Not supporting England

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)

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10 Responses to “Not supporting England”

  1. Steve H
    October 26, 2010 at 11:19 am #

    Excellent post. I can’t claim to empathise, which makes it more compelling. Part of me is jealous that you’re inner psyche doesn’t force you to support that bunch of losers no matter what. I wish I didn’t care about them and defend them as much as I do.

    As for Kevin Prince, I’m not sure if it’s just that he wouldn’t get in the German team. Look at all the players over the years who have suddenly “found” their true international calling (and as a result got straight into the squad). Andy Townsend, Vinnie Jones, Mark Lawrenson etc. Yes they all have a cultural connection through a relative here and there, but how much of it is down to the love of their homeland is debatable. They weren’t going to make the grade with their first choice team so they opted for their second….. “Big” Jack Charlton made a habit of finding out if certain players – who were not quite good enough for England – had once bought a cat from Ireland. The opposite can be said of Giggs and Best. That’s where I’m from, that’s who I’m playing for.

    Anyway, you don’t bore people about the miracle of Lisbon as often as you think. I’d never shut up about it. However I will make one small point – The Fox is in Pamers Green, not Southgate…..

  2. Kevin McDougall
    October 26, 2010 at 8:55 pm #

    It’s a good post Greg. I’m not sure who really follows the England team any more to be honest. I know lots of people do but I’m just not sure who really. None of my friends really care to much (outside the world cup) how England fair infact most actively want the ‘other’ team to win for a bit of s laugh and to watch the skinhead in pub hit the roof.

    I get the feeling there is a collective disenchantment with England due to a few reasons; !) the general crapness of the team 2) the rise of club football and sky coverage and 3) the behaviour of the England players and a few of the fans.

    So I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of heritage and background if you support England but a passion based on of ideology and outlook.

    Me? I support Chelsea.

  3. Jonathan F
    October 27, 2010 at 12:12 am #

    This is a brilliant post Greg and in my opinion it encapsulates the feelings of a lot of English-born people with different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. I don’t think its a case of ‘are they playing well or not’ as Kevin alludes to. I’ve a lot of friends who feel similarly, and being English-born but from non-English ancestry myself I definitely identify with what you’re saying.

    That said, on the point of Germany’s new multicultural team, it should be pointed out that England have had an ethnically diverse group of players for decades – long before it would have been acceptable in Germany. Viv Anderson, John Barnes and co were all years ahead of the Ozils and Khediras of today, and Gerald Asamoah (off the top of my head I’m pretty sure he was the first black player to play for Germany) received all manner of abuse years after black players had become ‘acceptable’ to the majority in England.

    Also, was interesting to note Angela Merkel saying multiculturalism ‘had failed’ in Germany just months after a much-heralded diverse group of Germans took the World Cup by storm.

  4. Greg Theoharis
    October 27, 2010 at 10:12 am #

    Thanks for the comments everyone.

    I agree with Steve’s contention that the ancestry rule has been taken full advantage of by certain players and managers at international level over the years (and sometimes with comical effects, John Aldridge’s torrent of Scouse abuse in the Florida sunshine at USA ’94 anyone?) but the piece wasn’t really about players, it was about the dislocation that emigration causes for the generation of people born after said pioneers have settled. Many of us feel like we’re caught in a limbo between two cultures and it can be both advantageous and isolating in equal measure.

    Yes, England were one of the first nations to cap non-indigenous players but this still only incorporates players of Caribbean descent and is not entirely representative of the broader ethnic mix we have in this country. For various reasons we do not have Asian players or other Europeans lining up for England and consequently, it feels to me at least, that the team I watch does not represent me.

    Ms Merkel’s comments are unfortunate and misguided but that should not take anything away from the fact that this German team, in much the same way that the French team of ’98 was, is a collage of ethnic mixes and is far more symbolic of a Rainbow Nation than say, South Africa was at this year’s World Cup.

  5. Steve H
    October 27, 2010 at 11:21 am #

    I think it’s sad that people are not supporting England because of the “skinhead in the pub” stereotype that is attached to England these days. Nearly everyone I know supports England [as in watches their games on the telly and wants them to win] and none of them fit the so-called persona that an England fan seems to be these days. The only people I know who want the other team to win are Scottish, Welsh (and occasionally Greek), which is fair enough. If England fans have been hijacked by people who want to start a fight as opposed to care about football (and I’m not sure they have) then it is a sad indictment for the country. It’s hard to imagine fans in other countries being ashamed to support their home team. I for one have never been ashamed about it and I don’t at all consider myself thuggish or violent (and I certainly don’t have a skinhead – not that it would matter if I did). My mum (to the annoyance of my dad) puts an England flag on her car during the World Cup. And she’s a Magistrate! We need to be careful with stereotypes. In this country we’re vilified for using them on others. Why has it become ok to use them on ourselves?

    I grew up getting the ‘FA England’ annual for Christmas every year, which I read so many times I ended up knowing the birthdays of all the players. If I was allowed to stay up to watch an England match on the TV it made my week, sometimes my month. As we passed through Mexico 86, Italy 90 and Euro 96 those feelings didn’t change, and England’s performances in major tournaments (against my better judgement) shaped by mood for the summer. I’d like to think that the majority of England fans are like this. True, the players don’t command the kind of respect they did when I was a kid. I used to look up to them, whereas these days many of them appall me. But this is largely forgotten when they take the field. I still want them to win, no matter how much they may not deserve it. I’m not a neutral. I’m an England fan. It’s not an affliction that can be cured or switched on and off. It’s not up to me who has a fight in the name of England. I don’t like it – but it doesn’t change who I want to win.

  6. Jim Dimond
    October 27, 2010 at 5:33 pm #

    Great blog that struck several chords strongly with me given my mixed Greek Cypriot/English background.

    The only England game I ever attended was against Cyprus at Wembley in ’75 (I think) that finished 5 nil – all scored by one Malcolm Macdonald!

    My antipathy towards England started around that time but not because of that thrashing: it was more to do with the FA’s reluctance to even consider – let alone appoint – Brian Clough as manager. Throughout my (considerable) lifetime the England team’s chances (post Sir Alf Ramsey)have been hampered by the FA’s conservatism, lack of imagination, risk averse nature, and general inability to look forward rather than inwards, sideways or back. A string of mediocre appointments (Greenwood, Taylor, McClaren et al) have followed down the years and exacerbated my apathy.

    Of course there have been a few brief periods of optimism and light(Italia 90 and Euro 96) to brighten the gloom, but nothing to match the joy and pride that my little family shared when Greece won Euro 2004. How heroic and unexpected that triumph was for anyone with a claim to Hellenic heritage, however distant!

    My apathy towards England has recently turned to antipathy, however, following England’s dismal showing in S. Africa, followed by all the unsavoury revelations/misdemeanours of many of the players both on and off the pitch since then.

    I’d love to support England unreservedly and get behind them (like I do with Spurs – through good times and bad) but I can’t imagine when that time might come.

    Until it does, and until the self-serving and aptly named FA is replaced by a more suitable governance model for the modern era, as befits the national team, it’s with sadness that I admit that I just can’t bring myself to support England with all my heart.

  7. Kevin McDougall
    October 27, 2010 at 7:16 pm #

    Some good comments on here. I just wanted to explain the ‘skinhead in the pub’ remark I’m not stereo typing England followers I know they come in all shapes and sizes. I’m talking about the emotional attachment most of my peers have with the current team. Of course we want England team to win but really I get more enjoyment out of club side beating another team. If England do well then that’s good but if they don’t it doesn’t really bother me as much as it does if my club team does not perform.

    The laughing at the passionate fan in the pub is akin to laughing at a Birmingham fan who gets emotional when his team aren’t beating Man Utd or Chelsea. I don’t anyone who will not follow England because of the fans or any moral stance but I know plenty of people who couldn’t really give a stuff if we lose to a lesser team – simply because there is no emotional attachment to England anymore. Hence why most of my peers laugh if England are being beaten by a team of German U23′s.

    Yes we want then to win but because most of us aren’t blinded by the hype surrounding the team it becomes funny when ‘the favorites’ with the most highly paid team and manager lose.

    It’s not that we want England to fail or are ashamed of the country it’s just that we sort of have seen it all before and don’t really expect anything more than glorious (or in this year’s case inglorious) failure.

    People who expect anything different deserved to be laughed at. England fans or not.

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