Where have all the Ingurland fans gone?

Support for England has always been fairweather, and right now it's drizzling in Wembley.

Duleep Allirajah

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Last week, a paltry 40,181 souls turned out to watch England take on Norway in a friendly. It was the lowest attendance for an England game since Wembley was rebuilt. And you don’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out why. England’s uninspiring performances in Brazil have deflated national expectations. As former England striker Michael Owen put it: ‘We have all lost belief in the national team.’ But before yet another inquest into the demise of English football, it’s worth reminding ourselves that we’ve been here before. This is what things were like in the 1980s – half-empty stadiums, unsexy football and a nation that was largely indifferent to the fortunes of its national team.

It was the left-wing historian Eric Hobsbawm who famously said: ‘The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people.’ Had Hobsbawm been alive to witness England’s inept World Cup performances, he might have felt obliged to retract that statement. If the England football team really was the living embodiment of our nation, then nationalism is well and truly buggered. In truth, there hasn’t been a positive or clear sense of national identity – whether British or English – for many years. The fleeting bouts of flag-waving that accompanied England’s campaigns at major international tournaments were often mistaken for expressions of nationalism. But major sporting events – England matches and London 2012 – are pretty much the only occasions we see the nation’s streets bedecked in flags and bunting. Despite the best efforts of the big pub chains and English Heritage to resuscitate St George’s Day, it’s not a date which English people celebrate. A 2013 survey found that only 40 per cent of English people knew that St George’s Day fell on 23 April whereas 71 per cent knew the date of US Independence Day.

Lack of interest in St George’s Day isn’t something new. However, the weakening of national identity more broadly is a relatively recent shift. The annual British Social Attitudes surveys show that public confidence in our national institutions – parliament, church, banks, media – has been on a downward trajectory for the past 30 years. While the stock of our traditional institutions has fallen, one notable institution bucked that downhill trend. The English national football team underwent a remarkable renaissance in the 1990s. Going to watch England matches had traditionally been a minority pursuit; the preserve of fans of small-town clubs and football hooligans. Watching England was neither fashionable nor a particularly appetising prospect. The old Home Internationals, let’s not forget, were discontinued not as a result of fixture congestion or crowd trouble but because attendances were low.

However, the ambivalence towards the England team changed during the 1990s. The advent of Sky TV, the formation of the Premier League, the adoption of football by the chattering classes, rising match-day attendances and England’s glorious failures at Italia 90 and Euro 96 all combined to create a perfect storm. The England football team was no longer an embarrassment to support, either in a footballing sense or through association with hooliganism. The St George’s Flag, which during the 1980s was associated with the far right, now became a symbol of football rather than political allegiance. Football became more than just a game; it filled a void in public life once occupied by political parties, trade unions and churches. Supporting a football team provided a sense of community and cause. A big England game wasn’t just a sporting event, it was a shared national experience. We all remember vividly where we were when Gareth Southgate missed that penalty at Euro 96 or when Michael Owen scored that goal against Argentina in 1998.

The problem with a sense of national pride which is almost exclusively founded on the fortunes of its football team is obvious. It’s utterly fragile. The feelgood factor is always just one missed penalty kick away from evaporating. In the decade after Euro 96 the England team consistently qualified for the finals of international tournaments but always fell short of glory. The so-called ‘Golden Generation’ time and again failed to get beyond the quarter-finals. But, whatever the shortcomings of that generation, they were a damn-sight better than the current crop. The Euro 2004 squad was full of international-class players like Owen, Scholes, Cole, Ferdinand, Lampard and Gerrard, as well as the prodigious talent of a teenage Wayne Rooney. Compare that group with the current squad. Rooney is still an important player for England but he has never really lived up to his ‘White Pele’ billing. There are promising youngsters in the current squad, notably Barkley, Sterling and Stones. But is there anyone who could be justifiably described as world class? I don’t think so.

Inevitably, public disaffection with the England team has grown. The paltry attendance for the Norway game may well be a sign of things to come. After the team’s insipid performances in Brazil this summer, it’s little wonder that fans are voting with their feet. And, while Monday’s 2-0 Euro qualifier win over Switzerland has given supporters something to cheer about, no one’s getting carried away. Switzerland are a decent team, but beating them is hardly cause for an open-top bus parade. What gave England the edge in that match was pace on the counter-attack. But wasn’t it ever thus? English football still produces athletes rather than artists. The perennial flaws in our game remain glaringly obvious: tactical inflexibility, lack of midfield creativity and an inability to retain possession. In addition there’s a new fragility in defence which doesn’t augur well for a team set up to play the counter-attacking game.

So, the England team is in the doldrums and the mood of pessimism doesn’t look like disappearing any time soon. But are we bothered? Not really. Most football fans are fairweather when it comes to England. We don’t dutifully stick with the national team come rain or shine. This is nothing to do with national pride or its absence. It’s a football thing. Or, more precisely, it’s a question of how we spend our leisure time. If England games are yawn-inducing, we’ll just switch channels. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a box set of Breaking Bad to get through.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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