Football and the lost Empire.

(WARNING: Contains generalisations, obviously. I'm sure you're a lovely person.)

The WoS Forum over the last few days has been alive with the age-old subject of the tense relations between the nations of the United Kingdom, particularly with regard to international football and the shame regularly brought on England by those who follow it. Last night's game in Euro 2004 reminded your host, however, of the other totally insufferable (to the non-English) aspect of England and football - your commentators. Holland were playing Germany - not in England's group, neither team had met England in qualifying, neither team can meet them in the next round, only four of the 28 players who took any part in the game play for clubs in England - yet this viewer stopped counting by the time we'd got to the 30th reference to England in BBC1's commentary. As a Scotchman who's lived in England for almost a decade and a half now, the situation exercises and saddens your peace-loving correspondent, and it's worth trying to get to the bottom of it.

Last night's football coverage revealed, in obviously a far milder form, the deep-rooted belief that causes the appalling behaviour of English supporters at almost every international football tournament, and lies at the heart of what so many people and nations hate about the English - the absolute conviction that the world revolves around them, and that they're the world's rulers by right. It's that arrogance which is so often inflamed by drink - the songs England fans, even the ones who aren't actually violent yobs, sing when they're pissed tend to be inherently belligerent ones focused on how England is great and foreigners are all shit by comparison ("Rule Britannia", for example, which they'll happily sing even when playing the other nations of Britain, and not meaning it in the communal British sense). Yet those singing them would be outraged at the suggestion that they were cut from the same cloth as the rioting thugs, even as they're belting out that catchy toe-tapper "No Surrender To The IRA", recently heard being sung by thousands of English fans - not just the "tiny handful" usually claimed as being the source of all the trouble - at matches between England and those famously fervent backers of Irish republicanism, Turkey and Liechtenstein.

(By comparison, the Welsh national anthem is a  non-aggressive song of simple national pride - "The land in which poets and minstrels rejoice" - and even the Scottish anthem "Flower Of Scotland", while explicitly anti-English, recounts a purely defensive battle against an invading army, and the celebration of merely sending them home to leave Scotland in peace, rather than the conquering imperialism of "Rule Britannia" or "God Save The Queen". Even the recent and welcome adoption by the England support of the theme from "The Great Escape", rather than the older and uglier chants like "No Surrender", has its roots in anti-German sentiment. Meanwhile, the song most commonly sung during Scotland games by the Tartan Army over the last decade or so has been the rather less confrontational "Doe, A Deer" from The Sound Of Music. Nobody is entirely sure why.)

When this sort of subject comes up in any less-civilised forums than the WoS one (which is to say, pretty much all of them), the first thing one tends to get is a load of English fans going "Ah, but you didn't even qualify, you're shit, aaahhhhh". The telling thing about that is that these England fans are making an issue out of a superiority that nobody has challenged. Scotland fans pretty uniformly acknowledge that we have a shit team (notwithstanding the extreme closeness in direct competitive results between Scotland and her ten-times-larger neighbour), and the even-more-dismal records of Wales and Northern Ireland in international competition speak for themselves. But the English automatically and reflexively assume that any criticism/banter/whatever is based on the fact that their opponents are challenging England's "status" as their (and everyone's) national superiors, a status which has been lost in world terms since the breakup of the Empire and in football terms since 1966, but which English people still have a powerful "genetic memory" of. (Perhaps when the last person who was alive when some people were on the pitch has died, we'll see an improvement, just like the first generation of German government representatives born after 1945 are now being invited to official D-Day commemorations.)

There's no other rational explanation for the situation at England football matches. Violence may be reduced now, but that's less due to any change in the England following's attitudes and more due to the government confiscating the passports of thousands of English thugs before they ever get to the tournaments. (The last three nights have already seen hundreds of English fans in violent clashes with Portugese police, and this despite England still having every chance of progressing in the tournament - how bad do you think it would have been if the 3,000 or so people who've been prevented by the police from going to Euro 2004 had also been present in Albufeira, where most of the England fans are based? Something more like what happened back on home soil, perhaps?)

The English invest so much of their national self-image in sport (and chiefly football, since it's the "national game") as a substitute for their lost Empire, and like a heroin addict on methadone, the substitute is often at least as painful and damaging than the original problem. You can see it too in Tony Blair's recent reactions with regard to the war in Iraq and the recent European elections - this week, the UK's Prime Minister said he wouldn't allow Britain to become "marginalised" as a European/world power by backing out of Iraq or the European Union. The PM - who considers himself English and supports England in inter-UK sporting contests despite being born and educated in Scotland - is determined to cling onto what remains of the power and status and privileges of the Empire, even now that it no longer exists and Britain is just another nation in the world community.

(The fact that the Empire was a British construction is also revealing here - you never hear anyone refer to the "English Empire" - because you never see Scots or Welsh or Northern Irish acting in such a way, despite the considerable contributions they made (not necessarily anything to be proud of, incidentally) to the building of that Empire. That the English largely consider the Empire to be exclusively theirs is another indicator of the inbred national arrogance that still nags at the English psyche. The English team still uses the British national anthem as their own at football matches, which they shouldn't technically do, since in football they're NOT playing for "Britain", they're playing for England - it says "England" on their shirts, the flag is the St George's Cross of England, not the Union Flag, and their crest is the three lions of England, not the four-symbol standard of the United Kingdom. This leads to the bizarre situation of other British fans loudly booing and whistling over what's technically their own national anthem at the start of international sports fixtures, but the English arrogantly demand rights of ownership over something that they - according to the Act Of Union - supposedly only have an equal 25% share of.)

Scotland supplied, per head of population, a considerably higher proportion of the Allied troops who landed in Normandy in 1944 than England, yet there is no antagonism between Scotland and Germany now, and there hasn't been for decades. There were no "Achtung Surrender!" headlines in Scottish tabloids when Scotland played Germany in the Euro 2004 qualifiers, you never hear Irish people using the word "Krauts" or the Welsh singing songs about the war at football matches. (Though this sports fan always loved the dim-witted irony of England supporters singing "two world wars and one World Cup" as an assertion of their superiority over a nation that's won, er, three World Cups.) It's only the English who are obsessed with these past glories, only the English who desperately cling to a lost age of power and influence when everyone else has moved on from the middle of the last century.

That, not drunken football thuggery per se, is what's really "The English Disease" - a simple refusal to accept that the world has changed, that Britannia no longer rules the waves and that (thanks to increasing devolution of governmental powers) England no longer even rules Britannia as once she did. It's when forced to confront that reality that English football fans give vent to the rage of their national impotence by smashing up foreign cities and towns (or, if none are available, their own). Ironically, despite years of strong action aimed at reducing football hooliganism, the Government continually reinforces the very attitudes that bring it about it, treating the symptoms but not the cause. The feelings that make Tony Blair wage his Christian-fundamentalist Crusader's war on Iraq are at heart the exact same ones that make his less-sophisticated countrymen throw beer bottles at Portugese policemen.


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