World Cup 2014 panel

It’s just too hard to love the England football team

What’s to like? Mike Egerton/PA

As a fan and professional sociologist whose main research interest is football, I spend so much of my time immersed in the sport that I should be excited about the World Cup, I know I should. And in a way I am, because like millions of others I will be tracking every match, the three-a-day slots already booked into my diary long ago. It’s a TV football fest. But the same old nagging question will keep on coming up: why exactly is it so hard for me, an Englishman, to love the England team?

Some reasons are actually not too difficult to find. You see, I routinely attended the World Cups and European Championships involving England in the 1980s and 1990s – the fighting years. It was a miserable experience, like being there when a drunken guy you have some responsibility for stumbles in uninvited to a family celebration and trashes the house before assaulting the host. While the PR departments of FIFA and UEFA trilled on then about the global “football family” and a “festival of football”, on the ground we were far too busy finding plenty of reason to fall out violently with rival supporters, local hard men (actually any suitable foreigners would do) and, if all else failed, the local police.

Same old England?

I was also in Portugal in 2004 and Germany in 2006, by which stage England fans had begun to calm down a little and diversify. There were more women fans present and more England fans drawn from different backgrounds, rather than the usual mono-cultural baseball-hatted, male mobs who were looking for suitable targets.

There is a lot to dislike about “tourist” fans of course – their wearing of appalling England gear, their often lack of basic football knowledge, and their determination to relegate the football to a minor role in a lovely family holiday. But here, at last, was a form of relatively tolerant national affiliation that was a little easier to feel comfortable with. Nevertheless, the memory of those early years is hard to shake.

Then there’s the national anthem, so recently discussed, approvingly, by our great leader Roy Hodgson and vigorously pumped up by the British tabloids. It’s not even the English anthem, but instead a terrible dirge about union, Queen and country. How could I – how could any sane Englishman – possibly identify with that? In fact, I refuse to sing it – like many of the England players.

And talking about Roy leads me to the recent terrible school of England managers. This century we have had a list of truly awful, uninspiring incumbents: from the meat-and-two-veg Howard Wilkinson; to the inert Peter Taylor and charlatan Sven; to the sad guy with the brolly; and the mad authoritarian Italian, Capello. And now we have dear old Roy Hodgson, for whom the term “old school” seems, let’s just say, wildly exotic.

Come on, there is nothing remotely exciting or visionary in this list, at least nothing to make me think that any of them could ever really shape my England. Even now, for all the talk about the “unplayable” Raheem Sterling and the brilliant young scouser Ross Barkley, deep down we all know it will be Milner and Welbeck who get the nod in Brazil. Same old England.

Club and country

But all of these – all good cases in their own right – pale before the real reason why it is so hard for me, and thousands like me, to really love England. It is because our deep football relationships are forged with our clubs and these are slowly built up, sedimented, over long tiring seasons of toil, hardship and occasional triumph. They are also based and honed around hundreds of locally interpreted petty antagonisms and carefully calibrated dislikes and feuds.

Supporting a major club is something which is deeply ingrained, a complex (and expensive) process, not a summer time-out when a few millionaires from bitterly rival camps are thrown together for a supposed national cause, which we all know is riven with internal divisions. It helps of course when players from my club turn out for England – but then they are also playing for lots of other countries in the World Cup. Who to choose?

So you really want me to forget all this? You want me to sing that “German Bombers” song, drone on about “my” Queen, get behind Roy, “our lads” and the British tabloid press, and love Wayne Rooney, at least for a few weeks? You are asking a lot – I quite fancy Uruguay to be honest.

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