In 53 years of watching England play or attempt to play football, I am yet to tire of seeing them win games. These days, they don’t just win them, they absolutely batter teams in terms of goals. Sometimes they play well, sometimes less well, but when it comes to scoring they are very, very good.
England playing well, scoring and winning is a special chocolate in football’s selection box. And I have never enjoyed watching an England side more than Gareth Southgate’s England. And I know I’m not alone in this because the last two games England played at Wembley attracted 77,768 for the women’s game v Germany and 77,277 for the men v Montenegro.
Of course there are always the naysayers, swift to try and temper international pleasures with talk of ‘wait until we play someone good’ but with England you’re best advised to take your joy where and when you can because history advises us that it may be fleeting.
The common assumption is that international breaks are widely seen as an unwelcome coitus interruptus to the league season, breaking up the thrust and rhythm of our passion. An annoyance, a nuisance, an irrelevance too for some, or so it is said. But is it really? Sometimes I wonder if this is a media construct simply because there’s less football to report on and fewer talking points to write about and that makes their lives harder.
Because for all the grumbling, England attendance numbers prove that international football still has something special that keeps pulling us in. So what is that something? What keeps huge crowds going to Wembley and watching on ITV? Why does England still matter to us? Is it little more than celebrity spotting or is something else going on? What does England mean to us now?
After all, the English national identity has changed a lot since we won the World Cup in 1966. For example, look at footage of that final and you’ll see Union Jack flags flown in support of England, rather than the cross of St George. Even though plenty still conflate England and the UK to this day, the red cross on white is now almost exclusively flown at England matches. That surely symbolises how the people’s psyche has changed.
Younger people especially, but not exclusively, find the multi-racial, multi-national nature of football teams entirely normal. It’s all the young have known. They have favourite players from many different lands, so the idea of supporting a team because of a birthright qualification must seem quite odd from this perspective. This should have weakened support for the national side, or so you’d think. But it hasn’t.
The marketing of big clubs as brands should also have diminished the interest in the national team. In the club v country debate, club is often said to have won. But it hasn’t. We still won’t let England internationals go. We’re still emotionally connected.
On top of this, in such intolerant times, you only need to be told to “get back to your own country” because “you look foreign” by a scumbag wearing an England shirt once to be somewhat put off the whole idea of national football teams. For many, that England means nasty nationalism and the racism that is a close cousin.
And the change to the English and English life doesn’t stop there. Compared to 1966, we have lost so much respect for institutions such as church, royalty and parliament that used to bind society together and comprised the very fabric of the lives we led. The church turned out to be polluted with devils pretending to be holy. The Royal Family couldn’t even be talked about in a disrespectful tone in 1966, but now you can say publicly at least one of their mob is a paedophile rapist and say it with impunity. The Royal Family used to be a quintessential, important part of the English identity. Maybe they still are but only as something to laugh at, be disgusted by, or just to gossip about. We poke at them like animals in a cage and they are too addicted to the privilege, money and assets to quit. We’re torturing them by insisting they stay in place for our amusement. Keeping alive a dead concept in a cruel act of cultural necrophilia, instead of quietly burying the corpse.
The Mother of Parliaments. Never the most pure of places, but most MPs held some sort of respect in the community. Not now. Not with people in positions of power manifestly without the intellectual or moral chops for the job, free of vision, passing off dogma and repeating lies as wisdom with the sort of extreme degree of certainty that only the stupid, the arrogant and the deluded are blessed with.
Everything that was considered to be noble, consistent and true about being English, no longer is. Remember how we used to be asked to provide a reference to denote your good character from a GP, MP or local priest, because they were considered to be upstanding members of the community? Today, you’re just glad if you get out of their presence without actually seeing their upstanding member.
So with all these pillars, and others, that held up English society crumbling, you’d think international football would also lose its appeal as another outmoded part of the past, as our grip on a unified sense of Englishness and national identity becomes more loose by the year. But the opposite seems to have happened.
Somehow and for some reason, it still matters, and matters a lot. We have not stopped caring. That’s why 30.4 million people watched England v Croatia on ITV in the World Cup semi final in 2018 – the biggest audience for anything ever broadcast in this country on a single channel.
We have never been more diverse, never been more different from each other in so many ways. And ironically it is here where the passion for England’s football team now lies, I think. We can come together in support at a time when pretty much all of life is fractured into millions of individual shards rather than one unified community. The primacy of the economics of the individual over the health of the collective has long been sold to us as the only way an economy works. It isn’t. But it has left us with few places to be as one.
Massive increase in choice has meant water cooler moments have been lost to the myriad of entertainment possibilities. We are shut off in our own cultural and economic cliques. And that’s also why England matters. It is a rare example of life being about ‘us’ and not about ‘I’. We come together over England as one. We should not underestimate the power of community.
On top of this, the team itself points a way forward, illustrating how people with markedly different heritages and backgrounds can come together to achieve something. That feels good.
While all the old notions of what being English means may have dissolved or are busy dissolving, we are perhaps subconsciously creating new ones for ourselves. That there is strength in the diversity of our mongrel nation is something England’s team exemplifies where once it was our homogeneity. We paint with many colours now and we are stronger for the diversity.
Although we moan that these fortnights get in the way of the progress of the season, perhaps we need them more than we usually acknowledge or even really appreciate.
And here’s one more thing. Seeing them win so handsomely in some ways feels like a victory for a progressive future and not one rooted in those fusty old narrow, monocultural, deferential and outmoded ways. The new England being good and winning feels like the best of what being modern and of modernity is all about and in that is an antidote to the division and the hate that is the common currency of life in 2019.
That’s why England is an addiction few of us can or want to quit. It tells us something about who we are and where we are. And then there are all those goals as well. Never forget the power of goals.
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