If you reading this blog from another planet, you may be unaware that the English football team is preparing to take on Italy in the Euro finals. The rest of you will not need telling. As England have progressed through the tournament however, I have had cause to re-examine my relationship with the country of my birth, and football, especially as far as the national team is concerned.
Football was important when I went to secondary school in Coventry in the early 1980s, but as an active sport this only applied to the fifteen out of about one hundred in our year deemed good enough to be picked for the team. Every other boy was ignored, or left to their own devices. There was no rugby or cricket team and little other organised sports at all. So apart from the few active players, football was mostly a spectator sport, but the real fans, i.e. those that actually went to – at least those of my contemporaries – were hooligans who went in the hope of casual and mindless violence, showing off their scars and bruises like trophies on Monday morning. Conversations were about the fights, not the games.
Leaving school for Liverpool Polytechnic was a liberation and an education: the liberation was the freedom to spend time in bars and nightclubs, and the education was in life, and in football. I started going to games at Anfield regularly and became a real fan for the first time, talking and reading about football as well as watching it. I was fortunate not to be at Hillsborough, and unfortunate to be at the last game of the 1988/89 season where Arsenal beat Liverpool in the last minutes to win the League on goal difference.
I played football in Liverpool too: five-a-side mostly, and other knockabouts, and for the first time developed enough ball skills so as not to be laughed off the pitch immediately. But this was Liverpool: the city is immersed totally in football, in such a way that is hard to explain to those who haven’t lived there. One of my friends there – a crown court judge – was respected not only because he was a season ticket holder but also a shareholder in Liverpool Football Club. He was also fair: he treated Liverpool and Everton fans equally harshly, although I don’t know his record for Manchester United supporters. Justice is – I hope – blind, although not, obviously, in football.
My leaving Liverpool for London in 1997 coincided with the gradual cosmopolitanisation of football. These were the first years of the Premier League, after the Bosman ruling, with Arsène Wenger breathing new life into the ossified, hard drinking culture of English football clubs. I played five-a-side weekly with colleagues and friends, and football was no longer looked down on by my public school educated colleagues, as the danger of being punched in the face by a random stranger was effectively eradicated at football games, both on and off the pitch. We could all have an opinion about football without having played the game seriously in the past, in fact many were free from any knowledge of football at all.
Supporting the English team however, was another matter. England games were to be watched on television, not to actually go to. Until relatively recently it involved mixing with the more unspeakable elements of club football: racist, misogynist, hard drinking, violent, and mind-numbingly stupid. Being an England fan then, especially those that went to games abroad, meant joining an overseas expedition in xenophobic drunken violence. I do not mean that this was true of all England fans, but there was a significant and sizeable minority, although I am glad to note that apparently this is not true today.
English football has become cosmopolitan. It took the national team a long time to catch up with what was happening in the Premier League, but at times during this present tournament I have felt that I was not watching England at all. The old ‘hoof it and hope’ style, where blood and thunder where the highest attributes of the game, has disappeared. England has learnt from the influx of foreigners: economic migrants, skilled certainly, both players and managers, who have brought new ideas, lifestyles and attitudes to ‘our’ game. That the fruits of this are now being realised in the first full year of Brexit is ironic, especially considering what Brexit meant to so many of those that voted for it.
Gareth Southgate, the manager, has allowed his team to take the knee against racism – booed by some of their own supporters, silenced by the applause of the majority – recognising not only that many of the team are not white, but have suffered abuse themselves. They also support LGBT rights; how far these all seems from the macho racist and homophobic banter of my youth. And all this in the teeth of anti-wokeism that seems to dominate what passes as cultural debate in the UK at present, at least of what I read. This is a team, both in terms of the football style and the attitude of its managerial staff and players, that seems to represent an England that I am unfamiliar with, and are all the better for it.
But strangely enough this does not make me feel more patriotic or more English. I really like the way the England team play at the moment, but I’m not sure they are really ‘my team.’ I’m not even sure that England is still my country.
I have lived out of the UK for twelve out of the last thirteen years, and due to COVID I haven’t been to the UK at all since November 2019. Brexit has made me feel increasingly alienated from the UK. I have always described myself as British, not English, but it seems that a union of any sort is unfashionable in Great Britain these days. But I don’t really know, because I don’t live there. Of course, if you move away from the daily life of the country you come from, you may end up finding it difficult to understand when you finally go back.
But don’t we all have to come from somewhere? Where are you from? We all need to answer that question don’t we? Practically this is true. We need to have a passport, we need to be identified, we need to have citizenship before we have freedom to travel; before we expand our horizons we have to tether them.
But belonging? Where do I belong? I was born in Coventry, moved to Liverpool, then London, and have finally put my roots down in Athens. Where am I from? All of the above. Where do I belong? Nowhere.
Does it really matter? Probably not. Who do I want to win on Sunday? England.
Moving around Greece, I certainly don’t like being identified with the drunken and foulmouthed, or with the rude and snobbish, or basically any other of my compatriots that embarrass me because they happen to be born in the same country I was. I don’t want other people to think that just because I am British I am like them. But this is probably my problem, not theirs. As anyone who has lived and worked abroad for any period of time will know, travel broadens the mind – if you are lucky – but it is very difficult to narrow it down again.
Identity, for this is what we are talking about, is personal, and changes, and develops. For those of you who are solid in your identity, and know where you come from, and are happy with it, then I envy you. For those that aren’t, then tell me, and we can sit down together and enjoy each other’s company, with French wine and Italian food – or vice versa – under the Athenian stars and tell each other stories of our journeys and experiences, and laugh, and cry, and learn, and grow. Because like most things in life, and in lives, and like the football that I hope England will be playing on Sunday, and like identity itself, everything flows.