It’s World Cup time and England have been playing unexpectedly well. They’re in the final four with a semi-final game scheduled for seven o’clock BST tonight against Croatia.
Less unexpected is the debate that flares up north of the border whenever England qualify for a World Cup, irrespective of whether Scotland have also qualified or, as has been the case these last 20 years, they haven’t qualified. The question of this debate is: Should Scottish people support England during their World Cup games?
As usual, opinion pieces have clogged the pages of newspapers and current affairs magazines, penned by Scottish journalists adding their tuppence-worth to the subject. Since the first kick of the ball in the first World Cup game of 2018, we’ve had Lesley Riddoch in the National, Chris Deerin in the New Statesman, Kevin McKenna in the Herald, Stephen Daisley in the Spectator and many more.
Daisley, for instance, stated his belief that Scots are obliged to support England in the competition: “If Scotland were heading into a World Cup semi-final – come now, it’s not nice to laugh – you can just picture the response south of the border. England fans would throw their support behind the plucky 11… Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would discover long-lost great grannies who once had a fish supper in Portobello. The Sun would give away novelty kilts bearing the legend ‘It’s coming hame’; the Mirror would reprint the lyrics of Flower of Scotland for its readers to sing along.” Funnily enough, I was in the UK two years ago when Wales reached the semi-finals of the European Championship and I don’t recall Therezza, Jezza, the Sun and the Mirror being so enthusiastic about the Welsh.
© Bob Thomas / Getty Images
Back in the days of my youth, there was certainly a strong Scottish penchant for not supporting England at football and, indeed, for supporting any team playing against England. When England took on Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, everyone I knew in Scotland hooted with laughter when Maradona showed the poor old English the door aided by his dodgy ‘hand of God’ goal. This was despite the fact that, as part of the UK, Scotland had been at war with Argentina only four years earlier, as of course had England.
During the 1990 World Cup, the atmosphere was electric in my regular pub in Aberdeen when England played Cameroon. This was helped no end by the entry of a group of Cameroonian students, come to watch the game on TV. While the game was going Cameroon’s way, the students enlivened the pub by performing some traditional Cameroonian dancing, which the locals – rather atypically for Aberdonians, a people not given to over-exuberance – heartily joined in with. And when England stole the game 3-2 in extra time, the dancing stopped and both Scottish and Cameroonian faces were long and downcast. Later, when England went out in the semi-finals courtesy of Germany, someone in Glasgow celebrated by painting a local statue of St George in the German team colours.
Footballing-wise, it was easy to be ‘anyone-but-England’ in Scotland at the time. Sometimes it felt like a political protest. The UK was governed in an autocratic and centralised fashion by a Conservative government led by that most English-seeming of figures, Margaret Thatcher. A majority of Scots were anti-Thatcherite, but their objections seemed to matter not a jot with those in power in London whose economic policies were dismantling Scotland’s traditional heavy industries and wrecking its traditional working-class communities.
Also, much of England’s travelling support seemed to consist of hooligans and / or racists. In a recent, excellent piece about English football and English identity in the New Statesman, Jason Cowley recalls how a memorable 2-0 England win over Brazil in 1984 was, in the eyes of certain fans, a 1-0 England victory. To them, one of the goals didn’t count because it’d been scored by a black player, John Barnes. So who’d want to back a team supported by that unlovable bunch?
Conversely, now that Scotland has its own devolved parliament and has at least a measure of responsibility for its own affairs, and now that the new generation of English fans have a better reputation than their predecessors, the anyone-but-England mentality seems much less pronounced in Scotland. But I don’t see why, as Daisley thinks, Scots should be compelled to support England. Sure, they can support them if they want to. But it shouldn’t be shocking if they don’t want to, for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, plenty of Scottish football fans still see England as their great rival on the footballing stage – not, admittedly, that they’ve had an opportunity to compete against England in any major tournaments during the 21st century because the Scotland side has been too gash to qualify for them. And it’s a basic law of sporting physics that rivals, especially near-neighbours, do not support each other. Rather, they’ll happily support their rivals’ opponents. When Newcastle United took on Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup Final, I’d bet that very few Sunderland fans, ten miles down the way, were backing them. And I doubt if many, or indeed any, Celtic supporters were cheering on their old Glasgow rivals Rangers when the latter were up against FC Zenit St Petersburg in the 2008 UEFA Cup final.
This rule extends to national football teams. I’ve had Dutch people tell me that they don’t want Germany to win, and Ethiopians have said the same about Egypt. And to other sports – I remember a long-ago rugby world cup where an Australian friend told me how disgruntled he was at hearing certain New Zealanders, whom he knew and considered good mates, cheering on any team that played Australia. I also remember a Canadian friend asking me one time in a puzzled tone about the anyone-but-England mentality among Scottish football fans. “So when the USA play Finland at ice hockey,” I asked her, “who do you Canadians support?” “Finland of course!” she said immediately.
Secondly – and this isn’t the fault of the England players or supporters – the amount of hype that accompanies England’s entry into every footballing competition, generated by English-based pundits, TV stations and newspapers, puts you off them. It’s immense and overwhelming and rapidly becomes maddening if you live in parts of the United Kingdom that aren’t England but are still saturated by England’s media. These days, in fact, most of the xenophobia isn’t to be found among the fans, bad boys though they were in the past, but among the tabloids. Witness the amount of gloating that went on when Germany were knocked out in an uncharacteristically early stage of this World Cup: SCHADENFREUDE declared the front-page headline in the Sun, which then provided a short definition (“Pleasure derived from another person’s dissatisfaction”) presumably because it considered its readers too dense to know what the word meant.
© Daily Express / From the BBC
No doubt the frenzied jingoistic coverage of this year’s World Cup has been ramped up in England’s right-wing, Brexit-crazed newspapers in the hope that it’ll help to bury news of the ultra-shambles, mega-shambles, hyper-shambles and total absolute omni-shambles that Theresa May’s government is currently making of the Brexit negotiations. They probably hope too that if England win the World Cup, it’ll take people’s minds off the 1930s / Great Depression-style economic misery that’ll inevitably follow a hard Brexit.
Personally, I don’t see any reason why I should support England as it just isn’t my national football team – for me, that title is shared jointly by Scotland and Northern Ireland. And for the reasons mentioned above, I’ve borne the anyone-but-England attitude in the past. But I bear no ill-feeling against this current England side and I’m happy to see them do well.
Partly it’s because the current England squad seem like a decent bunch of blokes, certainly in comparison with some of the bloated egos and elephantine senses of entitlement that’ve populated past squads. (The nadir was surely the England World Cup squad of 2006, who rolled up in Germany with their Sex and the City-style wives and girlfriends. This led to the gruesome spectacle of Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole, Coleen Rooney and co. descending regularly on the boutiques of Baden-Baden, with the paparazzi in tow, and blowing more money in a single shopping trip than most England fans earned in a year.)
I also like English manager Gareth Southgate, who has executed his World Cup duties with intelligence, humility and compassion. I even had a lump in my throat when, after England got past Colombia in their quarter-final win game, Southgate saw a Colombian player who’d missed an all-important penalty crying and went over and gave him a hug.
And he knows how to wear a waistcoat. These things are important.
So I can support this version of England – that is, if I embargo all English newspapers beforehand and have the TV volume turned down so that my brain isn’t turned to mush by any drivelling, hubristic English-TV-studio commentary. But I’m still not sure I want them to win the World Cup. I shudder to imagine the English media’s reaction. They’d be braying and crowing about it for years. Come to think of it, they still haven’t shut up about winning the bloody thing in 1966.
Then again, if that happens and the “We won! We won!” hysteria gets so unbearable, Scotland could be independent by Christmas.