England’s repressed craving for shared experience reveals its ugly side

Sport

A sad, gloopy rain has set in. The odd chorus of Sweet Caroline breaks out, but meekly and without conviction. The booze has run out and the cocaine has worn off. It is 1am, the Euros are over and England is not hateful or vengeful or resentful. England is tired.

This, perhaps, was the most intriguing aspect of Sunday night: the relative lack of overt trouble or mass civil disorder that one might have expected to follow England’s dramatic loss on penalties. It was in this very square in 1996 that England fans bruised by defeat to Germany went on a terrifying rampage, looting shops and overturning cars. Smaller pockets of violence erupted in town centres all over the country. A student in Brighton was stabbed by thugs who thought he was German.

This time, there were a few isolated incidents: the vandalism of a Marcus Rashford mural in Withington, the reprehensible look-at-me racist abuse of England’s black players on Instagram. Equally predictably, these acts were instantly distended and fetishised by a media desperate for them to happen: desperate to affix a simple visual motif to England’s chagrin, to generate enough shock and outrage to fill Tuesday’s newspapers. But on the whole, England did not burn. At least: not afterwards.

The bulk of the trouble, conversely, came before the event. England in gleeful anticipation was a far more tempestuous and disquieting place than it was in the throes of crushing disappointment. Wembley on Sunday afternoon was a frothing, formless vacuum. From early morning there was a looseness and a lawlessness that felt menacing without ever really feeling malicious. Anecdotally, it was similar in many other parts of the country: the naked dancing, the thrown pints, the loud communal singing, all of this lying somewhere in the liminal area between blissful hedonism and dickhead delinquency, and which it was depended largely on where you were standing when the pint landed.

Then a roar and a whoop went up and suddenly there were hundreds storming the barriers: streaming across the concourses and punching and kicking their way into seats that were not theirs. The full facts of the security shambles that allowed this to occur will only emerge later. And yet the disorder at Wembley does not feel like some deviant mutation of the broader mood of the day, but the logical extension of it. Collectively, in its thousands and millions, England lost its mind, and more arrestingly it did so before a ball had been kicked.

In his book This Sporting Life the academic Robert Colls traces the popular history of English sport, from the 18th-century bull-runners of Stamford in Lincolnshire to the fox-hunters of Victorian England. English sport, he argues, is inherently tied to personal liberty: the custom and ritual of public transgression, of articulating who you are in a country and society that affords you precious few opportunities to do so. “Sport,” writes Colls, “confirmed that in England, you could do as you pleased.”

You could see those folk-lines in the behaviour of English football fans over the last couple of weeks: a joyous if often unpleasant celebration of personal inviolability and civic pride. There’s a reason so many England flags bear the names of small towns. Where else are you going to see the word “Grantham” or “Matlock” emblazoned in huge capital letters in any public place of importance? And running through all this has been a larger phenomenon, one that predates the pandemic: the wild unquenched craving for shared experience and community in a society that has essentially hunted it to extinction.

The increasing privatisation of public space, the assault on local government by successive Conservative administrations, economic polarisation, the spiteful politics of division: all this has steadily winnowed away the outlets for expressing who we are, in a place, together.

And so it bottles up, fizzes and seethes, until it explodes.

Football has become one of the main conduits for this repressed feeling due to its reach and popularity, but the specific history of the sport lends football mania its own particular callous character. The vindictive treatment of fans by the establishment in the 1970s and 1980s essentially created a brutalised, angry rump of mostly working-class men who adopted its snarling fuck-you persona largely because it was the only identity left available to them. And when the game grew again in the 1990s, instead of considering how this culture might be reimagined and reintegrated, football simply priced them out and hoped they went away. This may explain why Scotland, a more cohesive and less infantilised society than England, produces relatively little trouble when its team plays.

I look at England in 2021 and I do not see a hateful, animalistic place. I see a deeply and deliberately divided country treated with grubby disdain by its politicians: stripped of pride and aspiration and personal investment and simple joy. And so, for all the ominous auguries, perhaps it is little surprise that when its football team loses a major final, it does not go on the tear. It simply sighs, goes home and waits patiently for its next buzz.