In spite of those who sneered at the headline, I maintain that when it comes to international football I don’t have a particular favourite team.
I’ve gone through spells when I have cheered on the Irish. Spells where I have been happy with every good result that Scotland gets.
I have gone through spells when I simply refused to watch my own national side, most notably after the SFA scandalously gave the job back to Alex McLeish after first considering Walter Smith again.
During this World Cup (where I’ve had the immense good fortune to have a job which allowed me to watch each and every minute of each and every game, although I worked through several of them) I have cheered on underdogs and favourites.
Underdogs even when they’ve been going up against the favourites I was cheering on a game before.
I have wanted to see teams from Africa, Asia, North and South America, Oceania and Europe triumph, sometimes a few of them on the same day. When I call myself a World Cup neutral I genuinely do believe that I mean it.
My old man once responded to being called a bigot by the telling the guy “I’m not a bigot. I don’t care who beats Rangers.”
It always summed up for me the central feeling I have when watching England. You do feel like a neutral when you don’t care who the opposition against them is.
You simply want that team to win and win well.
This has nothing to do with being Scottish either, and I resent deeply any suggestion that this is merely the expected response of somebody who voted Yes and would do so again.
No, I have a feeling that this is a nearly universal thing.
I once read in a book (I would love to remember which one and who wrote it) that the author saw a sign in an Australian safari park which advertised its rates; underneath them, it said “Englishmen on bicycles admitted free.”
In the same section of the book, he shared an old joke; two tribesmen are travelling through the Serengeti and one sees a lion licking another lion’s backside. “What the Hell is that animal doing?” he asks. His friend says, “Well, that poor beast just ate an Englishman and is trying to get the taste out of its mouth.”
Jokes like that can be heard in every corner of the world. I would imagine that Brexit, on its own, has produced enough of them to fill a telephone book.
There is something in the English character, maybe, a smugness, a sense of superiority, which makes it very easy to root for the other side. There is also a shameful section of their media – and this comes across in a particularly nasty way in some of their sports journalists; not the serious ones, but those who dwell in the netherworld of Fleet Street – who cannot help but mention the empire in every other article as though they were re-forging it.
Even the broadcast media are not immune to this stuff.
During matches against Germany and Argentina the machismo, the bravado, the fetishizing of war and of victory over a “hated foe” is so hard to stomach at times that you are desperate to see them get skelped.
It gets that way against France as well at times, when they are referred to as the “Old Enemy” as though the Hundred Years War ended last week instead of more than 500 years ago.
Germany and France have fought umpteen wars since; those countries forged the European Union and hold it together to this day. Neither of those nations looks back on the victories and defeats of old with anything other than regret that they happened at all.
This is peculiarly British.
It is, in fact, almost peculiarly English although you’ll have noticed the steady creep of it into our culture with poppy mayhem every year now and, of course, a section of our own society up here which is every bit as immersed in all that monarchy and empire garbage as any Little Englander ever has been or ever will be.
Every country wants to beat them now. Every country who comes up against them and wins takes an almost savage satisfaction in it, even those which don’t have to live with Alan Shearer and Gary Lineker before every World Cup fixture, no matter who is playing, talking about England’s “path to the final” or other such presumptuous guff.
Even the English know it themselves; Shakespeare’s celebrated “This England” monologue from Richard III builds from patriotic gushing before falling to cold condemnation long before the end.
“That England, that was wont to conquer others, hath made a shameful conquest of itself” is perhaps one of the greatest denunciations of someone’s own country that has ever been put to words, and it’s as true now as it was when he wrote it.
No single individual did more to codify what being English represents … but he repudiated those very same things time and time again in his work.
There is something in some part of the English spirit which builds something up only to break it down.
That is generous and warm but is equally capable of sneering contempt and curtain twitching satisfaction at the travails and struggles of others. Something that preaches a national love of tolerance, respect, openness and freedom … but seems to yearn for the kind of leadership that would snatch those things away in an instant.
I don’t understand England, and never have.
Orwell himself, one of the smartest men and finest writers in the history of this island, tried in vain to do it, and in “England Your England” came as close to the mark as anyone ever has; even his fearsome intellect was almost overcome by the myriad contradictions at the heart of the English character.
I don’t hate them. It’s just that certain things about the English baffle and confuse me as much as the behaviours of Sevconia, and certain others – like their propensity and tolerance for Tory governments – flat out appal me.
I enjoy seeing them lose. I admit it.
If they weren’t so insufferable, so up their own backsides, so confident and smug about themselves, I would be as agnostic about their fortunes as I am those of Wales and even the North of Ireland whose results I mostly never even look for.
When it comes to England I am both a neutral and not … I can admire the skills of their team and even enjoy watching them. I can feel good about the average man and woman in the stands when they are doing well, and yet abhor the songs about German bombers.
But really, I just want to see them lose every time they play, and I no more try to understand it than I try to understand why I instinctively kill every wasp that crosses my path. I don’t bear them any particular ill-will … but it’s there, it’s reflexive and I don’t try and fight it.
I will enjoy these last three World Cup games more because none of the results can possibly lead to any scenario which benefits Harry Kane and I write that as a guy who has loved watching every second of Saka that he has been on the ball, and as someone who thinks Marcus Rashford is not just an outstanding player but an outstanding human being … and I cannot conceive of how those two guys could have been racially abused by their own countrymen for missing penalties at the Euros.
I struggle to either reconcile or separate the England they represent from the one which the bastards who abused them do … and maybe it’s just as simple as that.
I just know that as a neutral I was cheering on France, just as I’d have been cheering on Holland or Argentina or Germany or Spain or Brazil or, in the scenario I think we all dreaded, Morocco in the semi-final.
It’s got nothing to do with being Scottish.
It certainly has nothing do with being a nationalist.
I am an internationalist, and that I genuinely don’t care who beats England is what proves it.