Who would have thought, a year ago, that losing to Germany could be the best thing to happen to the English game in over 30 years? But, provided that we do what is necessary against the Greeks, how else to describe the appointment of Sven-Goran Eriksson?
As well as the changes in philosophy and results he has brought about on the pitch, the arrival of Eriksson is the best chance of lancing the boil that attaches itself to England’s support. Just as the increasing number of high-profile black footballers helped the game to rid itself of a good deal of overt colour-based racism, so the quiet Swede is undermining the broader anti-foreign feeling which so blights the national team.
We saw the problem in all its stupidity in Munich. The actual hooliganism was relatively low key, helped no doubt by England’s astonishing performance. But the kind of playground name-calling which accompanies any away game was there for all to see, heightened by the identity of the opposition.
A man wearing a T-shirt which read simply “I Hate Krauts”. Chants of “There’s Only One Bomber Harris!” The band playing wartime classics such as We’ll Meet Again, Colonel Bogey and the theme from The Dambusters, complete with aeroplane motions. No one was singing “If it wasn’t for the English you’d be Krauts”, of course, but there was the usual nonsense about Northern Ireland. (Astonishingly, there were also at least three chants about football during the game: “One Michael Owen”; “One Alan Shearer”, when he was spotted in the Sky gantry; and “We want six”. That’s three more than usual.)
However, games against Germany and Argentina will be the toughest nuts to crack, not least because they will always attract people who aren’t part of the normal England crowd. David Yelland, for instance, who as editor of the Sun commissioned stunts of astonishing crassness and printed anti-German stories which were pure fiction. There is no hope of such matches passing off quietly as long as dangerous fools like Yelland are leading the morons on.
But consider Jeff Powell of the Daily Mail. The man who greeted Eriksson’s appointment with a flurry of insults has had little choice but to change his mind. Likewise, those in the stands who tried organising campaigns against the decision have been left looking so stupid that even they realise it. There are some who will realise there is an inherent contradiction in cheering on a team managed by a continental European while reviling anyone who isn’t English.
It’s not just about Eriksson. The atmosphere at England’s recent home games, even back in London at White Hart Lane, has been stripped of much of the poison that was part of the foundations of Wembley. If you go to watch England at home now, you can largely believe that that you are at a normal football match. The visitors’ national anthems have been relatively well respected, the IRA and Second World War songs have had limited support, and most of the noise is about the football. The nerves at Newcastle lacked the menace that would be felt in similar circumstances at Wembley, as did the post-match reaction at Tottenham.
The longer Eriksson is successful, the more people will see England matches as great days out – and fancy trying an away game. The changes in the ticketing policy for away games gives people the chance to go into a ballot for 30 per cent of the tickets as soon as they join the membership scheme. Assuming they don’t suddenly turn into neanderthals the second they leave England, their presence will surely add to the sizeable minority who don’t go abroad to revisit past battles. And so on, in a virtuous circle, until the knuckle-draggers can be separated off from the bulk of the support.
There is one fly in the ointment. Incompetence from the FA and Ticketmaster has undermined the relaunch of the official travel club, which now seems to be a cynical marketing exercise rather than a genuine attempt to improve the image and reality of England’s support. Perhaps they need some more continental management expertise. Philip Cornwall
When Rangers signed Mo Johnston in 1989, there was a frenzy of speculation about what the signing of a Catholic former Celtic player might mean for the culture of the club. Rangers fanzine Follow Follow argued that the signing of Johnston changed nothing. If Rangers were a Scottish club with a protestant identity, it was because the supporters, not the club or its players, wished them to be so. However unpalatable this assertion, it was an honest one, and it has proved, give or take a bit of smoothing round the edges, to be an accurate one too.
I can’t help fearing that the same goes for Sven-Goran Eriksson’s England. His appointment raised hopes that the suffocating xenophobia that too many fans bring with them to support the national side might be challenged. But has it? As the usual, dreary low-key violence spilled on to the streets of Munich before the game with Germany, accompanied by the usual, dreary war cries (No Surrender, Rule Britannia, The Dambusters etc), one would have to say no, it hasn’t.
The papers weren’t quite as bad as they were in Euro 96, yet still we had the News of the World tracing Eriksson’s ancestry back to that of Field-Marshal Montgomery (both are descended from “17th Century battler” William Sinclair of Saba, apparently). Sven, then, is an honorary Englishman after all and not really foreign. And, of course, if we can’t be too beastly to the Germans, we certainly can about England’s other opponents that week, Albania.
This was Ian Woolridge in the Daily Mail on the day of the St James’ Park game: “Memo to David as he delivers his final dressing room team-talk… A-L-B-A-N-I-A is a scrubby little mischievous Balkan state with huge currency problems whose 3,020,000 population diminishes daily as its more enterprising citizens queue up on the French side of the Channel Tunnel for a better life on welfare in Britain. That should stir the lads up.” This is what we’re up against. A venerable sportswriter trying to gee up the team by inviting contempt for a desperate and impoverished people. Of course the rantings of newspapers should not necessarily be taken as an accurate reflection of what their readers think, but it does give an indication of how far still needs to be travelled.
Indeed, it is something of a liberal fantasy to suppose that one urbane, sophisticated foreigner can somehow “civilise” the “mob”. Meaningful change comes from below, not above, and cannot be seen in isolation from the overall climate in which England games take place – such as the media coverage of the refugee “crisis” at the Channel Tunnel. It’s become almost trite to say that the xenophobia of England fans only reflects the xenophobia of the country’s political culture, but it’s hard to avoid nonetheless.
The atmosphere at England games has improved over the past ten years, though not by anywhere near enough. It can be traced, roughly, to the 1990 World Cup, when Bobby Robson was in charge and the stereotypically English Paul Gascoigne was the hero. England’s support at France 98 – Marseille mayhem notwithstanding – was more diverse than could have been imagined then. Increasing numbers of ordinary England fans are refusing to be cowed by the nutters.
But they are not, alas, driving them away and until there’s a more emphatic change in the way English people are encouraged to think about their nation and its relationship to others, there’s a limit to what one tactically astute football manager can do about it. Too much significance is attached to what role football can play in altering attitudes widely held in society at large. It’s unfair on Eriksson, apart from anything else, to expect him to effect such a transformation. Ultimately, it isn’t the manager’s job to change the atmosphere at England’s games, it’s ours. Tom Davies
From WSC 177 November 2001. What was happening this month