Reasons For Optimism In Team And Support

Philip Cornwall is still troubled by some of the baggage England take to international tournaments, but on the whole he's optimistic about both the team and support...

Last Updated: 21/06/12 at 07:34 Post Comment

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The Golden Lion, as you have probably seen, was the unofficial English HQ in Donetsk, with the Thomson Sport coaches parking right outside so the day-trippers did not miss out. It was something of a tourist attraction for locals, too, eager to see and hear "Roy-Hodg-son's/ Barmy Army". Ukrainians came to photograph and be photographed, especially with the assorted knights dressed as very English St Georges.

On Tuesday afternoon the pub/restaurant presented an overwhelmingly benign vision to Lenin, watching out of the corner of his eye from his plinth on the other side of Artema Street, as he studiously ignored Ronald McDonald's home on the opposite diagonal. Even the man wearing a "UEFA - Mafia" T-shirt, featuring a grinning Michel Platini and with "Against Mod£rn Football" on the back, came with his wife and babe-in-arms to look at this epitome of the experience the authorities try to make their own in the Fanzone era.

Let no one doubt that this constitutes progress to be celebrated for England. Two weeks ago I was in Belgium, revisiting the scene of Euro 2000, the tournament from which we came closest to being expelled. I wondered at the time what would happen in Ukraine, how an England support diminished to its hardcore by economic circumstances, disaffection with the team and an awful geographical draw would look. And the answer was this: boisterous, certainly, but not threatening - not even the group of lads on the way to the ground who decided that now was the time for "Let's go f****** mental, Let's go f****** mental" and shower each other with beer.

Such behaviour may have been deemed anti-Soviet by Lenin's ideological successors but the rules have been relaxed, certainly for the duration and especially for visitors. And what liberties are taken are done with a smile rather than a scowl. "Duze diakuju" may not always have been pronounced beautifully but the effort to say "thank you" has been there.

England have not lost yet, it is true, and that is always a crucial test but thus far we have built on the advances made over successive tournaments.

There has been a UEFA charge related to a rush to the fence in Kiev, which I cannot claim to have seen. I am a little short on sympathy with the FA here, given the fence-shaking stand-off with Swiss stewards in Basel in the second qualifying game and the stout denials, in the face of reality, that there was anti-Gypsy racist chanting in response to Bulgarian monkey noises last September.

There is still an obtuseness to the chants that can appal. To hear again an almost exclusively white crowd sing: "F*** off Sol Campbell, we'll do what we want," was a depressing refusal to acknowledge legitimate concerns that make many non-whites hesitate to come to eastern Europe, football or not, and lead them to be extra careful when they are here.

There are still the IRA-related songs and those about the Second World War (there were inflatable Spitfires in the stands in Donetsk). There is an extent, though, to which these are increasingly ritualistic, in the manner of the more blood-curdling aspects of national anthems. Consider the call to arms of the Marseillaise or the chorus of Italy's that we will hear on Saturday: "Let us band together, We are ready to die; Let us band together, We are ready to die, Italy has called us."

How much people put aside the pig-headed sentiments when confronted with actual people may yet be tested, for instance in a semi-final against Germany. But that was an exam passed at the 2006 World Cup by many with an atavistic fear and hatred. And while I was grateful that England's absence from Euro 2008 meant the supporters did not find the Salzburg bar that had a Bobby Sands tribute on the menu, Irish pubs generally exercise a magnetic attraction for many without incident.

I am still troubled by some of the baggage England bring along. But I approached this tournament cautiously pessimistic about team and support, and right now I am cautiously optimistic about both.

Philip Cornwall

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