When in Rome…

After England's recent goalless draw in Italy, Mike Ticher claims that we still haven't shaken off our reputation as football hooligans

“Multiculturalism is a divisive force… One cannot be loyal to two nations any more than a man can have two masters.” So said Norman Tebbit in the week before England qualified for the World Cup with an accomplished performance on the field and a hideous mess off it.

Although I was born and brought up in England, my instinct is always to want the national team to lose. It’s not so much the violence and racism of the hooligans. It’s the image of England as a nation that emerges every time the team plays which is so alienating.

Tebbit’s perfectly-timed intervention made the connection explicit this time around. Anyone who wasn’t sure what his preferred monocultural society looked like didn’t even need to travel to Rome to see the England fans in action. They could just stay at home and read the papers to wallow in the ugly combination of paranoia, self-pity and naked aggression that goes by the name of patriotism in this country.

Football’s appeal depends on its ‘us v them’ character. When national teams are involved there is bound to be some blurring of the boundary between pride in your country and denigration of someone else’s. But the ambiguous symbols of England’s pride and the casual racism of the denigration are reminiscent more of a newly-established and still insecure state like Croatia than the oldest one on the continent.

The treatment of all things Italian before and after the game was wearily familiar from Euro 96, and not just from the tabloids. The ref was suspect because he liked pasta (Daily Mail); the Italian players were a dirty bunch of cheats (“how they get away with it I don’t know,” said Teddy Sheringham); their police “didn’t understand the England fans’ culture of drinking and mass singing” (Colin Ward) – which was surely the one thing to their credit.

And everywhere the creaking military metaphors were wheeled out to explain England’s triumph. “Led by Captain Ince and Sergeant-Major Adams, with Lance-Bombardier David Batty producing another performance worthy of being mentioned in dispatches, England… blocked Italy’s avenues of approach, sabotaged their lines of communication and silenced their guns,” David Lacey crowed in The Guardian. We all know what happens to the Italians in a war.

So we knew what we were up against. But who are ‘we’ exactly? Norman Tebbit, at least, knows what he thinks. If you want to be English you have to renounce any other loyalties, something which he believes is much harder for black or Asian people to do. And the iconography of English nationalism has even stronger overtones of racial purity.

In some countries – Germany is the obvious example – the far right has its own flags and emblems, which may rear their ugly head in football grounds, but would never appear in the pages of a national newspaper. But what ‘God Save The Queen’, the Union Jack, the St George cross and the bulldog represent at a football match is completely interchangeable as ‘England’ and ‘fascist’.

After the match in Rome, Glenn Hoddle was asked to comment on the violence in the stands. “It’s not a night to be talking about crowd trouble,” he said, “it’s a night to be talking about a proud nation that’s qualified.” But that’s the problem with England. You can’t invoke the ‘proud nation’ without summoning up the same symbols and emotions that also stir the thugs and the rag-tag army of replica-shirted drunks that staggers after them wherever England play.

The result is an incongruous image like that of Graeme Le Saux posing in The Sun with one of their St George bowler hats. When England play football, everyone – perhaps especially if they are intelligent, articulate and ever so slightly exotic – has to accept those symbols if they want to belong. England’s style of patriotism is defined by our man slumped in the Rome fountain with the tatty Union Jack (‘Slough Town’) and the ‘Do it for Princess Di’ T-shirt.

In some other countries, football has played a key role in making the idea of what is ‘us’ a little more sophisticated. Take Ireland and Australia, for example, which happen to be the two other countries I theoretically ‘belong’ to through citizenship. Ireland under Jack Charlton were pilloried for exploiting the rules that allowed the incorporation of players who weren’t ‘really’ Irish in the opinions of some. Yet the unprecedented success of that team helped spark a serious debate about what it mean to be Irish. People found that, thanks to a history of emigration, there was a whole range of new definitions of Irishness.

You might be black, you might speak with an English accent, you might never have been to Ireland. Yet when they pulled on the green shirt, no-one cared. The cosmopolitan nature of the team helped to blow away a lot of frankly racist myths about the centrality of blood, religion and language to Irish identity. It turned out that almost anyone could join, and in 1990 and 1994, lots of people wanted to.

While Ireland’s team has been shaped by emigration, Australia’s is almost entirely the result of immigration. If the Socceroos make it to France, their squad will be dominated by players who, though born in Australia, owe their upbringing in the game to their parents’ origins in Greece, former Yugoslavia, Italy, Germany, Malta or almost anywhere else in Europe you care to name.

The national team is as good an example of multiculturalism in action as you would ever wish to see. During the last World Cup campaign, at the height of the war in the Balkans, there were players in the team with origins in four of the former Yugoslav republics. Yet if anything, it was the team’s cohesion and single-mindedness that overcame its technical limitations.

The widespread acceptance of dual or multiple identity, the dreaded beast which Tebbit would have us slay with the steadfast sword of St George, is one of the things that makes Australia a more relaxed place than England. It would be silly to pretend that no national chauvinism attends the country’s sporting teams when they play big matches. But the kind of abuse heaped on any country that England play is never likely to find a home in the Australian press. The howls of rage from people who consider themselves both Australian and, say, Italian, would make sure of that.

There are good reasons to identify with the national team in both those countries which do not depend on antagonism towards other people or raw emotion – namely that it is OK to be a mongrel rather than a bulldog. England is lumbered with a different and seemingly more intractable heritage and football is only one of the escape valves through which it expels its noxious gases.

While England remains semi-detached from the idea of becoming part of Europe on a political level (something the Scots and Irish seem to find much less threatening), it’s no surprise that the national team should be the focus for, at best, a sullen, stupid and exclusive form of patriotism. But knowing that doesn’t make England’s football campaigns any less of an ordeal.

I ended up watching the second half of the game in a pub while being harangued by an England fan who protested that Italians “weren’t human”. If England geared up for a football match is the pinnacle of humanity, count me in with the aliens.

From WSC 130 December 1997. What was happening this month