Football Nation: Love England, hate patriotism?
From tragedy to farce. As an outsider living in England, I am always conflicted about whether and when to support the England football team. As one of the home nations, England enjoys my support at rugby, except when playing Ireland. Jonny Wilkinson, and that silly little move he does before taking a kick, is on a par with sliced bread. Which is about four pegs down from Ronan O’Gara.
It’s not that I don’t like football; I’m not joining with other rugger-buggers in proclaiming that the beautiful game is for pansies. I love football. About five minutes after I was born, a giant Spurs teddy was placed in my room along with a collection of Spurs scarfs, thus sealing my separation from the parental affiliation to Manchester United and George Best with the lore of Danny Blanchflower, Pat Jennings and Gerry Armstrong.
It’s that I can’t stand the flags on cars and their conflation with real ‘patriotism’, or the tabloid whinging and the obscenely exploitative ad campaigns. “Work Rest Play for England”, the Mars ad theme, is among the most grotesque – made all the more amusing by the news that Mars are suing Nestlé for the Kit-Kat “cross your fingers [for England]” campaign, as Kit-Kat aren’t official sponsors of the World Cup – apparently only official parasites should be allowed to cash-in.
This puts me off lining up beside the St George’s Cross-festooned supporters. I was briefly tempted to support England against the USA when BBC News showed some American fans in South Africa who were screaming platitudes at the camera in the most obnoxious possible fashion, “America rules, America will dominate” etc. I privately hoped they all got mugged on their way home from the game. But then I remembered the ’95 riot at Croke Park after David Kelly scored over England and wondered if such testostero-nationalism doesn’t have a psychiatric cure.
I have no affiliation to either the England or the American football teams and while I’m sure every team has complete tossers somewhere in its entourage, I don’t usually have to watch them on TV or at football matches. So I quietly support Germany, a love first established when Jurgen Klinsmann came to White Hart Lane, despite all the 1966 guff being visited upon me by a media that seems unable to deliver perceptive analysis and falls back on useless trivia. Would that they got so historically interested when it wasn’t just a matter of waving the flag.
The other thing I forever want to escape is the sad old dichotomy of “leftist denounces excessive patriotism” “patriotic windbag denounces lefty for snobbish approach to working class / being ashamed of their nationality” (a cliché Nick Cohen squarely perpetrated against Madam Miaow). Football unquestionably involves politics – the revolution in how football teams are funded and how they subsequently go broke will be a question revisited a la Portsmouth over the next few years, I suspect, even at the highest levels of English football.
These clichés are not the necessary politics, however. Their assumptions are unsustainable, Football is not inherently working class; an objection to flag-waving nationalism is not a conspiracy to spoil fun nor an attempt to get in the way of the god-given right to support whoever one wants; flag waving itself is not a natural or pre-cognitive response to being part of some historically inevitable nation; and some serious questions do have to be asked about the politics around football, for the health of our society rather than to spoil the fun of supporters. The wages of players, debt-funding of clubs and the elevation of WAGgery to a career aspiration for young girls are all part of that.
All of which is distinct from one’s enjoyment of the game. Similarly for the objection that the World Cup is all-male. I don’t follow women’s football because women’s league football isn’t shown on terrestrial TV or broadcast on national radio. As I don’t know about it, I can’t talk about it – and if that’s true for me, it’s true for millions of others. The social aspect to football – or any spectator sport – is a key ingredient to its success. If feminists want to replicate that for women’s football or some other sport, good luck to them and I’ll happily play a role.
Recreation of the social aspect of our lives, beyond trips between work and the pub, is an important cultural aspect to class struggle. If our fight is for a democratic society, with people taking collective responsibility for their community and workplaces, enjoyable collective endeavours should be high up the list. All the better if they can reflect the constituents of our society without a forced diversity and the accompanying holier-than-thou attitude exuded by people like Diane Abbott.
I don’t mean to idealise football as some proletarian paradigm, of course. Alan Sillitoe’s football-playing factory workers, much like the colliery-bands of honest ruffians, were still indulging in forms of escapism. If we assert that modern sports and reality television are the new Roman Gladiators, a latter-day bread and circus phenomenon, then we should be prepared to critique that. Many communities react angrily when the management of their football club cocks up, and mount defensive campaigns, but they are rarely more than passively involved in running the club.
To those who doubt that football was or is escapism, go to Ireland and see the local response, especially in the country, to Gaelic football. Bereft of the drugs and glitz that accompanies league football in England, and built largely on rural communities, this is a game still very close to the working class. It’s not unknown for Parish Priests to rush sermons when important GAA games were on. The current forest of English flags is nothing compared to the county flags that go up if a team is playing a hated rival or appears likely to take the Sam in a given year.
Replete with brawling and drunkenness, there couldn’t be a better example of a distraction from the daily humn drum. And why the hell not? Life is shit, football and its associated camaraderie isn’t. This is an implicit social critique all by itself. At the FIFA World Cup and the Olympics, national leaders, brand names, marketers and PR types all sing in harmony as regards things like solidarity, popular feeling and try to cash in on tides of well-wishing for a sporting endeavour. At other times, all of the above resolutely oppose exactly the same sentiments.
If we have a problem with the FIFA World Cup or the Olympics or the other elements of our modern pain et circe, it should be this: it is ‘approved’ fun. Government-sponsored fun. Ideologically acceptable fun. With its own jingle.
Part of that is the idiot with three English flags and a bumper sticker attached to his car, bleating on Five Live and BBC Have Your Say that those who think flag-waving is stupid are “England haters” (usually before descending into an anti-minorities rant, as happens with the bullshit tabloid stories about Christmas being banned or the more recent one about England shirts being banned); these are the people who cheer-led for Nazi ‘purity’ and the monolithic, omniscient ‘Party’ of Stalin and his successors.
Despite all of this, there are a bunch of things worth having in the spectacle unfolding in South Africa. The show of skill and sportsmanship is unsurpassed, and England has both – as demonstrated by the friendly exchange of shirts after the hard fought USA game. Then, there are also the strikers that everyone can support – the security workers staffing the competition, whose bosses have reneged upon a wage agreement. There is the unusually sociable nature of pubs up and down the country, for all those people meeting to cheer on their team.
So, apropos anything else, I may as well yell the customary “Come on England!” At least until the quarter finals.