals for the grave offence of Being Young When You Intend Some Day To Be Older.
“I am aware that a poorly expressed comment I made when I was a junior player has been circulated on social media,” Rice later explained in what the Irish Sun later described as a “grovelling apology”. And it’s tempting to speculate on the unfortunate coincidence of Rice’s comment from four years ago miraculously surfacing on the eve of a potential England debut against the Czech Republic on Friday night. The alternative – that its release was timed in order to generate maximum disruption and distress to a young footballer ahead of one of the proudest moments of his career – is simply too dispiriting to contemplate.
Rice knows the game, though. He shouldn’t, but he does. To read some of the reactions over the last few weeks to his decision to switch allegiance from the Republic of Ireland to England – some of it well-considered, some of it utterly toxic, most falling somewhere in between – is to be struck by the impossible demands we make of our young athletes, the surreal and absurd standards to which we presume to hold them.
Rice recently gave an interview to the Evening Standard in which he discussed making the decision to switch teams. “I just turned off the phone,” he said. “I told my family not to look because there was always going to be some backlash, and I didn’t want them reading that. It’s difficult because I’m the youngest in the family.” And it’s perhaps a measure of the extent to which football has drifted from reality that the sound of those words in the mouth of a 20-year-old feels entirely, numbingly normal.
“Welcome to the crazy world of international football, where everything is amplified and scrutinised,” one tabloid mused in reaction to the Rice post. Well, yes, in a sense. But amplified by who? And scrutinised by who? The defence you get in the more traditional media alcoves for this sort of humiliation journalism is that there’s a clear interest in it. “Oh, it’s a story though, you can’t deny it’s a story,” they coo, as if the definition of ‘a story’ had been handed down on Mount Sinai rather than concocted, in an office, by blokes.
So who, in fact, benefits from this story? In whose interests was it to fire up the news Magimix and throw in the words ‘Declan Rice’, ‘social media’ and ‘IRA’? Not Rice himself, clearly. Not the England team, or Gareth Southgate, who neatly sidestepped the issue in his press conference on Thursday and rightly centred Rice’s wellbeing rather than his own ennui. You might think the media benefits, but they don’t really. Not in the long run, given that the Rice furore is one of those things with the potential to harden the heart of any young footballer, to fuel the animus many already harbour for the printed press, to drive us and them further apart.
So who does benefit? The reactionaries and the zealots loved it, of course. The internet banter machine, naturally, had a field day: particularly that strand of the internet banter machine that sees ironic IRA banter as a sort of nostalgic 1990s throwback, given an ultra-modern twist by the fact that – ta-da! – they’re actually back these days!
Collectively, meanwhile, we all get a little dumber. And while it’s tempting to regard all this as one of those minor fripperies that seems to seep into international week like beetroot stains into a wooden chopping board – another controversy expertly stoked, another young player expertly debased – the cumulative effect is anything but fleeting. Particularly, you suspect, for Rice: a young man reflecting, perhaps, that the world of international sport is a colder and more callous place than he ever imagined.