Why I’ll be cheering on England this year

For Gary Younge, as a young black boy in 1970s Hertfordshire, English patriotism was inextricably bo

When I was growing up in Stevenage in Hertfordshire during the 1970s, the question of who to support in the World Cup never posed much of a dilemma for my family. We backed Brazil. Nearby Hitchin may have been where I was born and, with the exception of a six-week family trip to Barbados to see relatives, England may have been the only country I knew. But when it came to my footballing allegiance, I got my kicks from a country I knew nothing about and with which I had absolutely no connection. At the time, this seemed entirely logical.

First of all, Brazil were an exciting team to watch. They played with flair and an elegant conviction. They were also brilliant. At the time of the first World Cup that I can vaguely remember, in 1974 - my mother bought our first colour TV for the occasion - Brazil had won three of the previous four tournaments. England, on the other hand, did not qualify in 1974 and would not qualify again until 1982. My elder brother, a talented footballer, was nicknamed Pelé. The notion that he might be imagined as a great English footballer never occurred to anyone, and that included us.

In those early and not so early years, this relationship to English football was not merely ambivalent, it was antagonistic. It wasn't just that I did not support the national team, I actively wanted it to lose. And not just in football either. In everything from It's a Knockout to the Eurovision Song Contest, England's loss perversely became my gain.

This propensity to apostasy in sporting matters had much more to do with what was going on off the field than on it. It was about flags, anthems, war, migration, race, racism, colonialism, patriotism, nationalism, fascism and family - to name but a few things. But the nature in which these different forces interact is in constant flux. I am not the person I was in the 1970s and Britain is not the country it was, either.

“Cultural identities come from somewhere, have histories," wrote the critic Stuart Hall. "But, like everything which is historical, they undergo constant transformation. Far from being eternally fixed in some essentialised past, they are subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power."

And so it was that, eight years ago, shortly before I left to live in New York, I recall opening my front door in Hackney to hear the roar from my street as Michael Owen put England ahead in the quarter-final and finding myself cheering with them. They were playing Brazil in the World Cup. A few years after that, I bought two David Beckham England tops for my niece and nephew. Four years ago, I traipsed around Brooklyn looking for somewhere that was screening the games and someone who even knew they were on. It was a journey I made with many English people, and from the outset we were on the same side.

As this World Cup approaches, I find myself looking forward to seeing that latent English identity, more regularly employed to claim victimhood and mythologise purity, infused with some positive energy. In this increasingly fragmented cultural world, I am anticipating that collective sense of, if not camaraderie, then at least cordiality that comes with many people experiencing the same events at the same time and broadly speaking wanting a similar outcome. I won't be waving a flag or wearing a shirt, but the sight of either no longer intimidates but intrigues. And yes, I'll be supporting England - at least some if not most of the time.

“What know they of cricket who only cricket know?" the Trinidadian intellectual C L R James asked in his landmark book, Beyond a Boundary, in which he laid out the geopolitical, historical and societal factors influencing West Indian cricket. Football is no different. My relationship to the England team emerged from an internal dialogue about who I was and where I thought I belonged. And that was also informed, in no small measure, by who other people thought I was and where they would allow me to feel comfortable.

That story starts in the early 1970s, when cheering against England was barely a decision at all, but rather the pragmatic and predictable response to the only world I knew as a child: a world in which the only country I knew was somehow not the country I was from. During the early 1970s the dislocation between race (the colour of people) and place (the movement of people) was widespread and deeply ingrained. Put simply, black people were not considered to be truly British. Growing up being constantly told to "go back to where you come from" or being asked "Where are you really from?" has an effect on your geographical affiliation.

The only other option to being denied your national identity was to be threatened by it. It is a little-remembered addendum to Norman Tebbit's "cricket test" that a refusal to support the right team could end in a beating.

“Are you still harking back to where you came from or where you are?" he said. "Where you have a clash of history, a clash of religion, a clash of race, then it's all too easy for there to be an actual clash of violence. A nation is a nation because of what it shares in common." You can't reason with a bulldog. And so long as that was the national symbol, you were with them or against them.

These tensions were to be found not only in society, but also my family. My mother had made the journey from Barbados in 1961 and was eager to see that identity live on through her children. We had a Bajan flag on our front door and a map on the wall. At school and in the street we might be British, but however cold it was outside - literally and metaphorically - when we got home, as Mother would remind us, we were back in the Caribbean.

“The human approach to experience is categorical," argued the anthropologist Harry Wolcott. "What we don't label, others will, leaving us at their mercy. We are better off to supply labels of our own and to be upfront about the identifications we seek."

With the label of Englishness or Britishness unavailable, I identified as a Barbadian.

One of the central tenets in the politics of identity is that people must have the right to define themselves. But with that right must come at least one responsibility - that definition must be meaningful to others.

“A tree, whatever the circumstances, does not become a legume, a vine, or a cow," explains the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Ethics of Identity. "The reasonable middle view is that constructing an identity is a good thing (if self-authorship is a good thing) but that the identity must make some kind of sense. And for it to make sense, it must be an identity constructed in response to facts outside oneself, things that are beyond one's own choices."

The trouble with my "choice" is that it did not make sense. While teaching in Sudan during my gap year, when people asked me where I was from I would say Jamaica - a country to which I had never been but which, thanks to Bob Marley, they had at least heard of. When they asked me what it was like, I would sound evasive or make things up.

I was 18 before I would finally admit that I was British. This was the first step to being able to support the England football team. But there was still a long journey ahead.

For the racial exclusion I experienced as a child found its most complete expression on the English football terraces, which hosted some
of the most nihilistic violence in the country. That was where the National Front would recruit. So if you were looking to try on your English identity, a bit like trying on a suit gifted to you by an elderly relative, a football stadium would not be the fitting room of choice.

Added to this were two separate but related obstacles to backing England. First, England weren't that good. The desperate desire for the national team to return to its era of greatness felt like just one more way in which the nation itself had failed to adjust to its post-colonial decline. A time when "we" were great cemented the idea that our best years are behind us. The chant "Two World Wars and one World Cup" that went out whenever Germans were on the bill said it all. But so, too, in a more gentle way, did that mantra of football's coming home: "Three Lions on a shirt/Jules Rimet still gleaming/Thirty years of hurt/Never stopped me dreaming."

But while the Irish and, to a lesser extent, the Scots had found a way to enter into the spirit of being lovable fuck-ups, the English were blighted by the notion that they deserved better. This smacked of a sense of entitlement to greater riches. Every four years it was the same. Some freakish incident - penalties, miskicks, a hand of God - dashed hopes with such regularity that the only truly surprising thing was the surprise itself.

As Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski point out in their book Why England Lose, the English team in fact overperforms. "England do just fine. They perform even better than expected, given what they have to start with."

Second, "England" doesn't really exist. "Nationalism is not the awakening of nations into self-consciousness," argues Ernest Gellner in Thought and Change. "It invents nations where they did not exist."

Nowhere was this truer than in football, where it was not the nation that made the team, but the team that made the nation. Finding evidence of England's material presence beyond the football field is a challenge. I never knew I was English until I went to study in Edinburgh, and even then I had no idea what it meant apart from not being Scottish. As such, the waving of the St George's Cross became little more than an aspiration to nationality at best and, at worst, a grievance in search of a scapegoat.

Quite when I thought supporting my national team was something I might even try, let alone enjoy, I cannot recall. This was no Damascene conversion. These shifts of trajectory are not decisive, let alone irreversible, but they are definite. In 1990 I recall learning in the paper the next day that England had lost to Germany on penalties in the World Cup semi-finals - I'd backed Ireland that year.

In 1996, when England hosted the European Championship, I tried harder. I was at Wembley to see England thrash Holland 4-1, sealing qualification to the next round after a lacklustre start. I was caught up in it like everyone else. Or almost. This new suit was itchy. And sure enough, as we trooped out beneath the twin towers, the chants started going up: "No surrender to the IRA." I felt like I'd been duped.

This was always the problem with trying to support England on my own terms. It was a bit like watching Ali G - you could never be too sure that everybody was enjoying the same thing, and you were keenly aware of the possibility that others might be revelling in something you truly detested. At the end of the day you never quite knew what they were going to do with victory or defeat. But you knew it probably wouldn't be good.

Along the way, however, I certainly mellowed. I stopped worrying so much about what other people were thinking and concentrated on what made sense to me. As I came to understand that the relationship between my racial and national identities was far more complex than both I and others had allowed them to be, I became far more comfortable in shades of grey than black or white. The notion that I could be from more than one place begat the possibility that I might support more than one team. The idea that I had a singular identity - black or British - gave way to the reality that I had many and that they were, for the most part, complementary not contradictory.

But these changes by themselves would have been insufficient. England and English football had to change, too.

“When you're my size and not being tormented by elevator buttons, water fountains and ATMs, you spend your life accommodating the sensibilities of 'normal people'," says Cady Roth, the dwarf protagonist from Armistead Maupin's novel Maybe the Moon. "You learn to bury your own feelings and honour theirs in the hope that they'll meet you halfway. It becomes your job, and yours alone, to explain, to ignore, to forgive - over and over again. There's no way you can get around this. You do it if you want to have a life and not spend it being corroded by your own anger. You do it if you want to belong to the human race."

Sure enough, England's sense of self continued evolving. The fault lines of our national identity shifted from colour to culture - from race to religion, language and ethnicity. For anyone under the age of 30, it is impossible to imagine Britain as an exclusively white country.

The English relationship to football became more playful and inclusive rather than desperate and melancholic. For me, this was summed up in Fat Les's "Vindaloo" song and video for the 1998 World Cup in France. Marching through London in fancy dress and chanting with, among others, a black pearly king and queen in tow, singing: "Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/We're off to Waterloo/ Me and me mum and me dad and me gran/And a bucket of vindaloo." It's difficult to think of another country that could celebrate its hybridity like that. The French had to win the World Cup in 1998 before they would acknowledge, let alone embrace, the diversity of their squad.

British football, meanwhile, had become far more cosmopolitan. England got its first black player in Viv Anderson in 1978, while club football, which had once been the principal recruiting ground for British nationalism, transformed into a playground for foreign talent.

The cry of "British jobs for British workers" has been drowned out by chants for players whose names the fans can barely pronounce. The BNP would struggle with its message on the terraces today, because the story of British football is the story of mass migration.

These developments are not all unproblematic. The changes in football in particular have been the product of a commercial reorientation of the game that puts it beyond the reach of most working-class people, while globalisation has led to the end of any local connection between players, club and fans. The reorientation of England's racial identity has resulted not in the end of racism, but different targets and a different language. And notwithstanding its drubbing during last month's election, the BNP is far stronger now than it once was and a racial discourse is reverting to more sordid times. Tellingly, we still wait in vain for Asians to enter professional football in any serious way.

Nor did these changes happen by themselves. They are all the fruit of anti-fascist agitation on the terraces and anti-racist gains on the streets and in parliament. They were not the product of some abstract Great British decency, but were won by ordinary people, black and white, which also means they can be lost unless we defend them.

For my niece and nephew - two mixed-race kids who grew up in London - supporting England is a no-brainer because English football looks more or less like the England they inhabit. Also, unlike boardrooms or the government, it is one in which they have seen that they have a reasonable chance of succeeding. "The imagined community of millions," wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm, "seems more real as a team of 11 named people." That they feel part of that community in a way that I could not makes me want to join it now.

The internal dialogue that began in my childhood is not yet complete - nor will it ever be. But I have found a comfort level where, during the early games of this World Cup, I will certainly be cheering with England against the US and Slovenia. And against Algeria - an African team that hasn't qualified for 24 years? Who knows? But sometimes it's better to have two dogs in a fight than none at all. Particularly when neither is a bulldog.

Gary Younge's new book, "Who Are We - and Should It Matter in the 21st Century?", is published by Viking (£14.99)

Gary Younge is a writer, broadcaster, professor of sociology at the University of Manchester and former Guardian columnist. His books include The Speech: The Story Behind Dr Martin Luther King Jr's Dream and Another Day in the Death of America.

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