An English football fan supports their team beyond their country. This has been noted by players too, but often, in the margins, as though it were something to be ashamed of. That somehow, in the passion most nations inspire in their footballing masses, rarely matched by clubs, shrunk down by their locality and structure, the English are embarrassed because this relationship is so reversed. But it is the historical and cultural realities of the island, that we have always prized the small over the large, the visible over the imagined, the individual over the collective, the choice before duty.
England has always known that its patriotism is stupid. Our vanity has, of course, been as considerable as any other nations, if not more so, given the context of our ownership of a third of the world less than a century ago. But within the English character has always been hesitancy, embarrassment, a suspicion of unqualified self-celebration. Wherever one might find, traditionally, histrionic British conceit, one will also find an awkward reserve, at the very least, if not out and out national self-doubt. But now without a purpose for that plastic kind of pride, it has become a novelty which might be glimpsed only in one arena. The little war that has usurped the big. Football. And precisely because this transference has been so obvious, so comic, it has become all too obvious that English football is often loved when not played by English footballers.
It is our formative years which define our relationship to football. Whether it’s the prosaic fact of where we happen to have been born, the region and its culture, or where we grow into maturity, or where our parents originate, it is the environment of our childhood that becomes our team. Nick Hornby’s saccharin nostalgia encapsulates this passion. Those who take no interest in football now were inevitably exempt from participation as children. The offspring of artsy parents or the bourgeois. And our childhood is the only time when we are immersed in a place and its culture without agency, it is a time when we take our surroundings to be innate, immovable, a complete universe unto itself. This feeling, a pining and a longing for the security of this uncritical reality - this benevolent environment, this womb – was what we once conflated with national pride, as a feeling, as something separate from patriotism or pride of place. But this has been replaced with something more local, more territorial, more tribal. It has shrunk down, from a god, from a nation, from a monarch, from a region, from a city even, down to a tribe. A team.
And I have one. I am not being naïve. I know I am an Everton supporter. From birth to death. Without the remotest possibility of change. In fair and foul weather. I am an Everton supporter. There was a time when my willingness to lend myself to work, to that which I should be doing, supposedly, beyond my own understanding and desire – work as in homework – was entirely dependent upon Everton winning. As Everton were not a consistently winning team, so my academic performance suffered. Teenage years spent waiting, on Saturday afternoons, for the match, for the radio to disappoint me. Then sulking, feeling the obvious consequence of such a distress being that I would deny my obligation, do nothing more that day, the Sabbath, refusing the move a hand towards productivity. But within the universe of meaning, of justice, that was correct. My father was an Everton supporter. My grandfather. I grew up on the team, in a Liverpudlian family.
I have always been an Everton fan while not particularly being an England supporter. Not only because of my refusal of much of what is considered Englishness. That is the best of Englishness, to be contrary, quietly, politely, to refuse the noise of superiority. No, rather because Everton was a team that I might conceive of as a home, where those I love are. Not a home I lived in, but one powerful for being distant. The home of my family. And this taught me that my country was not my home, and the football team that was made up of those who happened to share my nation was not my own, for this simple collective nationality. It was a grouping of individuals that proved out something I suspected, that my country, in its post-enlightenment modern guise, has always fronted its pride precisely because it had such a fluid, and often mythical, relationship to itself. In footballing terms, in allegiance, Everton was my people, England was not. England contained players from Manchester United, whom I despised. It seemed a vanity project to me, temporary, fake and beige. Whether they won or lost, England was always middling, boring. Everton’s victories could bring me to tears, their defeats render me inert. The pubs packed full of fools bedecked in St George’s crosses during the 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006 world cups confused my childish mind. I felt they were betraying their teams.
It seems this sentiment was shared by the players. The golden generation – Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Rio Ferdinand – they recently spoke openly about how tense the English football team was during international fixtures. They barely spoke, cold, distant, without unity or camaraderie. All because they felt such personal loyalty to their clubs and their fans. They confessed it felt wrong to be friendly with players whom they would compete so viciously against the following week in the Premier League. And they all admitted too, their colleagues at their clubs from different nations would feel the opposite way, that they couldn’t wait to get back to their national teams, the pride of playing for Brazil, Spain, Germany, overwhelming any sense of team loyalty. What is different then, in England, that these working-class men, multimillionaires but far from introspective or intellectual, would feel instinctively that England was lesser than Manchester, Liverpool, London, and that each club was more than that city? The English have always had a suspicion of national pride.
Perhaps I am able to know this so clearly because my childhood was spent in Devon, in South West England, though I was born elsewhere, and my parents are from elsewhere, and their parents are from someone else in turn, which is a very comfortable place. So comfortable in fact that it might be described as milquetoast, bland. We had no tribes, no internecine rivalries. We were afforded a distance where a passion for football seemed untoward beyond casually following along, with a powerful personal relationship the team, but not much else to carry one through. Perhaps it is, in this environment, that for some, the obsession with football is entirely so because it is collective and communal. Without going amongst 50000 others each week, screaming and yelling and crying in unison, without drinking oneself half blind in a pub full of your fellows half-watching a match, well why follow football at all? For us, it was the individual relationship to chance, to the vagaries of your team and their fate that made up the reason why. Perhaps, with its lack of distinct cultural features, aside from a mild constancy of behaviour and vague, whispy, Church-of-England morals, it has allowed me to see other people’s obsessive pride about their nation’s football team as ridiculous. Far be it from me to point out that being proud of one’s home country or region is the equivalent of being proud of one’s height. Whereas taking on the support of your family’s team or your own team of choice is something more immediate.
Where does this leave the world cup in England? As something less important than it is elsewhere. Sure there are many who would disagree with me, point to the English fans abroad, thinking they are patriotic and not simply seeking an excuse to crusade. But I can assure you, that no one in England believes we will win the world cup, and whether it’s our culture, our history, our self-effacement, our embarrassment or own lack of ability, no one really cares that we won’t. We’d like to do well, that’d be nice, but what is more important, less grand, less obviously arbitrary, is that our team, our home, our family, does well, next year, in the coming season, when the holidays have finished.