Take away the England football team and what kind of popular representations of England are we left with?
The historian Eric Hobsbawm made an observation that is never more relevant than when applied to us, the English: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”
But what we mean by “real” is a contest: for some, it’s Marcus Rashford, Tyrone Mings or Raheem Sterling; for others, it’s booing them and their teammates taking the knee; for a few more, it’s probably bits of both.
What an amazing experience, to follow your nation to another country, to watch a football game, to be part of, not apart from, a huge continental party.
For 16 years – from England’s Euro 96, to Euro 2012 in Ukraine – I was part of that community. In Japan and South Africa, at away qualifiers from Finland to Kazakhstan too. And it was a community made up of all sorts of people, hugely committed to travel round the world for our team, in huge numbers, and mostly I was proud to be part of it.
There’s a well-deserved authenticity when it comes to being a travelling England fan. As a result, I’ve been reluctant to comment, however much it angers me, on fans booing the players taking the knee. Parental responsibilities put a stop to all my travelling for England. Nowadays, like most fans I’m reducing to watching on the TV but wishing I was there. So last week I wasn’t there in the stands, in the thick of it, no doubt feeling absolutely sickened by the booing. But eventually the frustration convinced me to speak out.
I remember an away match against Italy in 1997. A hard-fought 0-0 draw that brought us World Cup qualification. And amid all this, right across one end was a huge Italian tricolour made up of thousands of cards held up by their fans. Now that’s what I call a symbol of a fans’ nation, one that belongs to all: it’s we who create the spectacle; not the officials, the sponsors or the broadcasters. And so, with the support of the FA, Raise the Flag was born. We fans produced our own cards, laid them out on the seats before each match, so that the whole crowd could hold them up to form a single huge St George’s Cross as God Save the Queen began. It was a fantastic symbol for fans, the team and the nation watching at home. We made it happen at every England home game. Anarchic and uncontrolled, the risks involved at the start terrified the FA, but we made it our flag.
But at away tournaments – France ’98, Euro 2000 – the trouble persisted, with England the least welcome guest at the World Cup and Euros party. For Euro 2000 the FA launched a campaign I’d come up with a slogan for, “Football Yes – Violence No”. In all honesty it couldn’t have been more wrong, wallowing in being guilty before proved innocent, it could never appeal to the vast majority of fans, and didn’t.
What was needed instead was a conversation where fans are treated as equal partners in creating this backdrop of Englishness for every tournament. A conversation that began, I quickly realised, with a recognition of who the fans saw as the enemy: first, our FA; second, all media; third, the other country’s police.
And so I helped initiate, and then organise, LondonEnglandFans forums before every away trip or tournament, in a pub room packed with travelling supporters. Those we had blamed for all our woes, and who blamed us for all theirs – the FA, media and the police – came. We had a conversation, and at every forum I chaired we ended up understanding each other a little bit more. Sometimes we still disagreed, but the act of simply listening to one another was absolutely the right thing to do.
As fans we were taking a full and active part in this process of change rather than simply being told what to do. And with sports broadcast media covering us, that one room in a London pub provided a dialogue that thousands of thousands of travelling England fans could see was having a beneficial impact for all of us.
Japan ’02 marked a further massive change. To step off the plane and find ourselves surrounded by Japanese citizens, almost all wearing England shirts and wanting to party with us, was a new experience. Used to assuming everyone else loathed the English, how much more pleasurable to find what it was like to be loved. Might this be true elsewhere? Wouldn’t it be worth finding out?
And so another idea emerged: fans’ matches, the fans representing England on a pitch. It was every supporter’s dream. Further, with the help of the British Council we’d visit schools for English language conversation classes with England fans! Always concluding, naturally, with a football quiz. Most poignantly, across Europe we’d jointly lay wreaths at the sites that marked the horror of a continent divided: at monuments to those who’d lost their lives, at Auschwitz and Dachau too. In these different ways fans were reinventing what England away might mean.
Of course, like those who boo the knee, we were never the majority; most fans are there for a football match, full stop. But ours was something positive that a huge number could be proud of, and were. And it fits how we should think about football.
It’s a cop-out to say taking the knee isn’t political. Of course it is – everything about an England game is political, in the widest sense, starting with why England, not Team GB? If that’s not political, what is?
The question is what kind of politics: an open, welcoming, friendly Englishness; or one that is closed, unwelcoming and hateful? In answering that question, if fans aren’t part of finding the answer, however risky that endeavour might be, it will never be found.
Mark Perryman is co-founder of Philosophy Football