For those in Ireland who have been passively supporting the England football team in Euro 2020 on the tacit understanding that its progress in the tournament will, as tradition dictates, come to a dramatic halt somewhere around the mid-way point, it has been an unsettling week.
Taking football as a proxy for larger grievances is as old as the game itself. Hoping that rivals lose, taking pleasure in a neighbour’s poor form – these are vital ingredients of fandom. Many Irish people see no contradiction between ardent support for an English club and passionate investment in the fortunes of any team that happens to come up against England on the international stage. English media’s incorrigible over-confidence about their team’s chances – as reliable a tournament staple as the heroic Irish loss or Dutch under-achievement – help people rationalise the sentiment.
The problem for the anyone-but-England camp this year is that the team itself is difficult to dislike. Man for man, this is one of the best squads in the world. Three of the players (Declan Rice, Jack Grealish and Harry Kane) are products of the Irish diaspora; two of them even played for Ireland at under-age level.
Under the classy leadership of Gareth Southgate, the team embodies some of the traits Irish people admire most about England and its people. From Southgate himself to players such as Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford, two remarkable social activists, the group is full of impressive individuals. As a collective, this multi-ethnic team represents the inclusive, open country many Irish people know and love. Many immigrants from Ireland and elsewhere in the EU have felt a chill in England of late. After five tough years since the Brexit referendum, when Anglo-Irish relations have come under strain and the British government has been captured by a narrow mean-spirited conception of Englishness, this team reminds us that the battle for a more progressive and generous idea of England is still being fought. In the long view, it may even be winning.