For a good half a century Britain has been divided on the question of whether to go into Europe. The four national football teams that make up these islands have perhaps made a bold stance for the naysayers in that regard this summer as none of them will cross the Alps to Switzerland and Austria for this years European Championships. Scotland and Northern Ireland played above expectations and missed by a whisker, whilst the decline of Wales continues. In teeming rain England were played off the park by Croatia in their final match of a doomed campaign, Steve McClaren lost his job and the FA brought in a crack team of Italians in his place.
So there are thirty-one games in this summer’s European Championships in which the British folk will not have their own national team to side with. The drop off in media interest is noticeable, with the BBC running an embarrassingly tokenistic series of adverts asking ‘Who will you support?’ that are so clunky you half expect a drunken yob to stagger out of a kebab shop claiming the lukewarm doner in his hand is the reason he’ll get behind Greece.
I must admit to a certain level of bemusement at the whole England-aren’t-there-so-just-enjoy-the-jamboree attitude sweeping my nation. Do people here not engage with the tournament regardless? In the last World Cup England only participated in five of the sixty-four games played. That’s an awful lot of World Cup to have turned a blind eye to if you concerned yourself only with matters Anglo-Saxon. My soul is a far richer place for having seen amongst other delights that summer Zidane glide imperiously around his Brazilian opponents and Esteban Cambiasso score maybe the greatest goal I’ve ever seen.
Yet the cynic in me wonders how much the national mood was summed up by Ian Wright (whom, this time, we are mercifully spared). When asked in his role as a BBC pundit to analyse the action between Holland and Serbia & Montenegro at half-time in that tournament he said “I don’t care about this to be honest, I’m just interested in England.”
The last time any British side failed to qualify for a tournament was the World Cup in the USA in 1994. My GCSE exams finished the very day Diana Ross missed her penalty at the opening ceremony and with that freedom I watched and loved every second of that tournament which, when spared any jingoistic coverage of the Three Lions, showed England what a ‘World’ Cup was. It was Russian forwards scoring five and forty-six year old Cameroonians replying; Saudi Arabian playmakers dribbling in goals from their own half; Colombian full-backs showing the true definition of tragedy; my boyhood idol, Argentina’s captain, failing a drugs test; balding Bulgarians and flying headers; Buddhist Italians shooting high over the bar.
When asked what he intended to do during this period England’s captain at the time David Platt told reporters he would not watch it, prompting numerous Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells types to write in to the national press and complain that as his team weren’t capable of this level of football perhaps he should watch and learn. The disappointment of England’s failure to qualify that time was tempered by the presence of Geordie Jack Charlton’s Republic of Ireland and his squad peppered with hastily assimilated Englishmen with Irish ancestry, a horse on the back of which English fans were only too happy to hitch their (band) wagon. As a Manchester United fan I not only had one eye on the fortunes of Denis Irwin and Roy Keane but also Andrei Kanchelskis, a Ukranian who had decided to play for Russia that summer.
With the multinational make-up these days of what some would argue is the greatest league in the world one would think that should be enough to hook people in. The Premiership might not be able to produce an England team fit to qualify for Euro 2008 but it currently houses forty-six players, two whole squads worth of talent, selected for these championships across all but three of the competing nations.
Personally I will lend my armchair support to France. Not only am I a card-carrying Francophile as a result of their food, wine, cinema and midfield of the eighties, but my sister’s partner is French and in Provence just eighteen months ago I became an uncle. With a fusion of the stereotypes of English grit and French flair I have the idle dream that one day she’ll be the girl that breaks through into the male elite of professional football. Naturally, she’d opt to represent Les Blues; the maverick showMAN struggles to make the bench for England, let alone the woman.
Others of course will not bother and I overheard in our office a few days a go a man say he couldn’t be bothered entering the sweepstake for a tournament England weren’t playing in. Plus ca change as my adopted nation might say, but I hope his pull-up-the-drawbridge attitude is not representative of our island nation. Even without a tenuous reason to support one team or another there is still plenty to tune in for. Good football is still good football, even if it is played out on a foreign field without England.