Amongst all the English football fans who I know, there is little or no love shown toward the national team. This ranges from outright antipathy to studied indifference, but essentially no one is showing much interest let alone enthusiasm as England take the centre stage again for friendlies against Spain and Sweden. In a nation that professes to love the sport, this seems a little odd and warrants some examination.
I think the most cited reason for England’s unpopularity is that the team is full of wretched human beings whom you wouldn’t want to associate with under any circumstances. Whilst this may be true to an extent, it is an argument that can’t stand much scrutiny as it is rife with hypocrisy. All Arsenal fans will tell you that their greatest ever captain was Tony Adams, he was an alcoholic who went to prison for drink driving. Liverpool fans will speak adoringly of Luis Suarez, a man who has bitten an opponent on the field of play, cheats constantly and is now embroiled in a race row. There will be a myriad of similar examples from any club which you wish to name. Clearly football fans will forgive and forget pretty much anything (when it suits them) to get behind their man and their team.
Injuries to players whilst playing for England are a source of discontent for some fans, but these days almost every top level team has players from all over the globe representing a huge variety of international sides. The England team can’t be singled out in this regard. You might want to engage in a wider debate about the merits of international football, but I don’t have time right now.
Perhaps there is a notion in this country that showing support for the England football team will mark you as a dilettante in your club supporting duties. Yes, it is the always tedious Club vs Country debate. However, as far as I know, England have never played Manchester United or Arsenal and they don’t participate in any of the same competitions as Liverpool or Chelsea. There is no mutual exclusivity here, so this is a non starter of an argument.
I will have to admit that the fact that England have been stubbornly mediocre for such a very very long time can grind down even the most optimistic person. However up and down the land dozens and dozens of mediocre teams are supported ardently and all the giants of English club football have had their fallow periods without mass disillusionment setting in, so I don’t think this can explain the unpopularity of the national team either.
I think the problem comes down to something beyond football altogether and it has to do with national identity. I am not sure that the English are very comfortable in proclaiming their Englishness and this is especially true now when some of the symbols of the country have been co-opted by the nationalist far right. When some of the same symbols turn up in the sporting arena of a football match, then perhaps this produces an association in the brain that some people start to recoil against. This is not a problem in rugby or cricket where everything is far more polite and you only ever play the same small coterie of mainly English speaking nations.
I have been to dozens of Englandmatches at home and around the world. In the grounds and in the towns I have very occasionally seen things that have made me depressed and scared. I have heard things that have made me uncomfortable, but more often I have heard things that have made me laugh. Occasionally I have seen and heard things that have made me proud. This to me seems like a good representation of the country and as such makes the national team worthy of support, even if you don’t want to align yourself with all the elements of the national identity.
by Nilesh Bhagat