Scotland failing to qualify for yet another World Cup has one major benefit. It allows me to support my other team- a team that pretty much always wins- and that team is the entire world except England.
There are a couple of explanations for why I cheer ‘Anyone but England’, and anti-English racism is not one of them. The ‘No’ campaign is currently attempting stoke fears that independence is driven by a sinister brand of anti-English nationalism; as evidenced by Alistair Darling’s claims about Yes voters, and the utter non-story of a few people giving J K Rowling abuse on twitter, which dominated STV and BBC Scotland television news headlines for days. I don’t condone the abuse, but c’mon, welcome to the fucking internet. With this in mind, I felt the need to explain why I was jumping around deliriously celebrating Mario Balotelli’s winning goal against England on Saturday night.
I don’t hate the English team, I’d like to just not care about it, which is why it’s so frustrating that only coverage of the World Cup available to me assumes that I must be a passionate England fan. I don’t blame the English members of the British media for supporting their team- they’re no different to a people from any other country in that respect- but I do resent the fact that I’ve got to watch the world cup through an English lens. Scottish people are often criticised for being against England, but indifference is precluded by the nature of the coverage; not only is the English team discussed far more often than any other, but that discussion is always loaded with the partisan hopes and fears of the reporters and pundits. Commentators will celebrate goals for England with a uniquely joyous roar, and pundits will let their emotions overwhelm their analysis before and after England’s games. As a Scot, the difference between their tone and how you feel watching the game serves to alienate you from the tournament itself. You get the sense that, although you’re a football fan watching the games on national television networks, the show isn’t really aimed at you. This is why cheering against England becomes a communal activity in Scotland; the alienation created by the coverage unites us. It’s only once the English team are eliminated that the coverage adopts a tone we can relate to. Is it any wonder we wish to hasten this process?
Because most of those covering the games are emotionally invested in the England team, they find it impossible to make accurate value judgements, and this effects my enjoyment of the tournament. The problem that English pundits have is the same one we see in everyday life when a thin person who thinks they need to lose weight, or a boring person thinks they’re funny. When a qualitative judgment becomes a matter of emotional importance to us, we’re no-longer capable of separating what we hope is true and what is actually the case. I’m no-longer talking about pundits making openly partisan statements like ‘I hope we win’, which are at least garnished with a self-awareness that makes them easier to stomach, but rather their flawed attempts to estimate the quality of England’s team and their chances in the tournament. Four years ago, in the build-up to England- Germany, the pundits were unanimous in their belief that England had a superior side. This despite England, in a piss-easy group, having scored only two goals in three games. The pundits wanted England to win so badly that they were utterly unable to make sensible predictions about how the game would pan out. They suffered from the same thing prior to the Italy game this year. Before the match Alan Shearer was proclaiming that ‘there’s nothing to fear from this Italy side’. Once England had been defeated and everybody had calmed down, Italy were restored in the minds of the pundits to ‘one of the top teams in the tournament’. This is frustrating for an emotionally detached viewer who can see the discrepancy between the pundits’ views and reality. Time and again they over-estimate England’s chances, and because we can be more realistic due to our dispassionate attitude, the whole presentation takes on a comical dramatic irony. We see that they’re setting themselves up for a fall, and we feel vindicated when the inevitable happens.
There was another reason for the belief that England would beat Germany in 2010 and Italy in 2014; none of the opposition players were based in the English league, so the pundits, some of whom are paid millions of pounds annually for their ‘expertise’, were largely unable to gauge their quality. Through a mix of ignorance and arrogance, the English media feel the need to construct a Ptolemaic model of the football universe with the English Premier League at the centre.The English pundits covering the World Cup only pay attention to games involving English teams during the normal season (save for truly inescapably continental games like the Classico and the later stages of The Champions League), so when summer arrives their ignorance is unmistakable like a palid beer gut on Copacabana beach. Their lack of knowledge is frustrating for two reasons. Firstly, it’s simply amateurish reporting: I want the football experts I’m hearing to actually be experts. If I know more about Italy’s team than Mark Lawrenson does, why is he on television explaining the game to me? Secondly, it assumes that the viewer has the same England-centric view of football as they do. The idea that you may not be particularly interested in the English league and may follow other European leagues instead doesn’t occur to them. Even in games that don’t involve England you’ll hear constant references to the English league. For example, in yesterday’s game between Algeria and Belgium, every Algerian with a connection to English football was mentioned in the opening minutes by the commentator. He neglected to discuss their star player; Sofiane Feghouli. It’s not like Feghouli’s an obscure name, he’s a regular in the Valencia team. Similarly, the merits of all EPL-based Belgium players were mulled-over, but they didn’t bother to talk about Axel Witsel, the most expensive player on the pitch. This may be a small example of a relatively minor gripe, but the incessant references to English football serve to remind the viewer that they’re not simply watching the World Cup, they’re watching England’s view of the World Cup.
These are all media-related reasons, but there is another facet to the hostility Scottish people feel towards England’s national team. The Scotland-England rivalry is the oldest in international football, and it’s normal for fans to celebrate their rivals’ failures. Competitive sport is artificial conflict, and rivalry is what gives that conflict meaning and creates the narratives that drive public interest. That’s why you’ll hear people accuse Celtic fans of ‘secretly missing’ Rangers. That’s why it was said that the Federer-Nadal duopoly was good for tennis, and that’s why Froch vs Groves II was the biggest British boxing match since WW2. Rivalry creates in people’s minds a Manichean struggle. Once a player, or team, is characterised as a rival, the sense that they are an enemy you’d like to see defeated extends to all of their games. Take Everton fans, who wanted their own team to lose against Man City this season just to stop their rivals Liverpool winning the league. In game between Argentina and Bosnia Herzegovina there were a large contingent of Brazil fans- wearing Brazil tops- who’d paid money to simply cheer against Argentina. This is a perfectly acceptable aspect of being a football fan, and Scotland fans shouldn’t be made to feel that they’re participating in something sinister when they celebrate goals for England’s opponents. England is our only real rival in the game of football, and we’re no different to the fans of any other team when we bask in the schadenfreude of their defeats.
English fans will sometimes protest that they don’t bear the same ill-will towards Scotland, but football rivalries are often uneven like this; Espanyol see Barcelona as their main rivals, but Barcelona fans are more concerned with Real Madrid. In Glasgow you’ll hear Partick Thistle fans sing about their dislike of Celtic and ‘Rangers’ every week, but you’ll never hear a song about Partick Thistle at Parkhead or Ibrox. When one side of a rivalry is stronger than the other, it’s normal that the rivalry feels more intense for the weaker of the two. England fans don’t dislike Scotland’s national team because they’re afforded the luxury of being able to ignore it. Scotland fans have no such option where England are concerned, and while dislike of the English team may not be reciprocated, that doesn’t mean it’s anomalous or nasty.
I don’t wish to argue with all of this that one should support everyone against England. If you find yourself able to latch onto the English media’s hope and hype and support England’s team, good for you, but the are valid reasons why the rest of us have taken against them. We are responding to a media that fails to acknowledge our position, and a football rivalry that’s relatively amicable compared to many around the world. Don’t let anybody make you feel guilty about cheering when Uruguay pap them out of the tournament on Thursday.
Edit: My comment at the start of this post about the abuse directed at JK Rowling (which I won’t delete because I don’t want to just pretend I didn’t say it) was wrong. The sexist comments and the particularly egregious ‘single mother’ barb carry with them the implication that her donation to the No Campaign is folly, not because people should vote yes, but because she somehow isn’t entitled to have a say. I suppose I’m a hypocrite for downplaying the impact this has in a post about people feeling ‘alienated’ by football coverage that doesn’t understand their perspective.