I come from an Irish Republican background and politically identify as anti-imperialist. Up until this point I’d always assumed the radical thing to do was to support anyone but England. But my views on the role of football have evolved considerably. And on Wednesday night I supported England for the first time.
The World Cup is probably the most popular sporting event in the world, attracting an average of 3.2 bn viewers in 2010 and 2014. Like the Quran or the Bible, football’s biggest tournament is a cultural text that’s been analysed by literally billions of people. The collective gaze of a massive section of the international family are watching. It’s a remarkable and rare moment of global community.
So at the risk of excessive sincerity: as with music, so too does football create a common language that transcends all national frontiers. That language provides the possibility of greater internationalism.
It was obvious that many of the people in the pub I was in didn’t normally watch football. The gender balance was about 50-50. But even those new to football intuitively understood its accessible language. They understood the terms of the drama, and they allowed it to affect them. It was thrilling, just to be there in that environment, to experience the highs and lows together with the seasoned stalwarts and the newly converted.
Some friends and comrades of mine seem to think the England football team is inherently and indelibly associated with imperialism. I think that’s wrong. That narrative cedes far too much to the right. It gives nationalist, reactionary forces the power to shape the meaning of football in this country and internationally.
It should not follow that support for England’s football team amounts to support for England’s empire, nor for its capitalism. More than that, refusing to support your local team because they are somehow politically unpalatable entails a kind of inverted superiority – a refusal to participate in the common language of football on the basis that England was and remains an empire, and therefore shouldn’t acknowledge its equality by participating in humanity’s favourite sporting event.
The English identity is also radically indeterminate. We make it as much as we find it. There is no requirement for us to map that identity onto the contours and interests of the British imperial state. Indeed no coherent “English state” exists.
There is an important class aspect to this whole spectacle. Watching the semi-final in a middle class pub in Hackney, I was struck by how subdued the reaction to England’s defeat was. Everyone clapped (mostly) and then went about their business. I didn’t notice any tears.
And so I found myself thinking about a New York Times article from 2014 in which the author comments on the picture that emerges from the location of Google search terms across America. Middle class Americans from the West and East Coast google the expensive cameras they want to buy and their next holiday. Working class people from the rust belt search about health problems, guns, and religion. The search terms seem to confirm that the American working class live in relatively hopeless circumstances.
The people hardest hit by Wednesday’s football will live in the working class, de-industrial parts of this country. When you live in difficult economic circumstances, something like a football tournament can lift you out of the poverty, the hopelessness of your day-to-day existence. And yes: disappointment will be highest in those areas that voted Leave. That’s no coincidence. Those Leave-voting communities are understandably and justifiably frustrated with the economic circumstances they’ve been forced to endure since Thatcher.
The game had wider political significance. The drama so clearly mapped onto the political contours surrounding Brexit that it would be boring not to explore the comparison. The 2018 World Cup final will be between two EU countries. The EU Members State of Croatia had experience and reserves of energy. The England team were young, ambitious, humble, feeling their way with far less experience from which to draw.
And the EU won. The EU wins no matter what.
Theresa May’s government would have been buoyed by a victory. She’s now been denied that unlikely source of national unity and jubilation. I’m genuinely disappointed that I won’t get to see what this country would have looked like if England had gone all the way. England, and Brexit, is running out of hope.
There was one guy in our pub who’d had too much. As the game began to turn against England, he got more and more aggressive. Shouting loudly after every mistake or lapse of possession, drawing attention to himself, shouting “fuck off” at the Croatian players on screen. It was as though he were seeking to explicitly associate his personal frustration with that of the national team.
At the risk of seeming judgmental, I admit I found him both annoying and tragic. I saw in him many of my own most unattractive qualities: the desire to be the centre of attention, the willingness to inject violent language into a situation where others find it unnecessary and disturbing, the public displays of emotional instability. I also viewed him as a representation of the toxic, masculine, frustrated underbelly of English football fandom.
The beers kicked in, and I felt tempted to shout “Come on Brexit!”. You know, just to fuck with the Hackney liberal remainers. To associate the thing they claim to love (the England football team) with the thing they unreservedly hate (Brexit). To prod their cognitive dissonance, to make explicit the political undercurrents that were so obvious during the game, and yet around which everyone (especially the commentators!) seemed to be tiptoeing.
I resisted the temptation to shout my provocation. I’m not that drunk, confrontational guy anymore. I have developed all this middle class impulse-control. I think that’s a shame. I wonder how the mood would have changed if I’d made my playful, slightly nasty intervention.
Football is political, then. It’s just not political in the ways imagined by people who don’t care about football. And that’s fine – you don’t need to ‘care about football’ to talk about its significance. That’s part of football’s greatness: there’s no barrier preventing people from wading into its messy discourse. It’s inclusive.
And I love it. I fucking love football. I remembered that last night, remembered just how much I’ve always loved the game. When I was a kid living in Northern Ireland I used to cry my eyes out when Manchester United lost. How ridiculous, how hilarious. The way I got so invested in this random assortment of athletic strangers in an English city I’d never visited. It doesn’t make sense!
And yet it does. It does make sense. Life is about getting invested. It doesn’t work if you don’t at least pretend to care. And after a while spent pretending, it creeps up on you and you can’t help but scream with unmediated joy when your team scores, and cry uncontrollably when they lose.
I miss that. I miss that sincerity, I miss being able to lose myself in a unselfconscious moment of individual and collective joy. I think England did well. They did everyone proud. Fucking hell. Football man. I’ve missed you so much.