An Englishman who doesn’t support England. Unthinkable, right? Wrong. Greg Theoharis returns to Just Football to discuss the role national identity plays in supporting an international football team.
The question is always the same: “But if you were born in London and support Tottenham, why do you support Greece instead of England?”
What inevitably follows is an account of my grandparents’ economic emigration from Cyprus in the 1950s, which in turn takes in a detour of Greece by way of my mother meeting my father on a family holiday and finally winding up with the culturally muddled Anglo-Hellene whose meanderings you happen to be reading right now.
I don’t support England; although I did have a dalliance during my own formative years, when Gazza cried. I don’t really subscribe to the ‘anyone but England’ mentality of some. It’s more a case of a difference in cultural heritages and customs which are more easily accommodated within the broad spectrum club football naturally lends itself to, rather than the more partisan mentality which international football by its very nature fosters, sometimes disastrously if the Serbian riots in Genoa earlier this month were anything to go by.
Supporting Greece leaves me more or less isolated in staffroom discussions with polite yet clearly apathetic nods aimed at me when I talk about the possible permutations for Euro qualification that could be thrown Greece’s way when Croatia come calling in Athens next year. Heavily reliant on score updates via the web, Greece’s encounters are often played out vicariously in my imagination and caught retrospectively on Youtube or other streaming channels.
Being a cultural outsider in a country that you also call home creates its own blurred sense of identity and settling down to snooze in front of the drab performances England have been producing recently might just be easier and more convenient. But you can’t help how you feel about a place or where you’re from.
I’m not alone in feeling caught between a country of ethnic origin and the one that you have been raised in. Adrian Chiles has always talked up his maternal affiliations to the Croatian national side whilst also grumbling about England’s perennial disappointments on the international stage. The Boateng brothers showed just how obtuse nationality is increasingly becoming with Kevin Prince electing to play for Ghana at this year’s World Cup while his younger brother, Jerome, pledged allegiance to the place of his upbringing, Germany.
And what of Germany? It was with such refreshing and enthusiastic tones that many people spoke of the multicultural make-up of the squad’s latest incarnation in South Africa. Comprised of players of Turkish, Brazilian, Ghanaian and Polish origin, the Joachim Loew’s squad was a vivid portrait of how national identity is becoming more and more interconnected in the twenty-first century; a result of migration for economic or political motives.
It is now a common occurrence for people to follow or be eligible to play for two national sides these days. I have a Canadian friend who celebrated wildly when Spain triumphed at Soccer City, due to her Spanish parentage. Despite what the headlines in the overtly xenophobic right-wing press might have you believe, this ethnic interchangeability is something that should celebrated and allowed to flourish if the mistrust of the modern age are ever going to dissipated.
It’s foolish that there’s even a rumbling debate about the nationality of the England manager. If he brings success, what does it matter if he’s from Bologna or Bournemouth? As a Greece supporter, I’m more than happy to bask in the glory of the country’s greatest ever sporting achievement at Euro 2004 having been masterminded by a German, Otto Rehhagel.
The night of July 4th, 2004. Southgate. A spontaneous outburst of celebration broke out amongst the Greek and Cypriot diaspora in this tiny part of London, the minute the final whistle had been blown in Lisbon. I’ve never seen so many strangers converse so warmly with each other aided by ouzo and goodwill. Policemen smiled and danced with us as hooters blared and we all chanted to the success of a team we’d never seen play in the flesh, for a country many of us had only been to for our summer holidays, whose language we spoke in fragments and with heavy London accenting. For a brief moment in time, the complex issue of identity for many second and third generations of Greeks achieved some clarity.
I wish I could say that about England. I’m sure there are many England supporters of various ethnic origins who feel comfortable about following the national team and have none of this crisis of identity. Maybe the efforts to put together a Great Britain football team to represent us all at the 2012 Olympics might make it feel more representative of the country in which I was born?
Or maybe I’ll be more fervent in supporting England when a player of Greek origin breaks into the national team? Until then, however, I’ll continue to bore everybody I know with the re-telling of the miracle of Lisbon. And to avoid, obsessing and refreshing a computer screen every time there’s an international fixture, perhaps it’s time to book a ticket to Athens. There’s no place like home, so the saying goes. Wherever that is.
Be sure to read more from Greg Theoharis at his own blog Dispatches From A Football Sofa.
(photo by jenniferkwarren on Flickr)