Trophy Attitudes: A World Cup Post-Mortem

Fervent nationalism, raging intolerance, and a herd mentality – many of you take it as red that you see more of this during the World Cup than normal, and you dread it. I dread it too. However, while you attribute this unholy trinity to that ephemeral entity known as “the fans”, my stomach turns with the knowledge that in contrast to their critics, the support is a benign and good natured entity that gently goes about its unpretentious business, draping goodwill over the country like a soft layer of thought woven silk.

Now England have been knocked out of the competition and that goodwill has been torn up, this is a good time for a post-mortem. We can leave the fans out of it, because they’ve done their part. But what did you do?

For the sake of this investigation we’ll just refer to those backing the team as “England fans”. It’s a meaningless term – they’re no more an amorphous mass than fans of Columbo or card players, but if we’re going to talk about hatred, we must first identify an enemy. After all, it wouldn’t do for people who imagine themselves to be high minded to see supporters as anything other than pack animals and simpletons with a narrow conception of life, would it? If we supposed, and please stick with it, because some of this is going to read like the ramblings of a lunatic, that fans are a broad church of individuals drawn from all walks of life who are united behind a common and perfectly honourable purpose – to take pride in one’s country with the team as a proxy, then it would be harder to caricature them. But this is the game played every four years – the one that isn’t televised, amongst those who form their own tribe, and it’s one built on instincts that are entirely contrary to the optimistic and good-natured ones previously espoused.

Football, you might think, is a hard thing to hate. How could anyone form a strong reaction against a harmless ball game which, when played well, can be very exciting and brings a great deal of pleasure to a lot of people? It’s not much of a stretch to realise that those who “hate” football, don’t – rather they hate the type of people they associate with it and the culture that’s built around it. They are excluded from this culture and have been ever since they were tadpoles. They might be the kid who was always the last to be picked for the playtime match. They never quite got over being so terrible at something so simple and worse, something that came easily to kids with less intellectual capability. They may even have been an uneasy sense of inferiority – a runt of the litter complex, whereby the Alphas with their greater fitness and physical dexterity, did their thing while the awkward ganglinoid who doesn’t like to run or do anything particularly assertive, had to stand by and endure the humiliation of being hopeless. Still, they could always make some money doing homework for stronger kids while the footballers easily bonded elsewhere, but they were never as respected as Ben Delap, who could head it home from 15 yards. Ben was an accomplished artist too but there was no sense in thinking too hard about that, else the myth of him and his gang being base might not hold up.

What about the girls you say? They don’t like football, do they? They’re excluded, surely? Well possibly, but unlike their male counterparts that injustice never burrows into their ego. They’re female, so in this sphere, they were never competing and so they lose nothing by not being able to do it. Still, you know that their Dads might love it or maybe their boyfriend and later, husband, and that consequently, that’s their way in. Nothing staked, nothing lost and better yet,  no pressure either way.

I’ll let you into a little secret. Those that feel that sense of exclusion, for whatever reason, resent it and never fully get over it. They bond with the other awkward kids – the ones that couldn’t square the circle of their temperament with the thrill of the crowd, and the rejected band together and convince themselves that they’re superior, despite this inability to form simple social connections. If you run a magazine and it only sells 700 copies a year, no matter, as long as it’s the right 700 people. The 230,000 who read Heat can go fuck themselves, right?

In adulthood this resentment manifests itself as snobbery. Football fans are base and the importance they attach to something the excluded have written off as degenerate and senseless, causes enough eye rolling to transport a man from Edinburgh to Brighton, if only he could get these people to lie on the ground with their heads aligned and position his skates in line with the tops of their faces.

It’s in this atmosphere of loathing that the weedy child who couldn’t make friends easily because he couldn’t participate in the games that bonded the other kids, and who now is a rotund adult who can’t bear the company of anyone who doesn’t resemble himself, drops the veil of tolerance and high-mindedness which they wear all year round, reaching for lazy stereotypes.

These spacks, so goes the thinking, these grotesque shuntsacks with their sense of camaraderie, their imbecilic chanting and their repository of pointless knowledge, laud it over everyone else and never seem to shut up. How dare the mindless be so vocal…and visible! Oh the bollocks they talk, droning on about “the beautiful game” and wallowing in their simplistic conception of nationhood, fuelled of course, by RACISM.

In contrast, the cultured individual whose tastes and interests may seem equally ridiculous to others, is a more sophisticated entity. He or she reads a serious newspaper, and although they seldom question what they’re told in it, because they trust the source to be authoritative as it reflects their preoccupations (a little like the assumption they make about the proles and their tabloids but we won’t get into that), they nevertheless consider themselves blessed with a broad and challenging worldview. How different from those monkeys that gather to cheer on Rooney and Lampard.

They’re interested in other cultural artefacts, select to be sure, but that’s healthy because it reinforces the feeling of exclusivity and belonging to a intellectual elite; the myth that powers their worldview. In fact, the fewer people who know about the stuff they like, the better,  after all, wouldn’t an imaginary hoard like the “England fans” just debase what they enjoy with their sheer numbers and their appalling vulgarity?

So to recap the logic goes:

National pride = white working class racism

Interest in football = opium for simpletons

Disproportionate importance placed on the games in the media = capitulation to base stupidity and the herd mentality

Self-exclusion from all of this = elevated understanding.

Ah, you say, but what about the hooligans, Ed? Doesn’t that prove that what you’re saying is just a lot of wishy-washy liberal bollocks? Well, no, because although I’ve sat in a pub with them during Euro 2000, listening to chants of “No surrender to the I.R.A” during an England/Germany game, the more excitable contingent who might lapse into racism and mindless violence are, and have always been, a minority. It suites those with shares in stereotypes to assume otherwise.

Those that are busy caricaturing the English football fan as a slack jawed, chain swinging, beer soaked cretin, aren’t alone. The bad news for the English caricaturist is that they are themselves being caricatured because of their very nationhood. This is where we turn to the other problem afflicting the country’s world cup conversation, bigotry masquerading as intellectualism.

A few weeks ago, it was my misfortune to be stuck on Facebook during a slow afternoon in which I became involved in an extraordinary argument about English national identity. One of my Facebookers, of Scottish origin, was aghast at David Cameron’s decision to hoist the England flag during the competition. Wasn’t this putting a tank with a St. George’s Cross painted on it on to the lawn of ordinary Scots? Did this not set a dangerous precedent which may, if left unchecked, bring about the collapse of the union and represent a final insult to England’s long suffering and subordinated union partners? Well no, I thought, it didn’t. I imagined it to be harmless and failed to see why the entire UK couldn’t just back the only competing home nation. After all, what was the reason not to? I live my life devoid of preoccupations relative to race or nation, so I’m the wrong(?) person to ask. But put that question to any individual who refracts their view of the country through a prism of oppression and victimhood, and you’re inviting a row. There is no benign manifestation of English nationhood, not when certain eyes are watching, and I’d inadvertently pissed into those eyes.

Worst of those that contributed to the conversation, with their prejudices thinly cloaked (and sometimes naked), was an academic whom we’ll call Priyamvada Gopal (Dr if you don’t mind), because that’s her name, whom I later discovered taught at Cambridge. This may inadvertently explain why they’re failing to top Oxford in the league tables. Priyamvada, whose underlying bigotry may shock Guardian readers, who might fallaciously imagine that her inclusion as an occasional contributor marks her out as a tolerant, informed liberal, saw the entire flag incident as another aftershock from England’s imperial past. The English were always confusing England with the UK, she thought, and what an ignorant, hateful bunch we were. Gopal’s Englishmen and women were agog at the suggestion that we may not be as superior as she imagined we thought we were, and naturally, they were as dismissive of the Scottish and the Welsh as is imagined amongst sections of both populations who despise the English, despite their predilection for patiently absorbing all the insecurities and envy projected onto them. You might think that being hated based on nothing but your country of origin and assuming that such bigotry is naturally reciprocated is tantamount to insulting the same group of people twice.

Even if you don’t, I do.

Dr Gopal, who’d studied under Benedict Anderson and had read his book on Imagined Communities some one million times, got in a frightful tizz, as she wilfully and erroneously conflated English pride with symptoms of schizophrenia within the national psyche. As the conversation got uglier, so too did her propensity to use stereotypes as a crutch, as well as what appeared to be her pet obsessions relating to identity politics and ethnicity. “You’re quite a mild-mannered jolly old chap at the end of the day. I love how the English think that criticism of their superiority amounts to ‘racism’. Yes, we all know white men are the new oppressed minority” she wrote, confusing me with a character from a P.G Wodehouse novel, and responding to the suggestion that caricaturing the English as a nation of arrogant racists, attributes you may have attached to the humble England fan, constituted bigotry. The eagle eyed amongst you will notice an unquestioned assumption in her assertion that the English see themselves as superior, as well the projection of her feeling that she represents a repressed minority onto me (though with some sarcasm). You, dear reader, can take whatever you like from this. What I took from it was the suggestion that as a white Englishman, I couldn’t legitimately cry “racist” even if I was on the receiving end of it. Prejudice, though delicately dressed in the finest language, is still prejudice.

Having noted a colonial obsession running through three Facebook comments, it was no surprise to discover that Dr Gopal taught colonial and post-colonial studies. Depressed, I imagined her to be the type of academic who’d been fully institutionalised, having never ventured out into the world of full-blooded human interaction. You’ll know that the academic fraternity is broadly divided into two groups, those recruited from without; professionals attached to vocational courses for example, and those grown within, and they’re usually an awkward and slightly eccentric bunch with an enfeebled grip on reality. They’ve spent far too much time with their peers and too little with the rest of us. When your world is a series of theoretical abstractions and seminars in which you discuss abstractions, a sober assessment of the world based on interactions with a wide range of people is the casualty. Gopal needed to go back to school on the England of 2010, but I felt that her eyes and ears wouldn’t be enough, she’d need a textbook on the subject. Priyamvada if you’re reading, please go away, but also don’t worry, I’m writing that book on the weekends and you’re top of my list for a free copy.

So the World Cup has been quite illuminating and for reasons which have nothing to do with football. As an event it has an extraordinary capability, the social equivalent of one of those airport body scanners, to lay bare the dark underside of those who have no part to play in the ensuing celebratory atmosphere. Bigotry, ignorance, the joining of individuals who share a base mentality; all of this occurs, and while it does so the football fans who’ve gathered to enjoy the kick-about get together at the pub or in front of the living room T.V and get on with enjoying the game, blissfully unaware.

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Published in: on June 29, 2010 at 17:39  Comments (6)  
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  1. We all have our predjudices. Yet some enjoy them more than others.

    • Indeed, but I think it’s more than that. I’m of the opinion that many more needtheir prejudices, because they’ve built their identity in opposition to the things they imagine they’re not. It’s a crutch. If they weren’t superior in some way to x and y, they wouldn’t have a clue who they were and might fall into a deep, dark depression from which there’s no coming back. Can you imagine it? A world in which people had a measure of objectivity, relative to themselves, and were fully self-aware when it came to their own hypocrisy. I’d like to think of it as a sort of social utopia but in reality it’d probably lead to an unprecedented wave of suicides.

      • Where would we be if we did not know how to hate?

        I’m not suggesting that it is a virtue but a primal driving force of human development has been that dicotomy between fight and flight – it encompasses emotions like fear, paranoia, mistrust, anger and others I cannot be bothered to mention.

        Humans instinctively create an identity that is opposed to the unknown. As a species we are very afraid (How many other animals are afraid of the dark) and this fear turns in upon itself and breeds anger and hate. We are unsure of what we don’t understand. OF course, this is a very broad generalisation. Each individual will respond independently depending on their respective gifts. But if you put those people in a group then a tribal mentality takes ahold. People become herds. They regress and adhere to a lower base mentality – defining themselves by how they are different to whatever they happen to be opposing. This mentality is both frustrating and inspiring – one can argue the merits of uniting against a enemy like Nazism, but to actually hate football for it’s supposed connection with violence is like hating the Germans because some of them were Nazis.

        Football itself began as a sport for the working-classes but it has evolved into something else. Hooliganism didn’t simply vanish over night. It just moved from the terraces into the back alleys. There was no evolution – they became the “victims” of corporate sponsorship and health and safety regulation. The bell well and trully tolled for football hooliganism because of the Hillsborough disaster – ironically, not caused by violence but by police incompetence. That incident provided definitive evidence that the terraces were no longer safe – and as by-product, the new stands and security measures lowered the risk of violence breaking out in all-seater stadiums.

        Ah, but what about the violence in the pubs and clubs of England? What about those drunken idiots who take the game to seriously and cause mayhem, violence and destruction? What about the evidence that suggests that domestic abuse increases during a World Cup month?

        Well, like all evidence, it depends on what questions should you be asking?

        Women don’t get raped because they wear short skirts, wear cheap perfume and give men the wrong idea. Women get raped because there are rapists.

        Likewise, women don’t get smacked around because the World Cup is on. Women get smacked around because they are trapped in a relationship with a petty man who seeks to empower himself by bullying somebody he perceives to be weaker than him.

        A hooligan is a hooligan regardless of whether he wears his tribal allegiance as a badge of honour. If a riot breaks out in a pub it is not the fault of the 22 players on the HD screen – those rioters were just waiting for an excuse.

        It is true that sometimes a decent man may get too drunk and find himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, but these incidents are symbolic of a dysfunctional society rather than the beauitful game.

      • I think you may be inadvertently have fallen into the trap I was discussing. The post wasn’t about hooliganism, or the gentrification of football, assuming that’s even happened – in fact it isn’t about football fans at all, rather the attitudes that are thrown up in opposition to this imaginary mass and the way that at times when we’re all allegedly waving the flag, bigotry directed at anyone with a patriotic bent, again from those that use football as a lightning rod for venting their own prejudices about the type of people who they imagine think that way, comes to the fore. As you’ll have read, I was on the receiving end of a bit of casual racism myself, from those who’d got all hot under the collar about “the English” because it was World Cup time and there were a few people who had the audacity to be excited about it…and be English.

        You’re talking about fandom here and you’re discussing it in terms of violence, “a base mentality” etc. That’s the trap I think. Obviously there’s something in that – there are hooligans, there is domestic violence because some men drink more and rough up their poor WAGS – but i doubt they regress – they’re probably prone to doing it anyway, they just don’t drink that much usually – there’s a strain of support which isn’t interested in football and gets its, er, kicks, from belonging to a gang and having an excuse to turn the opposition to paste. But I don’t think that’s the bulk of football fandom or anything close – it’s a minority and I suspect it always was – it was just, as you correctly say, more visible. Most people, and again this purely anecdotal because I haven’t interviewed them all – I’m not imagining a mass of the kind I want – but I believe, and I’m sure there’s plenty of evidence to bare this out – that most people who are interested, are devotees of the game. They enjoy it with their friends, their family, and so on. Maybe they’re working class, maybe they’re middle class – who cares, the point is that it’s harmless and that to be an England supporter doesn’t mean you’re a wife beating, racist knuckle dragger whose sole interests involve getting smashed, urinating in public places and looking for people to beat up. It happens but then some Trekkies have 20/20 vision and a great sex life. Maybe more than is generally known. Or if they don’t now, they certainly used to.

        So there.

  2. (dons Admiral Ackbar voice) It’s a trap!

  3. Incidentally, I was focusing on the football because I was making my own point. There is no part of your argument that I don’t agree with. Although, as a Star Trek fan I have enjoyed a great sex life. Just not recently that’s all.


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