The 1970s Liverpool football manager Bill Shankly once quipped that “some people think football is a matter of life and death.” Shankly then joked that “it is much more serious than that”. England’s performance in the Euro 2020 has been an insight into the importance of football well beyond what happens on the pitch, and also reveals the differences between patriotism and nationalism. In a previous international competition when Scotland had been knocked out and their old rivals England were still competing, I wrote in a newspaper that I was more than happy to support England.
I suggested to my Scottish compatriots the they should consider doing the same. The response from readers to this idea was – shall we say – “mixed.” By “mixed” I mean it ranged from hostile to extremely hostile. One polite, but firm rejection came from a gentleman who wrote: “I would rather support Satan and all his minions, gloriously arrayed, than any England football team. I am not particularly proud of this. It is just the way I am.”
But this current England team have been – for me at least – easy to support since Scotland (yet again) were knocked out of the European championship. These 2021 England players are talented, the matches exciting and the conduct of the young footballers and their inspirational manager Gareth Southgate impeccable. The team’s patriotism is positive. It is about “us,” in this case about England as a great country and a place to be proud of. The England team taking the knee as a gesture against racism was also about “us,” the diverse community that is England, reflected in the faces of the team, many of them from migrant backgrounds.
But nationalism, in its more toxic shades, is also strongly in evidence among a minority of England fans. Toxic nationalism is always about “them,” a negative view of foreigners or other people, and a need to find “enemies”. England supporters blaming black players for their defeat by Italy isn’t about football. It’s simply racism.
Some England fans expressed their toxic nationalism by booing the German and Danish national anthems. They even booed their own team for taking the knee. This symbolic anti-racist protest was criticised by Prime Minister Boris Johnson as a mere “gesture”. Yet as soon as England began to win, Mr Johnson and his colleagues immediately reversed themselves. They embraced a new public pose as ardent football supporters, including the prime minister suddenly appearing for the cameras waving England shirts and flags.
Tens of millions of British people have watched England’s performances, and the differences between good patriotism and toxic nationalism should be obvious. On the pitch the England team have competed ferociously for their country but always ended by warmly commiserating or in the final congratulating their opponents. The team show love for their country by demonstrating the positive side of patriotism, while some boorish groups of England fans continue to be only embarrassingly negative and destructive.
Their toxic nationalism is a powerful acid which corrodes the human containers in which it exists. And while some politicians are and always have been genuine football fans the posturing of others shows some in the political class to be embarrassingly out of touch with football culture. Boris Johnson turned up for the England-Denmark game wearing a replica England shirt, but it was under his formal business suit, in a style unknown among genuine fans. His repeated photogenic stunts with England flags were somewhat undermined by other photographs of him yawning while actually watching England play, or perched sitting on the edge of a Downing Street table, a pose no fan would tolerate for 90 minutes.
Another government minister, Priti Patel, also posed for photographs cheering on the team, but unfortunately she is the co-author of a book lambasting British working people as lazy and work-shy because (in her view) they prefer watching football to actually working.
Another Conservative politician, Lee Anderson, was so incensed at the England team taking the knee that he insisted he would never watch any of their matches. This English politician therefore ruled himself out of seeing some of the greatest England sporting performances most of us can remember. The acid of nationalism, it seems, corrodes good judgement and common sense.
My hero of the tournament is a 24-year-old England fan, Sam Astley. Sam’s girlfriend Beth Hill won tickets to the semi final at Wembley, but Sam had offered to donate stem cells in a hospital operation in the hope of saving someone’s life. Sam therefore chose to miss the semi-final. The tournament sponsors stepped in and offered Sam and Beth tickets for the final between England and Italy. I salute Sam, the sponsors, the players and all those who see sport as something in which we can compete as passionately as possible, but which in the end should bring us together.
For Sam, football was not as important as life or death. And football which can give space to some of the worst behaviour among us, also allows the best to shine – on and off the pitch.