Picture this: a sea of predominantly white, middle-aged men. Some have got kits on. Some have draped a St George’s flag around their shoulders. Most are probably drunk. It’s Lille, it’s Euro 2016, and we’re watching England play Slovakia in the fanzone.
I’ve got my kit on as well. It’s vintage—2004, the last time we were any good in this competition—and it almost makes me feel like I fit in, however superficially. They’d given out these tri-coloured “Fanbrushes” at the France-Switzerland game and I’ve surreptitiously used the red and white to paint two St George’s crosses on my face. I look like an England fan. Mostly.
By halftime people have begun to get restless, and someone has started to talk to my friend. The man is unapologetically Welsh—he’s dressed the part and hasn’t stopped shouting “Wales” since the start, much to the bemusement of the crowd. My friend tells him that he’s here with me, at which point the Welshman takes me in for the first time—kit, flags, young, female, Asian. “England?” he asks, completely incredulous. “Why are you supporting England?”
Later I realise that despite his Welshness, he isn’t the odd one out. I am. No one’s questioning why he’s here; that’s just good banter. He’s a Fun Diversion. But he wouldn’t have asked anyone else around us that question, and I wouldn’t have asked him. As it is I don’t know what to say. Why not?
Faced with a team ranked twenty places below them, England do what they’re so good at doing: they draw. I go back to the hotel. I don’t wipe the flags off my face.
It isn’t the first time it’s happened, feeling like an Alien in a place I wanted to call home.
During my time as a starving, lonely international cash-cow-slash-student in London, what I looked forward to most was football. Manchester was a hundred pounds too much and three hours too far to go often, but Wembley was a direct tube line away. And it was—you know—England. Everything I’d dreamed of. I signed up for the Supporters’ Club, bought my tickets, and in 2014 was suddenly off to watch England play Slovenia, a nothing game, a game that meant everything.
Football, in the way that it creates heroes and celebrates triumphs, weaves itself into narratives of history and community.
The carriage was packed tip to tail with people, again mostly white men, banging the doors, the ceilings, with a kind of sheer exuberance I’d never experienced before. It was exhilarating. It was like being swept up in something bigger than I was, even bigger than a football club—a football nation. National Day in Singapore is nothing like this. There’s a big musical show that recaps our history, people wave the flags they’re given, and everyone oohs at the fireworks display that finishes it off, but you’re always aware that it feels constructed. This was only one carriage of one train, and yet I suddenly realised I was going to watch an England game, a game the entire country was going to watch of their own accord.
After that came Switzerland. France. Portugal. Scotland. Games we lost that I didn’t want to talk about (the Netherlands). If I missed something it was because I was out or buried under work; still I made it a point to catch a glimpse, be it on ITV or squinting through pub windows. When the Euros came I considered paying the truly exorbitant £75 fee to apply for away games far more seriously than I should have.
And yet. We’re playing France and we’re sat in the home end and it’s the greatest rush. People are singing fifty years of hurt never stopped us dreaming. There’s a drum at the back. We lean forward as an England player bears down on goal and—the elderly white man next to us turns and says, “So where did you girls get tickets from?”
It isn’t the first time it’s happened. It still knocks the breath out of me.
As I write this I’m making dozens of constant decisions: to ‘we’ or not to ‘we’, in the words of another Englishman I can’t quite lay claim to. I’m an England fan and I’m happy to define myself as one. To have and to hold, for better or for worse (likely worse), for richer or for poorer (likely richer), in sickness and in health, till death (or Iceland) do us part. The thing about national teams, though, is that they don’t function like club sides. Yes, clubs also have geographical boundaries, and many people still don’t see you as a ‘true’ fan if you don’t come from the locality. But to support a national team seems to imply that you should be from that country, or at least have some relevant heritage, to be ‘true’.
One argument that transnational football fans often make is that our own countries don’t perform well on the world stage. Singapore, where I come from, is 172 in the FIFA world rankings. The ‘competition records’ section of our Wikipedia page looks like this:
No wonder the national newspaper recently urged Singaporeans to support another side at the World Cup. That’s fine. It’s a common phenomenon when big international tournaments roll around, and no one gets caught up in existential crises about national identity. But to me, supporting England is different. My friends don’t watch all of Brazil’s friendlies; I do England’s, and not just because they’re the only games we win. Singaporeans tend to flock to whichever national team is the favourite to win; I remain dedicated to a team with a 14% win rate in penalty shootouts (that’s a lower percentage than dentists who don’t recommend Trident).
This isn’t only transnationalism in terms of big tournaments. This is buying into an identity, a sense of belonging, the ‘we’. As social theorist and historian Eric Hobsbawm writes, ‘the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’ Football, in the way that it creates heroes and celebrates triumphs, weaves itself into narratives of history and community. By right, the shared experience of screaming Lampard’s Goal Was Over The Line should allow me to be a part of that. But the problem with England is that their relationship with football is even more complicated than trying to spell Wojciech Szczęsny’s name.
There must be space for fragmented, multiple identities; there has to be space for me to support England in football but support Singapore in other things
Largely, this is because the very definition of ‘England’ seems to rest on football. It’s one of the only areas where Englishness and Britishness do not intersect, and hence one of the only ways to navigate the sheer headache that is English vs. British. Each of the home countries has their own football teams and their own football associations, which makes belonging even more exclusive, definitive, and based on locality.
More importantly, it’s what separates ‘England’ from ‘coloniser’—English Football, British Empire. The demarcation of imperial past and multicultural present through football would take its own article to explain, but suffice to say, taking pride in England being the originator of this universal game is a lot less problematic than mentioning the nineteenth century. Very few narratives that shape the story of England come from before the war. England was forced to reinvent itself through cultural markers and characteristics like the Blitz spirit and (of course) 1966 when the world changed.
Paradoxically, this definition is what makes it both easier and more difficult for me to support England. Singapore is an ex-British colony, so small that people in London still marvelled at how good my English was. I get a lot of comments about how it’s wrong to support England given this. And I question it a lot, truth be told. It’s exceedingly difficult to separate my geographical and emotional attachment to the UK from the facts of imperialism. Having that distinction between football and empire helps me to reconcile things a little, although of course I’m aware that they’re intrinsically linked. Following English football in its purest, basest form is one way of acknowledging my affection for a country I once lived in without ignoring colonialism or giving up my right to critique it.
Norman Tebbit’s infamous cricket test asked ex-colonial immigrants to unequivocally choose a side: you’re with us or against us. First of all, that’s a ridiculous thing to ask. When Singapore gained independence in 1965, some chose to keep their UK citizenship and migrate. This was replicated in colonies around the world. You’d think after a hundred years of rule these individuals would have earned the right to be citizens, if that was what they wanted. We are here because you were there.
Football, at the end of the day, is intensely personal. Its beauty is in meaning whatever you want it to mean.
Yet to choose Britishness, or Englishness, isn’t forsaking cultural identity. I work at the National Museum of Singapore, which is housed in a beautiful colonial building—we have building tours, but we also have galleries focused on Singapore’s independence. We celebrate our bicentennial next year, marking the British landing in Singapore, but this isn’t a celebration of imperialism, it’s a recognition that this happened but Singapore was and also is other things. Britain’s relationship with its colonies is like that. There can’t be any exclusivity because when they colonised, they gave up that right. England is multicultural. Has to be. There must be space for fragmented, multiple identities; there has to be space for me to support England in football but support Singapore in other things.
The kicker is: the reality of English football is hella racist.
In trying to construct an Englishness, people inadvertently hark back to the past—grassy meadows, cloth caps, idyllic pre-WWI landscapes. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, it opens the door to a monocultural, monoracial identity, one that celebrates the nostalgia of whiteness against the threat of multiculturalism. And because football is representative of Englishness, it’s easy for factions to turn it into something ethnically, racially exclusive. The old man who saw me at the France game wouldn’t have batted an eye if I’d been white. Certainly the Welsh fan wouldn’t have asked why I supported England. It’s something that David Rowe’s study on transnational fans picked up as well—that white immigrants to Australia had an easier time declaring their sporting allegiances than people of colour, just because they were never really questioned.
No one actually tells you out loud that you don’t belong. It’s just something you feel. I went to an Arsenal game at the Emirates once and I’m die-hard Manchester United, so even stepping onto the ground felt like intruding (although it was one of the ones against Bayern, so that helped). Going to England games can be like that, except, remarkably, you’re on the same side. I was so frightened of being called out on my foreignness at the high-stakes, fiercely local England-Scotland game that I didn’t even pick my usual seat in the home end.
What Tebbit didn’t take into account was that those who choose Englishness still get alienated. The ride to watch Slovenia was exhilarating, but I wasn’t a part of it—I couldn’t be. I could only stand there and watch and take it all in, while they glanced at me and probably discounted me as a tourist or some such, going to the game only because it was entertainment. How you support England can be different solely because of what you look like. Where you’re from.
I know I’m probably the anomaly, here. My transnational fan friends don’t descend into existential crises with the startling regularity of a goalless United draw. My international student friends barely ventured out of their rooms beyond studying, and always looked forward to going back to Singapore.
I didn’t. I’m happy here, now, but I loved my life over there, right down to the constant Jean Valjean-esque Who Am Is. I loved everything stereotypical about London. I loved the theatres in the West End, history on every street, walking so fast I got pissed off at slowpoke tourists. I loved the way that that football was so ingrained in the place and culture around me, which is what drew me away from Singapore in the first place. I loved seeing Wembley rise above the houses through the left windows of the tube.
That’s the thing, isn’t it; football, at the end of the day, is intensely personal. Its beauty is in meaning whatever you want it to mean. And what you believe in, what you belong to, is constructed by you. So some racists have created an ethnically exclusive community—that’s their own moral failure, and they can’t tell me what to do, or who I am. I support England because I associate it with a part of my life I will always love. Identities aren’t unequivocal. Colonialism made sure of that. When one country takes over another, it will invariably leave behind something; the histories of both are entwined. Many scholars suggest that the rise of independence movements was due to indigenous leaders receiving Western education and being exposed to Western ideals in the first place. Singapore’s links with colonialism are relatively unique, but in general, the links between ex-colonies and colonial powers are never clear-cut (just think of the continuation of the Commonwealth Games).
There is no ‘with us’ or ‘against us’. This isn’t about embracing imperialism—it’s about using football, something that means a lot to me, to try and find my place in the world.
I support England because I believe in them. Because they gave me something to hold on to when the only other thing I had was a visa in a passport. Because I fell in love with the story—the penalties, the heartbreak, the vitriol, sure, but the carrying on. The going again. The resigned defiance of Three Lions and the sheer tragicomedy of Jules Rimet still being mentioned.
Let’s be honest—there aren’t fairweather England fans. I get so much stick I don’t even know how to respond to because we really are just that bad. But there’s something awfully romantic about it, this digging heels into the dirt and singing England Till I Die regardless of how many Germans mention 1996 (or 2010, or 1990, or 1972, or 1970, or – ).
I know that half of this is imagination, an identity I’ve constructed for myself, and that very real problems still plague the team. But that’s what people do, eh? We want to believe stupid clichés and maudlin sentiment. Expectations for England had fallen to their lowest in recent years, and yet. During the Euros I saw St George bunting in Sainsbury’s, three lions adorning pub chalkboards, people having animated conversations in the streets. The story didn’t end with Iceland. It goes on—we see that now.
On the 19 of June, at two in the morning, everyone sensible was asleep. I was awake. I’ll be awake again on the 7th of July, wearing my vintage kit. I’ve still got the Fanbrush, and there’ll be two flags on my face. Three lions on my shirt. Millions of people will be watching the same game as me, wearing the same colours, wanting the same thing to happen. Dreaming. After fifty years of hurt, has that ever stopped us?