It just ain’t the same without England

‘Who will you support?’ asks the BBC in its Euro 2008 trailers. I have another question: ‘Does anyone give a monkey’s?’

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

‘Who will you support?’ That’s the question the BBC is asking in its Euro 2008 trailers. A better question might be: ‘Does anyone give a monkey’s?’

England’s failure to qualify for a major tournament for the first time since 1994 is not only bad news for English football fans. It is estimated that lost revenue from sales of beer, food, flat screen TVs and St George flags will cost the retail sector around half a billion pounds.

Broadcasters who’ve shelled out a king’s ransom for the TV rights now have a big headache: how to drum up interest in a tournament without any home nation involvement. The BBC’s answer has been to launch its ‘Who will you support?’ campaign on TV and radio. ‘The task is to excite people about Euro 2008 even though the home nations aren’t taking part’, explained Louisa Fyans, BBC Sport’s head of marketing. ‘Even when England are in the tournament and go out in the quarter-finals, people still watch.’

Fyans talks a good game, but it will take more than a smart marketing campaign to tickle the nation’s fancy. As the Guardian’s Marina Hyde put it more sardonically: ‘From the minute the BBC announced it had secured the services of Steve McClaren as a Euro 2008 “expert analyst”, the tone for our thrilling non-involvement in this summer’s tournament was set.’ (1)

There used to be a time, of course, when England’s failure to qualify for major international tournaments was a given. Despite the fact that we had virtually no foreign players in our domestic league, England contrived to blow qualification for successive World Cup finals in the 1970s. What did fans do instead? Well, usually, we transferred our allegiance to a proxy English team. In 1974 and 1978 many English fans shamlessly supported the Jocks – even though there was absolutely no chance of the compliment being returned. When Graham Taylor’s England failed to qualify for USA 94, it was the Republic of Ireland who became honorary Brits. In games where no proxy Brits were involved, the commentators would usually find some tenuous British connection. An English referee, for example, could usually be trusted to uphold the spirit of fair play when, all around, cheating foreigners were spitting, diving and feigning injury.

Despite the absence of home nation participation we still tuned in to watch those tournaments. You see, in those days, the old adage ‘you should get out more’ really didn’t apply. Get out and do what exactly? There was bugger all to do in the 1970s. Faced with the unappetising alternatives of grim old men’s pubs, run-down cinemas and crap restaurants, staying in and watching television was a positively attractive proposition.

More importantly, there was precious little live football on television, which made international tournaments extremely special. There was also something exotic about watching foreign players. The overseas teams, their tactics, their star players and their fancy tricks: all of this was an unknown quantity to us. Today, thanks to the Champions League and the influx of foreigners into the Premiership, most of the top overseas stars are household names. There’s no mystery any more. Cruyff turns? No thanks, they’re ten-a-penny these days.

While TV audiences are likely to be affected by England’s absence, that doesn’t mean that nobody will be watching. Some of us will watch pretty much any football on TV. Non-league, women’s football, schoolboy internationals, Polish second division: as long as there’s a ball, two teams and a couple of goals, we’ll watch it. Of course, this isn’t just any old football. This is top-notch stuff. Euro 2008 is probably as tough a tournament to win as the World Cup, if not tougher. So, there’s a hardcore of fans who will be relishing the forthcoming feast of football.

However, the casual fans and hangers-on who were turned on to football after Italia 90 or Euro 96 probably won’t be watching. Those who are more interested in the occasion, the shared national experience, than the football itself, won’t find an England-free tournament particularly compelling.

So, if you are planning to tune in, where will your allegiances lie? The media have been trying to generate a debate about which country to support. The Sun has been conducting an online poll which shows Holland way out in front on 55 per cent, followed somewhat surprisingly by the auld foe Germany on 11 per cent. Another online poll shows that 96 per cent of Guardian readers will be backing the Dutch.

Accompanying the Guardian poll is a series of articles in which celebrities outline the case for their nation of choice. Geoff Hurst opts for Holland in part because of its tulips, while Lib Dem MP-cum-self-publicist Lembit Opik says: ‘I’m supporting Romania because of Gabriela Irimia, my delightful cheeky Romanian fiancee.’ German comedian Henning Wehn’s argument that the Brits should back the ‘universally revered superpower that is Germany’ is rather more persuasive. ‘Supporting Germany will give you a once-in-a-lifetime chance not only to back the winning team but also to forgo the heartbreak of losing in a penalty shootout,’ he argues (2). It’s a fair point but, somehow, even though my missus is German and I admire their ruthless Teutonic efficiency, I just can’t bring myself to cheer for the Krauts. It just doesn’t feel right.

Personally, I’ll be backing Italy. Let me explain. As someone who plays at the back, I regard Italy as the Motherland of Defending. It’s probably the only country in which defence is regarded as an art form. Of course, as a consequence, Italian football has plenty of detractors. Italian football is widely seen as negative and cynical – ‘anti-football’, as they say. But I like the fact that Italians place greater value on winning than entertaining. It’s a kind of ‘fuck you’ punk rock attitude that should be lauded.

I could spin you a load of guff about how wonderful Italian culture is: great cuisine, fine wines, opera, art, haute couture… But all that is pretty irrelevant. Italy is the team of choice for proper football fans: those who aren’t in thrall to step-overs and ball-juggling; who appreciate tactics; who understand that winning is everything; who know that the Dutch, for all their pretty football, are serial tournament bottlers.

If you love circus tricks and beautiful losers then the orange jester’s hat of Holland will fit you well. If, however, playing to win is more to your taste, then you should back the Azzurri.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Sport

(1) Benighted BBC needs Wogan’s vision, Guardian, 8 May 2008

(2) Who should we support in Euro 2008?, Guardian, 29 May 2008

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Topics Politics


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