Why England’s fans loathe their celebrity team

Image of Simon Kuper

At least I have an excuse for not supporting England. As a British citizen of mongrel origins who moved to the Netherlands aged six, I support Holland. So I view the relationship between the English and their football team with distance, and it always surprises me how badly the two parties get on. Going into tomorrow’s crunch game against Germany, the relationship consists of its typical blend of love and dislike.

The job of any national team is to be the nation made flesh. When Brazil or Holland play, those 11 young men in plastic shirts represent the nation, with all its faults and virtues. The English feel the same way about their team. They just tend to feel that the nation made flesh is a nation they don’t much like. The team is like the fan’s own face viewed in cruel light in the mirror at 6am. Here are some aspects of the England team that make many English people unhappy:

●The team represents celebrity culture. It’s been a shock this fortnight to see John Terry, Ashley Cole and Wayne Rooney in England shirts, and remember that they have another life as footballers. Outside World Cups, we know them chiefly as characters in tabloid newspapers. Because the UK has an unusually loud tabloid press, celebrities dominate the landscape. Few French footballers have second lives off the pitch. The Dutch are horrified by the transformation of their playmaker Wesley Sneijder into a celebrity. They expect their footballers to be ordinary guys. The English don’t.

●The team represents the working class. British footballers are still recruited almost exclusively from this shrinking class, which now represents perhaps a third of the population. A middle-class teenager joining a professional club will generally find his accent mocked, and his desire to stay in serious education thwarted. In England’s current squad, only the reserve striker Peter Crouch represents the middle classes, notwithstanding the starred A for Latin that Frank Lampard earned in a school exam. Many middle-class viewers struggle to identify with the players.

●The team is engulfed by warrior rhetoric. “Their finest hour (and a half)”, was The Sun newspaper’s headline before England-Algeria. The reference to Winston Churchill’s wartime speech of exactly 70 years earlier was typical. In England, the football team is usually discussed as if it were fighting a war. The tabloids produce this rhetoric, but many players and managers – great consumers of tabloids – swallow it. Hence all the talk in the England camp about the need for “spirit”. This irritates those who believe that British soldiers of the two world wars are not the only possible ideals of masculine behaviour.

●The team represents an isolationist England cut off from foreign ideas. England at this World Cup have often demonstrated their ancestral tendency to revert to blind kick-and-rush football. Many fans wish the national team would master the continental style. That’s why the Italian Fabio Capello was appointed coach. Conversely, isolationist “Little Englanders” probably regard Capello’s team as an example of Britain’s takeover by foreigners.

●The team fails to live up to England’s glorious past. As England’s Johnny Haynes remarked after the team were knocked out of the World Cup in 1958: “Everyone in England thinks we have a God-given right to win the World Cup.” This belief in the face of all evidence is a hangover from empire: because England is football’s mother country, it should still be the best now. A victory tomorrow in Bloemfontein, a city founded as a British fort in 1846, therefore feels like part of the natural order. In fact Germany has got further than England at every World Cup since 1966.

If England lose tomorrow, English fans can turn their minds to a tournament that does represent a conventional ideal of England: Wimbledon, which evokes a pre-war garden party in a country house.

Simon Kuper is co-author of Why England Lose: And Other Curious Football Phenomena Explained (HarperSport, £7.99)

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