Take away the England football team and what kind of popular representations of England do we have left?
Historian Eric Hobsbawm made an observation that is never more relevant than when applied to us Englishmen: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”
But what we mean by “real” is a contest: for some, it’s Marcus Rashford, Tyrone Mings, or Raheem Sterling; for others, it is booing them and their companions kneeling; for some more, they are probably parts of both.
What a wonderful experience, following your nation to another country, watching a soccer game, being part, not being apart, of a great continental party.
For 16 years, from Euro 96 in England to Euro 2012 in Ukraine, I was part of that community. In Japan and South Africa, in the away playoffs from Finland to Kazakhstan as well. And it was a community made up of all kinds of people, hugely committed to traveling around the world for our team, in large numbers, and most of all, he was proud to be a part of it.
There is a well-deserved authenticity when it comes to being a traveling hobbyist from England. As a result, I have been reluctant to comment, as angry as I am, about fans booing players who kneel. Parental responsibilities put an end to all my travels in England. Today, like most fans, I am reducing myself to watching television, but I wish I was there. So last week I wasn’t in the stands, in the middle of it, definitely feeling absolutely grossed out by the boos. But finally frustration convinced me to speak up.
I remember an away game against Italy in 1997. A close 0-0 draw that brought us qualification for the World Cup. And in the middle of all of this, just across one extreme was a huge Italian tricolor made up of thousands of cards held up by his fans. That is what I call a symbol of the fan nation, one that belongs to all: we are the ones who create the show; not the officials, sponsors or announcers. And so, with the support of the FA, Raise the Flag was born. We fans produced our own cards, placed them on the seats before each game, so that the whole crowd could hold them up to form a single, huge Cross of St. George when God save the queen began. It was a fantastic symbol for the fans, the team and the nation who saw it at home. We made it happen in every England home game. Anarchic and uncontrolled, the risks involved in the departure terrified the FA, but we made it our flag.
But at home tournaments (France 1998, Euro 2000) the problem persisted, with England being the least welcome guest at the World Cup and Euro party. For Euro 2000, the FA launched a campaign that I came up with with a slogan, “Soccer Yes – Violence No”. Honestly, he couldn’t have been more wrong – wallowing in guilt before proving his innocence – he could never appeal to the vast majority of fans, and he didn’t.
Instead, what was needed was a conversation in which fans were treated as equal partners in creating this English backdrop for each tournament. A conversation that began, I quickly realized, with an acknowledgment of who the fans viewed as the enemy: first, our FA; second, all means; third, the police of the other country.
So I helped start, and then organize, LondonEnglandFans forums before every trip or tournament, in a pub room packed with traveling fans. Those who we had blamed for all our evils came, and those who blamed us for all theirs: the FA, the media and the police. We had a conversation and in each forum that I chaired we ended up understanding each other a little more. Sometimes we still disagreed, but simply listening to each other was absolutely the right thing to do.
As fans, we were fully and actively participating in this process of change rather than just being told what to do. And with the sports media covering us, that London pub room provided a dialogue that thousands upon thousands of traveling England fans could see was having a beneficial impact on all of us.
Japan ’02 marked another massive change. Getting off the plane and finding ourselves surrounded by Japanese citizens, almost all of them wearing England shirts and wanting to party with us, was a new experience. Used to assuming that everyone else hated the English, how much more pleasant to discover what it was like to be loved. Could this be true elsewhere? Wouldn’t it be worth finding out?
And so another idea came up: the amateur games, the fans representing England on a field. It was the dream of every fan. Also, with the help of the British Council, we would visit schools to take English conversation classes with fans from England. Always ending, naturally, with a soccer contest. The most moving thing is that throughout Europe we would lay wreaths in the places that marked the horror of a divided continent: in the monuments to those who had lost their lives, in Auschwitz and Dachau as well. In these different ways the fans They were reinventing what estrangement from England could mean.
Of course, like those who boo the knee, we were never in the majority; most of the fans are there for a soccer game, period. But ours was something positive that a lot of people could be proud of, and they were. And it fits with what we should think about football.
It is an excuse to say that kneeling is not political. Of course it is, everything in an England game is political, in the broadest sense, starting with why England not Team Great Britain? If that’s not political, what is?
The question is that nice politics: an open, welcoming and friendly English; Or a closed, hostile and hateful one? In answering that question, if fans aren’t part of the search for the answer, however risky that endeavor may be, it will never be found.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism