In the second of our History Workshop World Cup series, Charlotte Lydia Riley explores England football fans’ relationship to national identity, white masculinity, and post-imperial melancholia.
England’s relationship to the World Cup – like its relationship to everything these days – is built on nostalgia. For some reason, this year’s build-up has seemed a bit flat: it is an interesting young team, full of likeable players who have performed well in the Premier League, but the usual hysterical “is this the year they win it?” speculation has been missing. Perhaps this is the year that England football fans have decided to be realistic, although a good result in the first game would probably still spark fervent optimism.
The England football team is a complicated entity, not least because it makes plain the constant linguistic wrangling of national identity on these islands. In the Olympics, Team GB (which also includes Northern Ireland) rules the waves and sometimes the medal board. But in football – and cricket, and rugby – the nations split. The old joke that Andy Murray is British until he loses (when he’s Scottish) only makes sense during Wimbledon: in the Olympics, he can be both.
When Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn that “we call our islands by six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion”, what he really meant was that English people sit within six overlapping conceptions of national identity. Nothing makes this clearer than the great performative shift we have to undergo every two years (once for the World Cup, then again for the Euros).
All sports teams function as collective constructions of their fans, who weave memory and emotion into a distinct competitive identity. The modern England team is sustained by this process of collective myth-making. But shifts between British and English identity complicate matters. When England fans sing “Two World Wars and one World Cup” – despite most being born after 1966, let alone 1945 – they are expressing a collective nostalgia which blurs different conceptions of identity. More than that, it blurs the details of who exactly it was that “won” in 1918 and 1945: not England, not even Britain or the United Kingdom, but a collection of allied powers that included among them millions of colonial soldiers and civilians.
This constant recall, not only of past sporting victories – the England team doesn’t have enough of them – but also of past national achievements more broadly defined, is symptomatic of what Paul Gilroy diagnosed as English post-imperial melancholia. British football fans are used to loss: the most consistently popular fan anthem, Three Lions, invokes “years of hurt” as well as dreaming. When England fans sing about the Second World War, they are invoking past glories to cover their disappointment at the realities of the present, off the pitch as well as on. When they insert “No Surrender” into the national anthem they recall military campaigns against the IRA to bolster a sense of English chauvinism. The nagging pain of loss of empire – of that period of British “greatness” where Britannia ruled the waves and Geoff Hurst ruled the six-yard box – feeds a melancholic attachment to the past which renders fruitless any attempt to reckon with either British history or contemporary Britain. Or, for that matter, English football, forever falling short of those glory days that coincided slightly too neatly with decolonisation.
When England plays in an international tournament, the St George’s Cross is suddenly everywhere: draped from windows, over cars and around shoulders in a performance of national unity. The skinhead chant “there ain’t no black in the union jack, send the bastards back” had toxified the British flag in the 1970s, while the prevalence of hooliganism and racist violence had done the same for English football crowds. The ubiquity of the St George’s Cross during Euro 96 was the result of a conscious effort by the FA and others to reclaim football for a young, multicultural English audience. But well-meaning patriotism always hovers on the edge of something darker, and it is perhaps not surprising that, post-devolution, the English Defence League (in many ways the modern reboot of 1970s racist movements) has chosen the English flag as its symbol. In this context, it is unsurprising that the display is alarming or excluding to many British citizens.
But it doesn’t have to be like this, and this melancholic, aggressive nationalism will not be the whole story in 2018. The “Tebbit Test” – whereby the then-Conservative MP (now Lord) Norman Tebbit made support for the English national team the measure of migrants’ assimilation – is not real. Britain’s long history of migration means that there will be plenty of people in England cheering Poland or Nigeria, Iran or Australia, and there will be whole neighbourhoods in cities and towns across the United Kingdom where fans are singing the names of other nations’ players. English football is still often lazily associated with a hyper-masculine, hyper-racialised nationalism, rooted in a type of white, male, working-class identity that is mythologised by media commentators but largely illusory. The working classes in Britain make up and inhabit some of the most multicultural communities in the country, and women’s support for, and participation in, football has been growing for some time, boosted by the Lionesses’ third place in the 2015 World Cup. The progressive, inclusive multicultural Britain conjured by the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony was itself mythical, but if national sporting events demand a national myth, one crafted joyously around diversity must surely be preferable to a narrow, exclusionary national melancholia.
And while the English probably hope that the eventual winners can be gracious, losers too can be magnanimous. When Iceland knocked England out of the Euros in 2016, plenty of English people tuned in to watch their next match in the hope that they might continue their plucky underdog role against the French. It seems unlikely that England will win the World Cup in 2018, and so the virtue of being a “good loser” – that supposedly English ideal so often invoked, yet so rarely practiced – may have to be embraced. But it is just as likely that post-imperial melancholia will provoke a harder reaction. The media certainly seems intent on stoking racist narratives around key players – notably Raheem Sterling – and if the team do badly, some will be reviled not because of their role on the pitch, but because of their consistent construction as “other” by newspapers themselves steeped in nostalgic, melancholic anger. But because these constructions of what it means to be English – like all national identities – are imagined, there is space for a different vision, too. And one day England fans might themselves help England become reconciled to its history. Just as long as it doesn’t go to penalties.
Charlotte Lydia Riley is a lecturer in twentieth century British history at the University of Southampton. She writes about contemporary British political, social and cultural history, with a particular focus on the history of the Labour Party and overseas aid and development. She is interested more generally in the history of British decolonisation and the end of empire, and British political culture with a particular focus on gender politics. She is on Twitter as @lottelydia.