I remember the first time I watched a live football match. It was June 21st, 2002. I was nine years old and the whole school had gathered in the assembly hall to watch England play Brazil in the World Cup quarterfinals. I don’t remember anything from the actual game itself. At the time I wasn’t interested football. But I do have a vivid memory of the occasion, particularly the aftermath. Brazil beat England 2-1, and I can recall the moment the teachers led each group of students back to their classrooms. As we neared the door, I became aware that of a friend of mine was crying.
“No Scotland, no Wales, no Northern Ireland, and now this!” he exclaimed. Another kid proudly announced that he was now a Brazil fan. The memory ends there. It’s interesting to me that my earliest recollections of football are along identarian lines. That anecdote alone is telling of how football can mean different things to different people. It’s also a neat insight into how the four subdivisions of the United Kingdom don’t necessarily all hate each other. People have different ideas about their cultural identity, the same way they have different approaches to football.
My own relationship with both has changed quite a lot down the years. Fast-forward to the next World Cup, Germany 2006, and I’m watching every game religiously. It’s the World Cup I remember the most vividly, and I think that’s in no small part due to the fact that it was the only time I’ve ever felt like a genuine England fan. When Peter Crouch did the Robot dance, I thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. When Joe Cole scored that long-range volley against Sweden I leapt for joy. When the TV cameras caught Cristiano Ronaldo winking at the bench after getting Wayne Rooney sent off, I cursed his name forever. And, when England ended up crashing out on penalties, I was so upset I had to be consoled by my dad and my grandfather, who told me to get used to this kind of disappointment. The way they spoke about it made me feel like I was undergoing some sort of rite of passage.
But as much as it felt like I was being inducted into something, my England fandom stopped there. My interest in football continued to grow, but as the years went by, I felt less and less affinity for the national team. I’m not sure exactly where it started or what might have triggered it, but that’s what happened. By the time the next World Cup rolled around- South Africa 2010- the event in general seemed to have lost the magic it once had. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but the whole thing just felt different. The same held true for Brazil 2014 and Russia 2018, as well as all the intervening European Championships. Even though I watched all the games, they made almost no impression on my memory. More than anything, I felt detached when I watched England play. I didn’t cheer when they scored and I didn’t feel sad when they conceded. I treated the whole occasion as an amusing sideshow to club football, which in contrast I followed with passionate intensity.
The first time I really thought of myself in terms of my national or cultural identity was in the fall of 2012, when I spent a semester in the United States as an exchange student. Whether you like it or not, you’re an ambassador for your country when you travel abroad. For the first time in my life, the people around me were thinking of me in the context of my nationality. People formed their impressions of “Britishness” or “Englishness” based on my behavior. For example, I was going through this phase at the time where I didn’t wear denim. I guess I was trying to define myself in opposition to everything around me, so I went around in chinos and tucked-in button-downs. My new American friends reacted with incredulity and said things like “If you were in America, that would be considered, like, super preppy.”
One time someone asked why I dressed so formally, and one of my American friends said to them in a knowing voice “That’s normal in England.”
The thing is, it isn’t. Jeans are pretty universal in the United Kingdom too. But you can see what I mean about extrapolating generalizations of a culture based on its representatives. I did the same with the Americans I met, as well as the group of Malaysians I hung around with. It’s pretty natural. And the longer you know someone, the less you think of them in the context of their culture as their unique quirks begin to emerge. I met a girl from Mongolia and asked her about Genghis Khan. I met a girl from Ukraine and asked her about Andriy Shevchenko. Those were my points of reference. They indulged me politely, but I think neither of them were interested in those cultural icons. In turn, I got a lot of questions about the Queen, about tea and scones, and about football.
My answers surprised and sometimes shocked people. I was strictly anti-monarchy and wanted a republic. I didn’t drink tea. I didn’t like The Beatles. I wasn’t familiar with Monty Python. I didn’t banter about the American War of Independence because I supported it. I didn’t drink beer. The only superficial detail I lived up to was the fact that I loved football- and even then I left people scratching their heads because I accepted and sometimes used the word “soccer” as a valid alternative.
While I enjoyed the questions and interest regarding my home country, I really didn’t like the idea that my identity as a person was attached to it. With every fiber of my being, I wanted to sever myself from the United Kingdom. I’m not sure where that came from. I remember in my late teens coming across the following quote from Diogenes “I am a citizen of the world,” which deeply resonated with me, but I wouldn’t say any one moment or event changed me. And while I may not have lived up to popular British stereotypes on a superficial level, my student exchange taught me how embedded my culture was in my personality. I was reserved, I apologized profusely, I believed it was impolite to talk about yourself, I was cynical, I was dry and deadpan, I loved gallows humor, I tried to avoid causing a fuss at all costs, and I suppressed my emotions like it was going out of style. All this was reflected back at me for the first time, simply by being around people from other cultures.
When my new friends asked me to sing “God Save the Queen,” they were confused when I said I’d rather slit my own throat. Most people I met expected me to be proud of my country and banter with them on patriotic lines. So I went back home with this new dialogue in my head that wasn’t there before. I started to reflect on my identity as it related to place. I asked myself if it even needed to be tethered to something other than myself. For a while I started to emphasize my Welshness. When people asked, I was always “half-Welsh” and never “half-English”. When international football came around, I rooted for Wales, mostly because it felt like you had to have a team that you identified with. But after a while my Welshness felt kinda fake. While it’s true that I’ve got that Welsh blood in me, I can’t say that I feel authentically Welsh in any way. I don’t speak the language, I’ve never lived there, and I don’t really know what the Welsh experience entails to be honest. Don’t get me wrong, if they ever declare independence I’ll be seeking citizenship in a heartbeat. But truthfully, adopting a Welsh persona wouldn’t solve my identity crisis.
As much as some folks like to think that we’re all divided into distinct people-groups, that there’s a clear boundary between English and Welsh or British and French, the fact is that none of these things exist in objective reality. Nationalism is a modern concept, and aside from engendering hatred and violence, it’s completely antithetical to what history tells us. The idea that history has been defined by these timeless, enduring conflicts between homogenous people-groups simply isn’t true. No modern nation-state belongs to a homogenous group that’s remained untouched by migration, conquest, or meaningful cultural exchange. We’re a diverse mixture- especially here in the United Kingdom. The clue’s in the name. We’re a coalition of states, each of which are melting pots in their own right. England itself is named for a tribe that weren’t native to this island. It literally translates to “Land of the Angles”. The Angles came from what is now Denmark, and integrated with the people that were already here and the others that were also showing up. No one alive now has any meaningful connection to them. Just like the many other tribes and cultures that settled in this island, the Angles at some point ceased to become a distinct people. They didn’t disappear, they just contributed to the broth like everyone else, enduring in small details such as the Germanic base of our language. All this is to say that Englishness (just like Americanness) doesn’t exist. It can’t be empirically proven, measured, or falsified. Englishness is just a story that we tell ourselves.
But what’s this got to do with football? Well, it depends who you ask. When the Euros started this year, I followed the games with my usual detached amusement, enjoying them but not getting emotionally invested. I felt like a neutral, which I then realized was strange considering I’m from England and I love football. The dialogue started up in my head again, and I reasoned that perhaps I didn’t want to be associated with Englishness because I didn’t want to be associated with the Queen, the anthem, the Empire, and the St. George’s Flag. But then I realized that it’s not about those things for everyone. There is, however, a sect of people that want it to be tied inextricably to jingoistic nationalism. They see themselves as the gatekeepers of football. They don’t want to share the game with women, politics, foreigners, or the LGBTQ community. If you don’t fit the bill, you’re not a “true” football fan. I remember from my school days how girls who played football were explained as “tomboys” and treated as anomalies. Girls that expressed opinions on football were patronizingly dismissed as fake. There’s the tired old trope of men explaining to their wives what the offside rule means. Fans that aren’t white or don’t speak English are deemed “plastics”, “tourists”, “bandwagoners”, and other less-charitable names. They’re questioned if they’ve ever been to the stadium or if they can find it on a map. The gatekeepers have always been there, and the overriding sentiment has always been the same: this is our space, not yours. They blame political correctness for what they see as the changing landscape of football. They feel like they’re being replaced- the same way that a sect of white male gamers feel like they’re being replaced when the industry tries to be more inclusive. It’s ours, you can’t have it. And so, in order to preserve the homogeneity of their perceived space, they lash out via sexist, racist, and queerphobic abuse to discourage others from taking part.
The gatekeepers therefore stand out. They stand out because they’re trying to stand out, to make the most noise, to claim their territory and drive away others. When you picture England fans you picture the thugs booing the team for making an antiracist statement. That’s the image that endures, that’s being projected to watchers around the world, who will quite naturally make generalizations that include the rest of us. These fans are more than “a few bad apples”. They’re a symptom of a cycle of toxic masculinity and systemic racism. But ultimately they only represent English football if we let them. And at the moment we’re not doing enough as a society to rehabilitate and reform this particular demographic. But there are more than enough of us to do so, and help democratize football culture in this country. There are plenty of fans for whom enjoying the England football team has nothing to do with nationalism. It can be as uncomplicated as simply enjoying the sport for what it is.
That’s basically my dad. He’s a lifelong follower of the England football team and I’ve felt a little bad for not being able to match his excitement when I watch the games with him. Like me, he wouldn’t be caught dead singing the national anthem or wearing the colors, but unlike me he still gets emotionally-invested in the team. And when you look at the team itself, there is a lot to take pride in. This is a diverse group of players who took a stand against racism and didn’t allow the political right to bully them. They offer an alternative view of what this country could be, in stark contrast to the one that the gatekeepers are trying to project.
That’s what I’ll remember when I look back on this year’s Euros. A team that were told by people intent on upholding an unequal status quo that they were being “divisive” for promoting racial equality. They were told to “keep politics out of sports”, much as NBA players were told to “shut up and dribble”, which is revealing of a longstanding mindset whereby black people are celebrated for their talent so long as they don’t acknowledge their own blackness. I feel like I’ve seen the best and the worst of this country in the past 24 hours.
When I woke up this morning, I wasn’t sure exactly what this post would be. But I knew that I had to write it, and that I had to write it now. Perhaps more than anything I wanted to demonstrate my appreciation for this current England team as individuals, despite the fact that I can’t really call myself a fan. A lot of that comes down to my antipatriotic beliefs and cosmopolitan worldview, and my struggle to reconcile those things with something represented by English iconography. But the inspiring nature of Southgate and his players has made me question my stance. One thing this year’s European Championship made me realize was that people engage with international football in different ways. For some it is about nationalism. But for others it can be about a progressive brand of patriotism. There are people like my dad, who just root for the players as a football team and that’s it. There are people like me, who enjoy the sport but don’t root for any team in particular. And there are many more who care little for the sport itself, but simply enjoy the occasion and all its excitement.