Football: This is England - progressive, but also dark

By the end of the day, the scrawl of abuse had been buried beneath an avalanche of sticky notes and hand-drawn flags, homemade banners and paper hearts. Affection and appreciation had so convincingly drowned out malice and hate that they had colonised the wall. Now, only the top half of the mural was still visible: the face of Marcus Rashford, rising above it all.

>> Rory SmithThe New York Times
Published : 17 July 2021, 12:11 PM
Updated : 17 July 2021, 12:12 PM

There is a line in “30 Rock,” the Tina Fey sitcom, delivered when the two central characters are on a visit to Stone Mountain, Georgia, searching for “someone who represents the ‘Real America.’” “For the 80th time,” Fey’s character responds, “no part of America is more American than any other part.”

That is the thing with countries: They are generally so vast and so contradictory and so complex that they defy easy encapsulation, essentially arbitrary edifices eroded and expanded by human hands, established in some distant past and bound together by little more than the delicate, malleable forces of convention and tradition.

England is no different. England is the country that is represented and reflected by its national football team: diverse and modern, progressive and compassionate. It is also the country that, with the apparent support of some of its leading politicians, booed those very same players when they had the nerve to express their diversity and progressivism.

It is the country that racially abused three Black players when they missed penalty kicks on the final day of the Euros, but it is also the country that showered all three with love and support in response. It is the country that fashioned the person who daubed abuse — of a nonracist nature, according to the police — on the mural of Rashford in south Manchester, near where he grew up. But it is also the country that, within a few hours, buried that abuse beneath all those flags and hearts.

And, no matter how tempting it is to think otherwise, neither of those countries can lay exclusive claim to being the country. England is both of those places, and it is neither, just like everywhere else.

‘GOD SAVE THE QUEEN’

Five years ago, during the first week of Euro 2016, I arrived in Toulouse, France, to cover a game between Spain and the Czech Republic. The train got in with a few hours to spare. It was spitting rain, and the stadium was some distance away, around a bend in the Garonne River. But I had never been to Toulouse before, so I decided to walk.

It took an hour, maybe a little more. The city was full of Spanish fans; it is not far from the border. In almost every little square, one corner had been draped in red and yellow, a bar or a café or a restaurant adopted by a group of fans. Most of them were drinking. Some of them were singing. But, dispersed through the city, it did not feel overpowering. Normal people went about their normal lives. The mood was cordial, calm and a little celebratory.

A few days later, I went to St Etienne, an industrial town on the other side of France. England was playing Slovakia in its final group stage game. Outside the train station, in the first public space any new arrival to the city would see, there were thousands of England fans. They had stepped off the train, they had found a couple of Irish pubs, and they had set up camp.

The mood was not particularly aggressive. But, at the same time, it was abundantly clear that this territory had been claimed. The border was demarcated by England flags. It was a corner of a foreign field that would — if not forever, then certainly for the afternoon — be England.

There are certain things that England fans do that are, in my experience, unique. One of them is how they sing their national anthem. “God Save the Queen” is, by global standards, a pretty tame sort of a song. There are no calls to establish battalions, or mentions of impure blood.

And yet “God Save the Queen” is the only anthem, in a soccer context, that is sung at people. Most fans stand, solemnly, during their anthem. In some countries, it is tradition to put a hand on the heart, or at least where people think it is. Only England fans sing their anthem with their arms outstretched, as if issuing a challenge.

The other thing they do is what they did that afternoon in St Etienne. It is only sometimes that England fans hurl patio furniture or start running battles with the police. But they reliably annex space, not blending into it in small, discrete groups, but claiming a whole swath of a foreign city as their own for a few hours.

It is a tradition that has survived a change in generations. The mood around most England games on foreign soil is now not one of full-fledged hooliganism. It is more akin to a particularly raucous bachelor party. There is a lot of drinking. There are drugs: One favoured chant is an ode to cocaine. There is, more often than is probably required at a sporting event, nudity.

It would take a brighter mind than mine to parse why that might be. Perhaps it is something to do with England: not the country, but the soccer team. There are some who are old enough to have been in Marseille in 1998 and Charleroi in 2000, the final throes of the old hooliganism, who might still yearn for a topless wander down a memory lane that has a water cannon parked at one end.

But there are many more who will have seen the videos and watched the footage and inferred that this is what it is to be an England fan, and have become, in effect, cosplay hooligans.

UNSAFE AT HOME

What, exactly, did the police think was going to happen? Fans had been arriving at the Wembley Park underground station all day, gathering in ever greater numbers in the shadow of the stadium. Some of them — 60,000 or so — had tickets. Twice that number, three times possibly, did not.

By the time the teams for the Euro 2020 final were announced Sunday night, it had been estimated that some 250,000 people were in the vicinity of Wembley. All that separated them from the stadium was one set of barriers, a subtle police presence, a few hundred volunteers, and stewards who are paid little more than minimum wage.

Hundreds, and possibly thousands, of ticketless fans tried to storm the gates. Others bribed stewards to let them through, or presented screenshots of other people’s COVID tests, or barrelled through turnstiles behind those who had paid to be there. The atmosphere, outside, turned threatening and hostile.

Once inside, they blocked gangways or packed aisles or simply stood in the non-spaces between seats. Genuine ticket-holders were displaced. Fights broke out. There have been accounts of families who had paid hundreds of dollars to attend the biggest game England has seen for 55 years leaving early out of fear.

England, the country, is not easily defined. But England, the team, or at least the atmosphere surrounding it, is uniform. The numbers, this time, were greater, because of both the scale and the location of the game, but this was, to an extent, simply London experiencing what many other places have endured — the annexation of space and the bachelor-party lawlessness.

It so easily could have been avoided. More police might not have solved the problem, but restricting access to the area around the stadium to those with tickets would have helped. So, too, would have placing more obstacles, more security checks, between the entrance and the crowd. The Metropolitan Police, without doubt, handled a difficult situation badly.

That should not allow soccer to absolve itself from blame. A crowd of that size defies easy encapsulation. There were many who simply wanted to enjoy the atmosphere, or the game, or both. But there were plenty who invoked that stag-party spirit of England, the team, who assumed that the occasion meant anything goes.

That is a tradition that has been given tacit permission to take hold. Increasing policing is not the answer; or, at least, it is not a responsible one. This solution, ultimately, rests on the fans: on what they want England, the team, to be.

(This article originally appeared in The New York Times)

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