The booing of the Germany national anthem by a number of England fans at the European Championships match between the two countries on Tuesday caused much discontent among the watching public. Unfortunately it’s a habit that’s been happening at most England games for years, decades even, along with some other more deplorable chants, particularly about the Germans.
It’s worth saying however that it happens at many other international matches too, including at other matches of the current European Championships. Even the Germans have been known to do it when they play other countries at home as well.
For the majority it is simply part of the pantomime of football, but it also speaks to a hostile nationalist xenophobia that exists amongst a minority of the England Men’s teams regular supporters, as well as among many other national football teams support. It is the type of behaviour you wouldn’t see amongst many other sports national teams support.
However, I think major international sports events bring out far more good than bad, even football tournaments. Something masked by our habit as human beings of focusing on the shocking behaviour of a few plastic chair throwing, racist chanting idiots, over the vast majority of jolly revellers enjoying a major international event. Even if they partake in some practices you find offensive.
Look at the reaction to the taking of a knee by England’s footballers, yes some boo, but the vast majority have been supportive by cheering to drown that booing out. Football supporters, just like most members of society, are largely good people.
We seem to live in such a polarised society right now, where everything is being seen through the prism of a ferocious culture war. A war that has accelerated since the Brexit referendum in 2017, which split the country in two distinct camps, and which subsequently appears to have influenced the culture of ever-polarising debates ever since. So no surprise that the countries national sport and favourite pastime, football, is going the same way.
Football has always had an unattractive element to its fanbase. For many years attitudes of Xenophobia, racism, sexism and homophobia dominated the terraces, but then again they also dominated in wider society. In the 1980s when Justin Fashanu was hounded by the public and the media for his open homosexuality, so much so it eventually led him to taking his own life, 75% of the UK public thought acts of homosexuality were mostly or entirely immoral.
Much has changed, back then it would have been hard to imagine the captains of both England and Germany football teams wearing rainbow colour captain armbands in a show of solidarity with the LGBT+ community, but that’s exactly what happened on Tuesday. But whilst football now leads the way in terms of messages of support in the fight against various forms of discrimination, major international tournaments still shine a light on the rotten elements of the football family, people who unfortunately represent unwelcome attitudes that still exist in society. However, it still leads to the entire football family being tarred with the same brush.
Football doesn’t help itself either. The tribalism and polarisation of discussions has been encouraged in football for decades by media outlets attempting to drive interest and traffic. And football supporters now seem to be falling over themselves to take polarising positions about managers or players that drive a wedge between them and many of their fellow supporters. You only have to look at the debate surrounding many of England’s star players to see evidence of this.
Football tournaments of the 90’s and 00’s seemed to bring the country together, but in contrast the more recent football tournaments seem to highlight the great divisions that exist in our society and the animosity that exists towards the England football team. No more so than in the reaction to the continuous references by England fans to the famous song “It’s coming home”.
“Football’s coming home” was the tag line to the 1996 European Championships, a tournament hosted in England, and so the official England song written by David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds repurposed it and the rest, as they say, is history.
There is a misunderstanding of what was meant by “Football’s coming home” both by some of those who use it and those who disparage it. It was never about imperialism nor some kind of misguided arrogance, nor is it not saying, “we own football”, although it’s convenient for some to interpret it in those ways.
The tag line itself references the fact that the original rules of Football originate from England in 1863 & were then adopted by FIFA in 1904 in what is now the world’s most popular sport.
At the time the originator of the phrase, Chris Thomas who also designed the marketing for Euro 96, said “it’s intentionally simple but let it rest in your head… we think it has infinite possibilities.” Many in hindsight now admit the line was bit crass, and it has been re-engineered and reinterpreted as arrogant when it was never meant as a boast about success.
As David Baddiel said during the 2018 World Cup “Three Lions is a song about loss: about the fact that England mainly lose. We as fans — as English people — invest an enormous amount in the idea of England, and then, as experience suggests, England let you down. We know this and yet we still — as the 98 version put it — believe. Football fandom is this, it’s magical thinking, it’s hope over experience.”
Despite its origins many of the past examples of great global football era aren’t English. The tika-taka of Barcelona, the Total Football of Johan Cruyff’s Ajax and Netherlands, the great flowing football of Brazil, or the contrastingly stern but effective Catenaccio of the Italians. All of which are part of the beautiful evolution of the world favourite sport, a sport which originated from rules set and exported by our country. It’s something internationally recognised by the football family too, with the 4 home nations still making 50% of The governing body of the laws of the game, IFAB.
English football has had huge influence globally, including on some of the great sides previously mentioned. In particular in Brazil where British settlers played a huge part in the establishment of the game. Brazil’s first game was played against the travelling English club team Exeter, whilst Brazilian giants Corinthians took their name from the English amateur team Corinthian Casuals. Meanwhile Italian giants Juventus play in black & white stripes after taking inspiration from another English club team Notts’ County
The protests against the European Super League proposals earlier this year galvanised football fans and showed us how powerful we can be as a society if we use our collective voices. But more recent examples of Tottenham and Everton fans protesting against potential managers before they have even been appointed, including a banner being left outside Rafa Benitez family home warning him not to take the Everton job, show that this power can and is used equally for destructive purposes.
But the power of football is used for good more often than for bad. Even if we ignore the less trivial elements already mentioned such as the use of its platform to tackle all forms of discrimination, football has great powers for good in many other ways too. Most prominently in the way many of us use it as a way into a conversation with people, an ice breaker or a bonding technique with friends, family, work colleagues and acquaintances. Forming bonds that can bring happiness and joy to so many lives.
There will always be those who try to spoil the fun by accusing those supporting their national sports teams of jingoistic tendencies or getting emotional at our club teams success as just utilising it to express repressed emotions, but in reality they are the ones who are losing out on one of the world’s greatest pastimes.
Look at the power of the London 2012 Olympic Games or Euro 96. Huge international sporting events that took place in this country that are both still spoken about to this day in such glowing terms. Some will point to faults in the event and it’s organisation, sure there were a fair few, but just as with most things in sport the overriding effect was a wave of positivity and joy. Personally I’m choosing to continue to ride that wave of joy rather than the one of misery and consternation.
But I think the England manager Gareth Southgate summed it up better than I could in his brilliant Players Tribune piece prior to the tournament. “The reality is that the result is just a small part of it. When England play, there’s much more at stake than that.”
“It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever.”