It’s the season’s end and with the England squad to be announced today, it’s time to start to think about girding our not-inconsiderably engorged loins for another international tournament.
But in these more complex days of hand-wringing and postmodern over-think, is it possible to unequivocally support England, the way that we all once did? And what do we even mean by supporting the national side, anyway?
Do we all wish them well? I would hope so, but I’m not sure that’s wholly the case. It’s not 1966, or even 1996. 2016 finds us in a different, more fractured and nuanced place altogether.
There are so many reasons for some of us to qualify our support of England. Aside from the usual awful tribal nonsense which dictates a Manchester United fan won’t support a Liverpool player in an England shirt, there are the private lives of the players to consider, along with their moral worth. Can we really cheer on men representing our country who have said and done unpleasant, even criminal, things? Are we not tainting or compromising our own morality by doing so? Some have absolutely no issue with this, because to err is to be human, but some really bloody do. It, at the very least, inhibits their desire to see a player do well. Because of the intrusive omniscience of the media, never have character assessments of footballers been so significant.
There’s also a long-term feeling that basically they’re all overpaid, over-rated, over-vaunted idiots who just let the country down time after time, with a mixture of low skill and bad attitude. The jury is no longer out, England are guilty of being losers, and then, as if to rub our noses in it, they return to their clubs and hoover up ever-fatter contracts. Is some bitterness at that wrong? Regardless, it has left its acrid taste in some mouths.
Others feel the players don’t have the same degree of passion for England as the fans. But more think this is a ridiculous criticism, especially when passion seems to just mean running around a lot, and actually, the problem is that the players are just not good enough. Either way, it makes not supporting them easier than perhaps it should.
On top of all this, the overarching cynicism of these days means that for many, supporting England just isn’t cool. Supporting England is for the pink, thick-necked tribes with the flags hanging out of their bedroom windows and a poster pulled out of The Sun, stuck on the white van window, or on the noticeboard at work along with a centrefold from Jizz Monthly.
In this world, supporting England is a tick in the column marked ‘neanderthal dullard’ and is part of Everything That Is Wrong.
And that’s before we even get to the whole tabloid, ‘Achtung Fritz’, jingoistic thing which is always waiting to happen, along with the darker forces that orbit that particular sulphurous universe. For some, supporting England is part of a strain of nationalism that is narrow-minded, out-of-date, right wing and vaguely stupid. No matter how many songs Billy Bragg sings to try and reclaim the flag for decent people, who really wants to drive around town with the Cross of St George hanging out of their car to “show my support for the boys”? Beyond that, who wants to pay a small fortune for the latest shirt assembled by poorly remunerated people and retailed through a greedy exploitative capitalist corporation that cares only about profit and not at all about people?
And anyway, how the hell is the badge and shirt of our national football team become subjected to trademark legislation, like it’s Coca-Cola? It’s our country, not the FA or anyone else’s. The very fact an ‘official’ shirt exists is a sporting, cultural and economic crime. Do you really want to buy into that mindset, enforced by venal lawyers and their soulless minions, who know the price of everything and the value of nothing ? Pffft.
So when we get involved in this whole England business, it can feel like you’re standing in a vortex of cultural, political and social litter. But let’s not forget that England, in numerical terms, is the best supported nation in Europe, even though it often makes us unhappy. It is as though supporting England is some sort of sporting equivalent of pressing one of those invisible boils on your face; it hurts, yet it’s compulsive and some flavour of pleasurable.
So where the hell are we? Like I say, it’s not like 1966, when the nation were so united behind the country that if you were not watching the World Cup final, you were suspected of being some sort of quisling, or worse, of being a covert Scotsman. Even throughout my misplaced childhood, England was a Big Thing. I wept aged nine when we lost to West Germany in 1970 and it was not to be the last of my England emotions. We’ve all done it. England has hurt all of us.
Of course, for some, none of this is a problem. It’s simple: you’re English, so you cheer on England unequivocally when they play, and then you curse the DNA in their bones when they don’t do very well, or alternatively, totally over-react with worship, and take to the streets wearing comedy breasts, to cheer them on an open-top bus, when they’re knocked out after a heroic loss to some cheating foreigners. That’s all a given.
But for the rest of us, the idiocy of tribalism is one of football’s worst traits and who wants to be part of that? Those people who simply say ‘stop slagging them off, just get behind the boys’ are increasingly keeping a vigil in a wilderness of mirrors.
And yet, and yet, and yet, I absolutely know what’s going to happen to me, regardless of everything else. I’ll start off by trying to pretend I’m not that bothered in order to insulate myself from the hurt, and will then proceed to get totally wrapped up in it and, when the crunch match comes, the one where we win or go out, will be as taut, tense and uptight as small knickers on a big lass. Because the fact is, no matter how much you might want to resist, no matter what the state of the game, the players, the manager or team is, wanting your country to do well is an irresistible feeling. Simply binning it as unimportant, or worse still, wanting them to lose for some perverse kind of revenge for all the sins stated above, is a big cynical step too far.
Even if England’s performances in tournaments are all too often little more than a script for a jester’s tear, I feel quite strongly that we should all live in hope that better days are always coming. I live in Scotland, a country I adore right down to my snot and gristle, but I am still English and England are my football team. I can’t change it, even if I wanted to. And though my days of being allergic to Perrier, daylight and responsibility are well behind me, rest assured, should we play well and win well, even just once, I shall be raising several large glasses to the lads and saying Slàinte Mhath. And who knows…maybe…just maybe, this time is our time.
We may just be clutching at straws, but I’m not for giving in just yet.