I don’t like mean spirited posts but I have mean spirited side. I was glad (and remain glad) when Margaret Thatcher died and I’m happy when England gets knocked out of the World Cup.
In the first case, I’d rather not be happy that somebody is dead as a general principle. The second case is more complex. The national excitement and happiness when England is doing well internationally in football is infectious and it can create an apparently positive coming together of people across the nation (in so far as England is a nation). But I watch Grinch like from a distance at the happiness, knowing that it is not just short-lived but it is a borrowed euphoria as if drug induced. The crash that follows is deep and miserable.
I hate football.
Now, you might have already observed that I’m not much enamoured of any sport, whether of a participatory nature or a spectatory one. Certainly, my general disinterest in sport is part of my mean-spiritedness towards all things soccer*. Certainly sport was a hated aspect of school and childhood but it wasn’t the playing of football that was the issue there (we mainly played Rugby League – or bad approximation of it – in PE) nor the way sport took over the TV (cricket was a bigger intrusion – consuming TV time during summer). However, the issue I have did start in childhood.
What I hate about football in England is the mandatory nature of it. That began in childhood where everyone in the playground was expected to have some sort of affiliation with a football team. Liverpool, Everton, Manchester City or Manchester United. Different sets of allegiances to different reds or blues. I picked, essentially at random, Liverpool.
Football then was very rife with violent fan culture, a fact that alienated many people from the sport. It was (and remains) a fandom (so to speak) where the far-right recruited and around which factional loyalties were expected. However, over the years, the sport managed to rehabilitate its image, brining in more middle-class fans and broadening the fan base beyond male fans. By the 1990s, more women followed football in the UK and there was a renewed and wider interest.
That broadening only made things worse for me. Football was everywhere (or so it seemed) and conversation would turn more frequently to football and basic social glue required knowing who David Beckham was and what was happening in the Premier League and so on and so on.
Weirdly, this is less of an issue in Australia, a nation far more sports obsessed and far more caught up in confusing sporting achievement with patriotism. The difference antipodally is no one sport is king. In England, football has a special place and it is why I think I have a deeper and better reason to hate football.
As far as England or the wider UK competing for things, I’m normally happy when it wins. Eurovision Song Contest? I think the country is poorly treated by the votes. England wins the Ashes? Good for them (although I may say that quietly around Australians). Rugby Union? Hoorah, well done and all the rest. But football and the World Cup in particular? No, England as a nation, has a problem.
The problem is not just that it England’s fortune in the World Cup are too tied to perceived national pride but also a deep seated belief that the game itself *belongs* to England. It’s riven through the talk of English football on a world stage – almost absurdly as cricket and Rugby are in many ways more closely tied to Englishness – the Anglosphere countries are not great soccer nations *aside* from England. English colonialism spread cricket more than it spread football.
But somehow English patriotism and football have become entwined in a particular way and it is an association that seems incapable of escaping the nastier side of English patriotism. Amid the happiness at doing well is that notion that England is not just trying to win something but trying to win BACK something. That idea always carries with it a sense that the something was unjustly taken (because if it is ours and somebody else has it then it must have been stolen). If it was unjustly taken then it must have been because of a national failure of will or spirit or something, as well as the nefarious actions of the foreigners.
England as a nation still doesn’t know how to just be.
I get why many on the left love football. I get the urge to take back the culture of the sport from the right. I get its deep roots as an expression of English working class city culture (although, the smaller industrial towns of the North where historically more enclaves of Rugby League than football, hence the transported obsession with Rugby League in New South Wales also). Yet, the emotional highs and lows of English football on the world stage are never healthy, precisely because it can’t escape the problem that England doesn’t have a way to be positive in its nationalism.
So, I’m sad that people are sad but in the end that happiness that was lost will serve Croatia better than it will England.
I’ll continue to scowl from my mountain top.
*[“Soccer” is a perfectly reasonable thing to call the sport and don’t let English people tell you otherwise. It is itself an Englishism to distinguish association football from other codes of football such as the various Rugbies.]