England fans are such losers

Unless you dislike sport so much that you've been living under the sea in an attempt to avoid it, you'll be aware that the World Cup is imminent. There are psyched-up faces on advertising hoardings everywhere; children just a few weeks old are being forced into the Three Lions Babygro; more and more vehicles are starting to display the St George's flag in case passing motorists should glance across and think: "I wonder which country that person supports? Probably Slovenia or something." (It may seem odd that George has come to be the symbolic figurehead of our sporting hopes, despite being a foreigner; but in that sense, he was simply the Kevin Pietersen of his day.)

Even if you've blotted all this out, there is no escape from the hype, as companies try to hitch themselves to the huge football-shaped bandwagon that's about to roll through the nation. These range from the tenuous - World Cup flavour pizzas and crisps - to the preposterous (my local estate agent's new slogan: "If you want a 'sporting chance' of achieving your property 'goal', come in!"). What next? Church billboards that say, "If you like football, you'll love Jesus"?

Lad madness

I'm a big enough football fan to have answered questions about it on Mastermind, and I'm English, so you can imagine I'm desperate for England to end the 44-year wait for a trophy and make us all proud this summer. Except, by "desperate" I mean "deeply ambivalent". Although this is a terrible thing to admit, I've got severe reservations about what will happen if England get their hands on sport's biggest prize.

There are a couple of reasons why. The first is that, in the past 15 years or so, football has been successfully assimilated into a "lad" culture that includes magazines which regularly assess the world's top 100 pairs of breasts, Top Gear, drinking lager that nobody bothers to pretend tastes nice, and so on. Vocally supporting England, once a sign of devotion to sport, is now a gesture associated with a particular type of masculinity; the louder you boo the Germans, the more of a "legend" you are. For a fan like me, who loves football but strongly dislikes most of the other trappings of modern manhood, this is a bit troubling.

Coupled with this is the more general observation that, as a result of our long footballing inferiority complex, English fans tend to celebrate success in less than gracious terms. Even modest victories can result in countrywide displays of cavorting and urinating in fountains. In the event that England won the World Cup, this overexuberance would degenerate into scenes of complete anarchy. Many of the nation's men would not be sober again until 2012 at the earliest. Around every corner would be a tattooed thug warbling "Rule Britannia". In short, if our footballers did reach the summit of the world game, it would be at the expense of the country declining into a sorry, self-congratulatory shambles for a period lasting at least four years until the next World Cup.

So what's the solution? Is there a way that the discerning football fan can support England without endorsing the most brazen excesses of England-supporting - perhaps by chanting "Come on, England (but let's not get too carried away here)" or very quietly clapping the other team's goals? Is there a way for ordinary fans to reclaim the thrill of the game yet drop the increasingly off-putting baggage?

Green gills

Perhaps, at this stage, there isn't. It may be that the only option is to watch England games in the company of trusted loved ones and try to forget that the "England" you're supporting, who are bravely representing your friends and family, are simultaneously representing an enormous number of drunk, lairy xenophobes.

Perhaps you have to overcome your snobbery and accept that, if you want to follow England at all, you have to embrace it in its full diversity, as a country that's as synonymous with binge drinking these days as it is with green hills and country churches. Maybe getting behind your team in the World Cup provides a welcome opportunity to extend an olive branch to all the aspects of the country you don't like.

In any case, even though it's our best team since at least 1970, the chances are that England won't win. They'll get to the semi-finals, lose on penalties, and we'll have the communal hardship of unlucky defeat, which is one of the things we do best as a nation. When that happens, I'm sure fans everywhere will take comfort from my analysis of our uneasy relationship with victory. But I'm going to move house just in case.

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The myth of Mandela