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Football Nation: Love England, hate patriotism?

Isn't my facial bum fluff wonderful?

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.

  1. Rory
    June 15, 2010 at 3:08 pm

    The 1995 game was at Lansdowne Road. Long before the ban on ‘foreign sports’ at Croke was lifted.

  2. Peter Reynolds
    June 15, 2010 at 7:26 pm

    It’s me. You know – the Welsh fascist! Couldn’t resist looking at this article because I’ve been churning one around myself on the same subject but I’m just a straightforward snob!

    It’s the badge of a chav. That’s what it is – two flags flown either side of your chavmobile. I don’t care if it’s the Cross of St Gerorge or the Red Dragon, it’s (Old Spice commercial) THE BADGE OF A CHAV.

    I actually fly the Red Dragon at the end of my drive. I’m all for flags, patriotism and pride. Please just do it with a little dignity.

  3. Peter Reynolds
  4. June 16, 2010 at 9:43 am

    It’s not the badge of a chav at all. I live in south-east England and there are plenty of what the Americans would call SUVs driving around with the flags hanging out. It’s not just the Novas, Corsas etc with the flags attached to them, nor is it mainly white vans. Sure, taxis have a proliferation of them, but that’s not chav either.

    As for ‘patriotism and pride’, might I suggest once again that pride in a football team has sod all to do with patriotism?

    • Peter Reynolds
      June 16, 2010 at 10:37 am

      Dave, I said I’m being a snob now didn’t I?! It makes no difference whether you’re driving a Nova, an SUV, a Merc or a vintage DB5. If you hang a pair of flags off each side of your vehicle, I’d guess you’ve got jogger bottoms and a football shirt on inside, dreaming of Victoria Beckham sitting next to you. It’s a question of taste and style – or the lack of it.

      Why can’t you express patriotism through a football team? I don’t see why not. Nothing makes me feel more patriotic than when the Wales rugby team runs out on the pitch and Alun-Wyn Jones sings the anthem with tears streaming down his face.

  5. June 16, 2010 at 10:43 am

    You did say you were being a snob, indeed. I just don’t think people are so easily categorised – even my flippant assertions about their tiny brain size can’t cover all, most or many of them.

    As for ‘expressing patriotism through a football team’, if patriotism is the love of one’s country, what does football have to do with the country? Yes, it’s the national team, but truth be told, the nation had precious little to do with it. Players of many nations play and hone their skills elsewhere. Only a small proportion of the nation is actually involved in the matter – and no few people rather dislike football and many of the things associated with it.

    If patriotism is the love of one’s country, I would argue (quite apart from my usual class-based critique that every narrative about a ‘nation’ exists to disguise rather more fundamental differences between worker and boss) that flying a flag and feeling a sentimental stirring over the national anthem is rather an excuse not to be involved in rather more practical things that demonstrate one’s love for a country – however one defines it.

  6. Peter Reynolds
    June 16, 2010 at 11:03 am

    But Dave, are you so earnest and serious after 15 pints of lager and a vindaloo?

    I hate football. See my article “The World Cup Beckons” linked to above but rugby is just a touch more important than life when Wales are playing. Rugby is a perfect expression and symbol of the love I feel for my country – on all levels: the people, the landscape, the heritage, my family. In Welsh the word is “hwyl”. There’s no simple translation.

    Go watch “Invictus” and then tell me that rugby (sport) has nothing to do with patriotism.


  7. June 16, 2010 at 11:14 am

    It depends on my mood. My choice of drink is usually spiced rum, or a Jack Daniels – and I’ve never eaten a vindaloo in my life – but after drinking my fill, I can get intensely political to the point of requiring a friendly punch in the gub.

    Imagine I said the above about rugby then, if you prefer. You haven’t really made the opposition argument, beyond restating your original belief that your choice of sport can be indicative of patriotism.

  8. mycrippledeagle
    June 17, 2010 at 1:44 pm

    If I may weigh in, there are definite similarities between Gaelic football in Ireland and rugby union in Wales. Local clubs are integral parts of the community, and provide a focal point for often isolated villages, etc. And on a matchday, the only thing anyone’s interested in is “the rugby”. In England, football has a similar standing, although I’ve never seen a collective outpouring of raw emotion quite like what you get during a Welsh rugby match.

    Peter, your dismissal of football is because you’re Welsh. I know what it’s like. However, rugby union in England is the sport of the upper classes – the proles simply don’t play rugby. I know that the higher echelons of football are corrupt and are huge consumerist circle-jerks worth millions of pounds, but the fans themselves are at least half as passionate about the English football team as most Welshies are about their rugby team, and for that we should give them credit because, let’s face it, they are English, and we should make allowances for them.

    Football is rather ‘chavvy’, from the players and their orange-tinted WAGs to the white van men with their copies of the Sun and one-arm tans, but it is nonetheless a game of the people, and to a certain extent by the people, even if the top levels are increasingly becoming a networking opportunity for fat-cat businessmen with their prawn sandwiches and champagne.

    And as for patriotism involving ‘a little dignity’, the two are often mutually exclusive. There’s nothing dignified about the abject feeling of hopelessness when Wales lose in the last minute, just as there’s nothing dignified about the celebrations when we win, if, as you say, supporting Wales embodies patriotism.

  9. Peter Reynolds
    June 17, 2010 at 2:01 pm

    Oi! Watch it mate! Wales is always dignified – in defeat or victory and anyone wot says different is gonna get it OK!

    I’m actually quite enjoying the World Cup. It just proves how money has ruined football. The players don’t care about the domestic game anymore. Why should they? They can make £100k a week just by pretending to be injured (Poor little wimps they all are. They wouldn’t last five minutes on a rugby pitch).

    Whej it comes to international competition it’s being done for passion, pride and yes, patriotism. You can see how much it matters to them. It actually becomes worth watching.

    If you’re getting your £100k a week from some Russian whoremaster, you’ve got one of his skinny, “orange tinted” girls to tickle your throbbing fancy then why should bother? Ask a man to play for his country and you see an whole other side to him.

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