Ken Early: The least we owe England is to keep on hating to the end

No room for objective analysis or comment when it comes to England’s World Cup run

Fans celebrated on the streets of London as England booked their place in the semi-finals of the World Cup with a 2-0 win over Sweden. Video: Reuters

 

England’s march to the quarter-finals of the World Cup has seen an outbreak of national Three Lions fever that far exceeds anything since Euro 96, when they were hosting the tournament.

But it’s not as though this is clearly England’s best performance in all that time. They reached the World Cup quarter-finals with strong-looking sides in 2002 and 2006, yet it feels as though the euphoria never approached quite this pitch of intensity. Why should this be?

Various explanations have been suggested, ranging from the likability of the players, to the likability of Gareth Southgate, to the likability of the more sophisticated and frankly un-English football England are playing, which can largely be attributed to the fact that the top level of English football has become the most internationalised league in the world.

And yet none of these ideas is as persuasive as argument that this great upsurge of emotion is happening because it’s the first good tournament England have had in the age of social media, the great amplifier of collective emotional currents.

This has created several conditions that weren’t there before: a continuous national experience in which people can immerse themselves every time they look at their phones, a gigantic panopticon for the policing of dissent, and an incentive for people to strive towards ever greater performative heights in demonstrating to the world how incredibly excited they are.

A journalist who watched England v Colombia from the overflow section at Spartak showed me the video he took of Eric Dier’s winning penalty, which featured an accidental star in the form of the young England fan standing just in front of him.

England fans relax on the banks of the Volga ahead of the clash with Sweden. Photo: Getty Images
England fans relax on the banks of the Volga ahead of the clash with Sweden. Photo: Getty Images

The fan had his own phone out to record not the penalty, but his own reaction: as the ball went in he turned away from the pitch and the spectacle of the celebrating England players to scream at his own face in the screen, a feedback loop of over-the-top emotion that would seem insanely solipsistic if you didn’t understand that he was doing it for his audience on Instagram.

The emotion may be performative but that doesn’t mean it’s fake. All emotion is performative, at some level – it’s communication, and it’s infectious. Footballers celebrate goals much more in a packed stadium than an empty one. A comedian seems much funnier when everyone around you is laughing. The presence of an audience magnifies feeling, and everyone now carries around an audience in their pocket.

Maybe the England fan at Spartak was exaggerating his reaction for likes, but by exaggerating it he also increased it; just as smiling supposedly improves your mood, the act of screaming like a maniac has a way of fizzing up the brain.

Competitive dynamic

This competitive dynamic of showing how much you love the Three Lions has extended even to the travelling English press corps. Maybe there was a time when the job of the sports journalist came with a certain expectation of – at least outward – detachment and objectivity.

But now journalists regularly find themselves under attack online by people accusing them of undermining England, of hating the players and wanting them to fail. Maybe it’s just a coincidence that we’re seeing some journalists taking steps to prove they yield to nobody in their emotional commitment to England – posting videos of the staff back in their London newsrooms celebrating Eric Dier’s winning penalty, or tweeting about how their reaction to England’s win was to fall to their knees and beat the ground with their fists while screaming “YES! YES! YES!”

Any pretence that journalists are supposed to offer some sort of realistic assessment of what has happened out on the pitch has been discarded; instead it is their task – or rather their privilege – to shovel coal into the furnace of national euphoria. Maybe it’s more honest this way.

This feverish atmosphere complicates things for a foreigner covering football’s journey home.

You are exempt from the obligation to support “our boys” because they’re not your boys, and yet your reports go into the same global internet space where they are devoured by England fans, voraciously hungry for ever more England-related content. Soon after that, you realise your reasoned analysis of England’s performance does not come across as being as reasonable as you supposed it did.

England arrive at their hotel in Samara on Friday. Photo: Getty Images
England arrive at their hotel in Samara on Friday. Photo: Getty Images

The problem with qualified praise is explored in a scene in Vasily Grossman’s novel about the Battle of Stalingrad, Life and Fate. One character, Viktor, is a scientist who has just made the theoretical discovery of a lifetime. The first person he wants to tell is his friend and longtime scientific collaborator, Pyotr Sokolov. The silence as Sokolov reads through the equations is delicious to Viktor, it seems he and his friend are sharing a beautiful moment of communal appreciation. Then Sokolov starts to speak.

“It’s wonderful,” said Sokolov, “quite unbelievable. What elegance! I congratulate you with all my heart. What extraordinary power! What logic, what elegance! Even from an aesthetic point of view your reasoning is perfect.”

Still trembling with excitement, Viktor thought ‘For God’s sake! This isn’t a matter of elegance. This is bread for the soul’.

Then Sokolov began to hold forth. Though he understood the importance of Viktor’s work and praised it in superlative terms, Viktor hated every word he said. To him any evaluation seemed trivial and stereotyped.

True glory

“Your work promises remarkable results.” What a stupid word! He didn’t need Pyotr Lavrentyevich to know what his work promised. And anyway why ‘promises results’? It was a result in itself. “You’ve employed a most original method.” No, it wasn’t a matter of originality, this was bread, bread, black bread.”

Viktor hates the fact that Sokolov seems unable or unwilling to recognise the true glory of his achievement. All his praise rings false; it’s qualified, or overly specific, or slightly wrong in emphasis; to Viktor’s ear it sounds puny, a travesty of praise, in fact little more than a series of veiled insults. He feels Sokolov is envious and hates his achievement, and he might not be mistaken about that. And yet it shouldn’t surprise him that Sokolov doesn’t seem quite as blown away by his achievement as he is. It’s happening to somebody else.

The difficulty is that when someone is as thrilled about something as the nation of England is about this World Cup run, qualified praise comes across as unqualified begrudgery.

Publish anything about England short of saying that their latest performance made you fall to earth and beat the ground screaming “Yes! Yes! Yes!” and you discover that in the throes of the present delirium, England fans can interpret literally any criticism, no matter how bland or middle-of-the-road, as an attack.

Express surprise that Gary Neville is already talking about a World Cup semi-final after losing to Belgium’s reserves and you get a response like: “The only thing the Irish beat are their missus because they feel so inadequate because their own team is dog shit… Who else have we played you absolute mong? We can’t beat people we haven’t played you dumb fuck”.

Fair enough, can’t please everyone.

Suggest that England’s performance against Colombia showed that they are finally learning how to play the referee, just like the sort of sides who traditionally win the World Cup, and a Londoner with an EU flag in their bio comments: “Take the [tricolour emoji] glasses off and read that again. It’s embarrassing.”

Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane at a press conference ahead of the quarter-final.
Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane at a press conference ahead of the quarter-final.

You discover it’s not just the No Surrender-chanting kind of England fan, but also the more measured, not-usually-super-patriotic English who get irritated by your failure to sufficiently acknowledge the beauty of this enchanting homecoming story.

Maybe you can understand where they are coming from. For two years the big national story in England has been Brexit, a toxic wedge that has split society into rival camps defined by mutual contempt. Along comes something that feels good, something positive that can allow everyone to feel as though they are on the same side for once, and here come the haters to pick holes in it. Why must all English happiness be begrudged? Why can’t we have nice things for once?

Foreign writers

It does seem as though the only way for foreign writers to avoid annoying the English is to maintain the sort of hush of awe in which Sokolov seemed lost before he started to talk, and since that is not going to happen there will over the coming days be a lot of England fans furious with foreign journalists for hating their team.

Unlike journalists, foreign fans don’t have to worry about the appearance of impartiality, they are free to choose where their emotional commitment lies. The current England set-up’s seeming lack of obviously hateable qualities has brought back to the fore a question that periodically surfaces among Irish football fans at tournament time.

Should they hope England fail, as is tradition, or should they take what seems a more enlightened and generous view, rise above ancient grudges, and cheer on the neighbours? The English aren’t all Nigel Farage or Katie Hopkins or Tommy Robinson, after all! A lot of them are even quite nice.

The problem with the second view is that it conflates wanting the England football team to lose with hating the English, which is quite a different thing. It forgets that football is only a game, a fantasy cartoon version of reality, which nevertheless allows an acceptable outlet for some of the visceral and even ugly emotions that also find collective expression in war.

A personal view is that well-meaning Irish fans who think they are being modern by trying to clamber aboard the Football’s Coming Home bandwagon are missing the point.

It’s not just that they will find themselves sharing the bandwagon with some people who think they should be thrown under its George’s Cross-painted wheels. It’s that acting like we can all be on the same side defeats the purpose of international football. International football allegiance isn’t like goods, services, capital or labour; it doesn’t cross borders easily.

If the people who are supposed to be your enemies are patting you on the back and smiling ‘well done!’, that doesn’t add to the pleasure of winning, it takes away from it. As Gore Vidal said: “It’s not enough to succeed: others must fail”.

Or as Conan the Barbarian answers the Mongol general who asks him: “What is best in life?”

“To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of their women.”

If England do somehow win the World Cup, the lamentations of the haters in Ireland and Scotland, in Germany, France and Argentina will be among the sweetest sounds accompanying the songs of victory. Irish fans owe it to them to keep hating until the end.

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