I was a teenager when Des Lynam opened the BBC’s coverage of an England football match with the perfect line: “Good afternoon, shouldn’t you be at work?”
Personally, I was only skiving off exam revision, but Lynam’s words connected me to a country of people who had left their offices and routines to watch a game against Tunisia.
And I bet most of them, like me, still remember the pure emotion of that 1998 World Cup: Michael Owen’s slalom through the Argentine defence, David Beckham’s red card for relatable petulance, Sol Campbell’s disallowed winning header.
Football is how many of us experience the nation. It stands above any other event, except for the very biggest royal ceremonies. Supporting the national team is something we do for our country, and something our country does for us. It’s that feeling you get walking down a street, knowing nearly all the TVs are tuned to the same thing. It renews our connection to each other.
How tiresome then that this summer’s European championship, with England’s group stage matches happily taking place at home, arrives in a cloud of rancour. Some fans booed the England team for taking the knee before a warm-up match.
In response, England manager Gareth Southgate published a moving essay, in which he argued: “I have never believed that we should just stick to football . . . I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.” The team, he said, are helping to create “a much more tolerant and understanding society”.
Here are two views of patriotism: a spiteful, conservative one, and an eloquent, progressive one. I have no trouble dismissing the conservative view. The people who complain about England taking the knee are the same ones who make a fuss over whether the BBC has a Union flag in its annual report, or who try to drag the Queen on to their side of the Brexit debate.
Theirs is a false, pathetic patriotism. They don’t seem to care if the England team does well. They would probably deride the players as spoiled millionaires if the team stopped speaking out on social justice. Real patriotism is not a competitive sport that you play against your own countrymen and women.
So I embrace Southgate’s patriotism — not because it’s progressive, but because it’s authentic. If the England players want to take the knee before games, that is who they are and I support them for it. If they collectively decided not to take the knee, I wouldn’t boo them. They could run around waving Brexit placards, or appoint Boris Johnson as their mascot, and I’d still support them.
Because supporting the national team is a rare act of unity and duty. My generation hasn’t been asked to fight a war. We can vote, pay taxes and even pick up litter. But as a nation our “collective consciousness”, as Southgate called it, stems from mass events. It demands that we stop quibbling about each aspect of Clap For Carers or Prince Philip’s funeral — that we stop putting ourselves at the centre of such set pieces.
After the proposed European Super League collapsed, there was talk of listening to the voice of fans. That would be welcome in club football, where the alternative is more power for greedy owners and foolish administrators. But in international football, being a fan is a different experience. You’re less a stakeholder, more an adherent.
International competitions are less regular than domestic football, so they are less predictable, and there is always hope. “Never stopped me dreaming,” as the anthem Three Lions puts it. David Baddiel, co-creator of that song, describes it representing as “a vulnerable patriotism”. It trumpets hope, not expectation, unity, not division — the best tradition of football fandom.
Shouldn’t we be at work? No, this is more important.