Gareth Southgate is standing on top of an ambulance. Well, his impersonator is. A frenzied mob surrounds him, shaking the vehicle. Soon, a topless man gets on top and makes a dent. A woman too does her bit to damage the car. The police seek help in identifying the culprits, and the woman turns out to be Scottish. The Sun splashes it on its tabloid pages but not many care by then. The video has gone viral in England.
In Spain, a couple of nights earlier, an English tourist, with his kid perched on his shoulder, gets whacked with a baton by a cop. The man starts to move towards the cop even as a crowd gathers. Riot police vans seem everywhere, cops have peppered the street, supposedly to prevent English fans celebrate their victory in their inebriated fashion. Later as the video surfaces on the net, there is a startling divide in public opinion. Even as many English support him, questioning the cop’s violence, the others pile on the man with the child. ‘He must have done something or paying for excesses of other English fans’ and such.
It’s been the theme of the tournament for England – ‘Anyone but England’. It was left to Croatian tennis star Goran Ivanisevic to best capture the resentment against the English when he said ahead of the semi-final: “I hope we don’t lose to the English; because already you are in the final. You already won. You’re coming home. You’re bringing the trophy – you’re so arrogant. You are the best. You are the most beautiful. For sure you are coming home, but I hope not with the trophy.”
In London, a group of fans had ransacked an Ikea store after the win against Sweden, singing the song that has enraged many fans from outside England, ‘It’s coming home’.
But where is the ‘home’, though? Before that, what’s happening at home, in England?
“What’s left that’s English — the BBC? Royal family? Church of England? English national opera? The countryside? (90% live in towns, for god’s sake!). I will tell you, what is left: English football.
“The tragedy of the English is that we have come to the 21st century and are in search for English nationalism — the England football team is all we have got. Hence the triumphant celebration and stuff.” That’s David Goldblatt, sociologist, writer and a host of the football podcast, ‘Game of Our Lives’.
The euphoria over England’s World Cup campaign is more than just the old colonial arrogance, in Goldblatt’s eyes. There is a lot more at stake here. The very identity of English is at peril here.
John Williams, an associate professor at the University of Leicester who specialises in sociology of football and football fan culture, says there is a state of unparalleled unease in the country.
“People are very anxious about the future here. Anxious about the role of Britain in the world. Anxious about Brexit. Football gives a sense of who they are. And its felt more intensely now than probably ever before because Brexit makes all of us feel uncertain and we don’t know how we quite fit.”
Hence the overblown reactions in some quarters. Not long back, writer Madeleine Bunting encapsulated the English reluctance in this regard. “What is it about Englishness that, in some contexts, makes polite society nervous? We are happy to talk about wonders of the English language, the delights of the English landscape and English rock or pop, but the definitions of English nationalism have been abandoned to the far right and football hooligans.”
Williams says it’s a historical failure. “We never really assessed what is Englishness. We have always confused it with Britishness. Now we are being forced to examine it. We voted for Brexit; the Scots didn’t. There is chaos over national identity. The future looks highly uncertain about how English identity would hang together, how we manage to keep Scotland in a formation when the Scots keep telling us it’s their own country,” Williams says.
“It’s ironic that the performance of the national football team is giving a sense of what Englishness is to our people. It offers a sense of anchorage in these chaotic times.” A sense of anchorage that occasionally triggers emotional, and perceived arrogance.
What was that song again? Football is coming home?
In 1996, just before Euro championship in England, Frank Skinner and David Baddiel wrote the lyrics, and Ian Broudie composed the peppy tune that has, 22 years later, divided the world. The outside world calls it triumphalist arrogance. The English, themselves, see it almost a song of lament and self-deprecating humour.
It’s coming home, it’s coming home, it’s coming, Football’s coming home (repeat five times)/ Everyone seems to know the score. They’ve seen it all before/ They just know, they’re so sure, that England’s gonna throw it away/ Gonna blow it away, but I know they can play, ‘cause I remember…thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming/ So many jokes, so many sneers, but all those oh-so-nears. Wear you down, through the years..”
There, you can see why it’s seen as lament in some quarters. A bit of self-deprecating humour even. As Ben Carrington, a sociologist, argued 20 years back: “It’s about trying to reconstruct an imperial Britain, with the assumption, that no matter what others may say about football being a world game, England somehow have an inalienable right to the game on the spurious basis that its codification originated in England a hundred years ago, and therefore, football is essentially our game.”
“C’mon, that’s loads of codswallop!” counters Goldblatt. “If anything, it’s a song about loss and self-deprecating. It’s a song about the cycle of optimism and disappointment, essentially a song of watching England lose. How can you see so much into that?”
It’s probably the history. In 1904, when FIFA was formed, England stayed away as they didn’t want foreigners run the game. No England team took part in World Cups till 1950, when unfancied USA sent them home. Until then, it was seen as an infringement on England’s sovereignty over the game. “Indeed, suspicion of foreign footballing sides was such that England, playing in Europe between the wars, often against the wishes of the Football League, would take their own balls with them,” Carrington notes.
The troubled history worries Williams too. “For a very long time, we wanted to keep the game home. Now we are singing it’s coming home? It became almost natural for English to assume that the home of sport is here, and there is a sense of entitlement about that song. So we need to understand a bit of history to understand if that song makes any sense – and why it antagonises others.”
Even as English grapple with the identity crisis, what do Scottish and Welsh feel about themselves? A study, based on the 2011 census by Centre of Ethnicity showed that 81% of Scotland residents feel Scottish. The Asian, Arab and white Irish ethnic groups too identified themselves as Scottish. Welsh are proud about their language, rolling hills.
It’s England that is in panic mode. Politically, sociologically, culturally and economically. National identity is a complex issue, mired as it is in history, migration, culture, language, religion, but sports has a way of simplifying the narrative. A simpler way to make sense of who we are in this world, and something that unites.
Williams and Goldblatt note that the current team is a a representation of multicultural England. Golblatt has been watching the games from Belfast, where a sport carnival is on. “40,000 young folks dancing to grime, reggae and of course singing football coming home. There are different ethnicities: Afro, Caribbean, Somalis, Brit Asians, and others in the crowd. It’s a multicultural fan base, just like the team. A video emerged from Birmingham where a Sikh was dancing merrily to Football coming home … Most of the squad have been coached by the likes of Pep, Mourinho, and other fine coaches who have come to England in a open labour market with its free flow of technology and resources, ideas that produce brilliance. This team is not born in some old-school Englishness or Britishness. It’s a team that is connected with modern Europe.”
Do the English get the anger of the rest of the world? “That’s English’s fault really. Britain and England must face the consequences of the Empire honestly. Not some misremembered nostalgic bullshit,” Goldblatt says. “Outsiders, not unreasonably, have post-colonial angst against England. However, this is a complex country. And we are in crisis state. No one knows what way the country is going. The political uncertainty makes us love the football team more. Some are living the fallacy that the British Empire was a good power — it’s a yearning for an old kind of Britishness that has no correspondence with reality. And who is the only man in England public space that has a solid plan? It’s Southgate! No wonder, football fans have been going bonkers in this state of chaos.”
Will football save England’s identity crisis? “I don’t think it will,” Williams says. “If anything, football euphoria will make more distinct the difference between Scotland and England, for example. Football offers a simple narrative. That’s why people use sports in this way. But it can’t save us.”