Jingoistic Xenophobes or Jolly Revellers?

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.”

Mings, Coady and White all in contention for a starting place as England gets ready to Host(ish) a Home(ish) European Championships

England go into the much delayed Euro 2020 with high expectations and the manager Gareth Southgate having an increasingly exciting and talented young group of players to pick from. Hold on, haven’t we been here before?

Maybe, but it does feel like a different England under Southgate. Whilst you cannot please everyone, the team now come across as far more likeable than many of its previous incarnations and that’s backed up by success on the pitch too with two consecutive semi-final appearances now to their name. There is an air of confidence in this team without the arrogance of old and a firm belief in its ability without the brash cockiness seen in past eras.

England start the tournament as favourites to win their group and as one of the most highly fancied teams in the entire tournament, but they won’t be caught by surprise by any of their group opponents with each one in its own way a familiar face.

Each match will be tough, but in many ways the second match with Scotland is looking like the toughest test after an impressive run of results under manager Steve Clarke who has transformed the previously much maligned home nation. Which makes beating England’s World Cup semi-final nemesis Croatia in their opening game all the more important and that won’t be easy opponents either.

Whilst Czech Republic’s win over England in qualification, the success of Czech internationals Tomas Soucek and Vladimir Coufal at West Ham last season, along with the success of the countries invincible domestic league champions Slavia Prague over British teams in the Europa League last season all ensuring England are well aware of their threats too. All three matches mean any speculation over potential last 16 opponents and possible routes to a prospective semi-final and final at Wembley will have to remain on ice for now.

Southgate said after England’s friendly win over Romania last weekend that he had just one place in the starting eleven for Sunday’s opener against Croatia that he was still unsure of, and I wonder if it’s his choice over defensive shape and personnel that this quandary is in relation too.

Much has been made of Man United Captain Harry Maguire’s injury in the lead up to the tournament and if he was fit he would almost certainly start alongside John Stones, but someone’s loss is another person’s opportunity and England’s back-up centre-back options of Mings, Coady and the late addition of our very own Ben White will all likely be in his thoughts.

The pre-existing members of the England squad Tyrone Mings and Conor Coady would appear to be at the front of the queue despite much derision being put their way on social media. Mings as a no nonsense defender may be Southgate’s go to option alongside Stones in a back four, whilst Coady would probably be more likely first pick in a back three.

Mings in particular has seen his fair share of criticism after a couple of unimpressive performances in England’s warm up games, but as many have already pointed out these games are more about gaining/maintaining fitness and avoiding injury than performance. Whilst his two years at Villa in the Premier League marshalling their defence to survival and then an impressive 11th place last season show he’s more than capable to fill the hole in the back four if required. As the Aston Villa online blog “Under A Gaslit Lamp” said recently: “Regardless of the occasional below par performance, Aston Villa are a better team and club due to the fact that Tyrone Mings is a part of it and he will be vital, as Dean Smith tries to steer the club into the upper echelons of the Premier League and back into Europe.” Unfortunately for him, in tournament football any mistake is likely to be amplified and ultimately this may count against him.

As an Albion fan I will be hoping that is the case and it is instead Ben White who gets the nod against Croatia, a player who’s versatility to be able to play in a number of positions along with his potential to improve appears to be what has secured him a place in England’s 26 after the injury to Alexander-Arnold.

White has continued to impress since coming to the attention of the Albion faithful during his multi-award winning season on loan at Newport County and his Rookie Premier League season saw him continue his impressive rise and surprise a few last weekend to win the club’s player of the season award, albeit seemingly with the help of his old friends from Leeds.

Whilst he only made his Premier League debut less than a year ago and his England debut less than two weeks ago, I doubt Gareth Southgate will be afraid to throw him in if he feels that he’s his best choice. After all Southgate himself was handed a surprise call up and subsequent selection to start as centre back for England at Euro 1996. Having only made his England debut seven months before, he started the opener against Switzerland alongside captain Tony Adams with just four caps to his name.

If it is Ben White who starts for England, it will be a huge personal moment for him and his family. But also for the Albion and everyone involved at the club. It is 23 years ago this week that the club made the signing of the Withdean era legend Gary Hart for £1,000 and a set of tracksuits from non-league Stansted, who went on to be the club’s joint top scorer in his first season. That youth team product Ben White has made the England squad this summer, let alone is being discussed as in contention for a start in the opening game, shows just how far the club has come since then.