My cross to bear: what it means to support England in these divided times | Jonathan Liew
It’s the morning after my wedding. I’m sitting down to brunch with some friends of the family. While we’re waiting for the food to arrive, I pull out my phone and browse the latest sport headlines. “Oh look,” I announce to nobody in particular. “We won the Under-20 World Cup last night.” At this, my sister-in-law’s boyfriend narrows his eyes accusingly. “Who’s we?” “England,” I respond. He looks at me like I’ve just sprinkled salt on my cornflakes. “Huh,” he says eventually. “‘We’. That’s interesting.”
I support England. England is by many objective measures a terrible country ruled by terrible people with a terrible past and a terrifying future, and I support England. None of my forebears were born in England, and I support England. When I watch the news or follow England games abroad or read about politics I often feel utterly disconnected from this country, and I support England. It was an Englishman who snarled at me on the street last month while I was taking my daughter to nursery: “Fuck off Chinaman, and take your Covid patient with you.” Nevertheless, I support England.
I’d like to tell you that I support England as an act of progressive defiance, as a means of reclaiming the cursed red-and-white flag from the reactionaries and the hooligans and the white supremacists. But this would be twisting facts to suit a narrative. The truth is I support England because I’ve known nothing else. I support England because I loved Gazza and Teddy Sheringham, because Ronald Koeman should have been sent off for fouling David Platt in 1993, because of Jonathan Pearce’s commentary on the France ‘98 version of Three Lions. I support England because it’s what you did, because supporting England has given me some of the greatest happiness I’ve ever known.
For a long time it was possible to do all this while largely ignoring, you know, the other stuff. Everyone knew it was there. But when England fans rioted in Sardinia or Dublin, or when they smashed up some charming foreign cafe, or when we were shown grainy news footage of shirtless men getting blasted with giant water cannon, it was possible to point to them and say: those people do not represent us. Those people are a tiny fraction of the whole, the lunatic fringe. Everyone seemed to know the difference between patriotism and nationalism, and only one of them involved throwing chairs and singing about the IRA.
Meanwhile, in line with the nation as a whole, the traditional England fanbase was slowly changing. It was becoming more gender-diverse and ethnically diverse than many club fanbases. During the 2000s it even began to provide an appealing point of contrast with the aloof, entitled squad of players representing them. As recently as 2014 it was possible for the historian David Goldblatt to describe the England fanbase as a “boisterous, globe-trotting love-fest”, a “more attractive reimagining of the stateless nation than its commercial football or the national team”.
Brexit did not create English nationalism, nor did it invent the divisions in English society that were so effortlessly exposed by the referendum and its fallout. But it certainly demolished the myth of the lunatic fringe. When England fans at Euro 2016 started singing: “Fuck off Europe, we all voted out”, it was harder to write them off as a tiny unrepresentative sample when 53% of the country (slightly higher than the UK as a whole) had essentially just agreed with them.
And so, on the eve of another international men’s football tournament, the first to be held in England for a quarter of a century, the question of what it means to support England has never been more fiercely contested. When England players knelt to protest racial injustice before the friendlies against Austria and Romania, they were booed by their own supporters. Thousands more probably disapproved of the gesture but stayed silent.
When the prime minister – a man of such flawless footballing intuition that he once claimed to support “all the London teams” – was invited to condemn them, he refused. Instead, he essentially derided taking the knee, claiming he was “more focused on action rather than gestures”. After mounting pressure, Boris Johnson did finally come out in support of England players taking the knee at the G7 summit on Friday, with a spokesman saying he “respects” all peaceful protest in regards to social injustices.
It was easy enough to ignore the far-right’s influence on English football when it was a few beery troublemakers in ill-fitting shorts. It was easy to ignore their puerile xenophobic politics when it felt so utterly divorced from the lived reality of England at large. But what happens now those people are in the ascendant? What happens now those people constitute mainstream opinion in this country? What happens now those people are in government? Whose team is this, really? And when we refer to the England football team as “we”, who do we think we’re talking about?
One of the myths that has been exploded by British politics over the last decade is the notion that any one person, any one idea, any one cause, can speak for us all. In a much-lauded Players Tribune article earlier this week, Gareth Southgate proudly discussed his England team’s commitment to advocating on matters of equality, inclusivity and racial justice: values that he claimed embodied the nation as a whole. But at the heart of Southgate’s unifying message – one nation, under Gareth – is an essentially flawed logic. You can try to represent “more than 50 million people”, as Southgate put it. Or you can recast the England team as a vessel of social justice. But you can’t do both.
Personally, I find it immensely cheering that Southgate and his team have doubled down on their anti-racism stance despite the best efforts of politicians and the right-wing media to turn it into a distraction. I am encouraged that they refuse to remotely engage with the disingenuous argument that the multi-millionaire Harry Kane is some sort of Marxist sleeper cell. These values and priorities align closely with my own. But you can’t possibly be ignorant of the fact that in doing so they are essentially spurning a significant chunk of the country they purport to represent. (Half? A third? More? Who knows? Who cares?).
Of course, just as Brexit had nothing to do with free trade, the resistance to taking the knee is wrapped up in a complex matrix of often entirely understandable (which is not to say rational or acceptable) fears about the increasing pace of social change in this country. The supermarket is selling something called “meatless burgers”. You can’t say “trannies” any more. There are women on Match of the Day. You hear vague noises about “defunding the police”. You suspect, on some sinister level, that something you love is being taken away from you, little by little by little. And so amid this landscape of shifting plates and cultural norms, you have a choice: you can get with the programme and make the necessary adjustments. Or, alternatively, you can stand your ground and fight.
Call these people what you like: “knuckle-draggers”, “gammon”, “cave dwellers”, “Oliver Dowden”. But it doesn’t stop them existing, and it certainly doesn’t make them any less a constituent of society than you. This is our England team, but it’s also theirs. Perhaps this is why supporting England – and deciding how and why you support England – is a more loaded and political choice than at any point in history.
Insofar as English football is a reflection of English society, you cannot possibly endorse the England football team without tacitly endorsing the society that created it. But perhaps the obverse is also true. Perhaps in aspiring to a better England team, we’re articulating something else too: the hope that England itself can be better, the belief that just as football teams and individuals are capable of change, so too are nations.
If England go deep into this tournament, you will doubtless see and read plenty of sentiment along the lines of how Southgate’s team have “healed a divided country”. And the idea that a football team can unite a nation, particularly in the divine glow of victory, remains a powerful sporting trope. France’s twin World Cup triumphs in 1998 and 2018 – the “Black, Blanc, Beur” sides – were held up by much of the political and media class as triumphs of French diversity. Tangibly, they achieved little more than to make everyone feel very pleased with themselves for a while.
Perhaps, ultimately, this is all football is good for in the end. It presses the buttons that politicians can’t reach. It brings us together like few other spectacles: fleetingly perhaps, illusorily perhaps, but in ways that feel real and profound and cathartic at the time. Perhaps, on reflection, this is all life is good for in the end: the accumulation of pleasant feelings, of experiences that mean something to us.
It’s not true that what unites us is stronger than what divides us. That’s just the sort of horseshit politicians like to say. I am not one of you and you are not one of us. But for this month, for these 90 minutes, for these sunlit days in June and July, let’s pretend we are. Let’s build a house together and watch it fall. Let’s pick apart Southgate’s 3-4-3 and debate the merits of Jack Grealish. Let’s elate and commiserate together. The past is the past and the future is the future. In the meantime, I’ll see you at the game.