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Photo by Michael Pead (Wikimedia Commons)
The sportsdesk is living through confusing times. It is the eve of the European Championships and, as usual, I am embroiled in the mental equivalent of the huge, slow motion, endorphine rush that comes before an imminent car crash.
England will win a major football tournament in my lifetime. This is the one, this is the one, this is the one.
Everybody knows that England will not win this tournament.
But maybe this time, this time...
And then as soon as we meet a decent team. Crrrrrasssssssssssssshhhh.
These feelings have become more confused over the last week. I am not a patriotic man, but am particularly, and contrarily, proud of my own sense of self-loathing. It is an English trait if ever there was one, and is in direct conflict with the hideously unaware front cover of the London Metro newspaper last week: “60 reasons why Britain is so brilliant!” Included within were number 10: “Kate Middleton and her sister”, number 12: “Driving on the left (the right way to do it)” and number 43: “Plugs with switches. Amazingly nowhere else seems to do this.”
It was, I think, intended to be a kind of tongue-in-cheek advertorial, sponsored by a lager that is best summed up by Eric Idle's line “it’s like having sex in a canoe... fucking close to water” than it is to what the Germans would recognise as being worthy of the name Bier, but it illustrated the collective madness that appeared to have swept the nation during the Queen’s jubilee celebrations.
There was a complete, and very un-British, lack of self-awareness in the air. The constant grey skies only added to the surreal atmosphere, as if here was another thing to be proud of. For a few days I was constantly told I should revel in being able to drink tea in the rain to the music of Gary Barlow and Elton John, swaddled in a flag that for years was worn almost exclusively by skinheads and Tories, whilst ignoring the fact that truly great achievements such as the NHS and the welfare state are being quickly sold down the river.
“It doesn't matter about the fact your house has been repossessed. Cheer up man, have a scone and listen to Cliff Richard.”
In the midst of the whole ghastly business I couldn't help thinking about Willie Nelson’s song “No place for me”:
The light in your eyes
Don't shine for me
It's a story so old
Another love grown cold
I can see this is no place for me
And therein lies the conundrum. I am proud of the fact that I hate the idea of national pride, and love the fact that I loathe myself. This is why I support the England football team. After all, England doesn’t play in shirts baring the Union Flag or the George Cross. We wear three lions, a beautiful representation of a confused country if ever there was one. As Ian Brown pointed out in his simple, simian way: “There are no lions in England.” The badge is as delusional as the fact that I expect us to win anything at all.
Before the big tournaments I happily succumb to the feeling that English football has a divine superiority over all other nations in complete avoidance of the empirical facts. It’s okay though, it will only last until Monday when we face the French.
I wish I could support Germany, a country that I love, and in which I have made my home. I wish I could get as excited about the infinite intricacies and subtleties of the off-the-ball movement of Mesut Özil as I do about the lumpen bone-headedness of “England’s Brave John Terry” kicking someone up in the air.
I wish I didn’t get suckered in by the jingoistic tub-thumping of the same newspapers that were up in arms at the fact that the old Wembley stadium was, horror of horrors, to be demolished using German machinery. I wish that there wasn’t the stink of racism looming over the England squad.
But this is not about patriotism. It is about football, about partisanship and the irrationality of supporting a football team. It is a ridiculous pastime if ever there was one, and what could be more English than that.