I wrote this piece ten years ago, before the Euro 2000 football tournament.
In 1970, when I was nine years old and living in a small town in Ireland, I started to fill an album with football cards featuring players in that year’s World Cup. Pictured on the cover was the smiling Bobby Moore of 1966, being chaired by his team-mates and holding the Jules Rimet trophy aloft. The England players wore jerseys of a glorious cherry red that reminded me of the taste of some rich cordial, with the ‘three lions’ crest that the FA shares, for some reason, with the O’Briens.
The small trophy had an understated beauty, and the players had a sort of grandeur: I was disappointed to find that they usually wore white. But when England played Brazil and West Germany that summer, somehow I already knew instinctively who to cheer for. And when I watch England’s matches in Euro 2000, nothing much will have changed. I’ve often felt somewhat furtive and guilty about hoping that England will lose, especially since I’ve known many very fine English people. But it’s not to do with them: it’s to do with St George and the dragon. I’ll now try to explain why I always cheer for the dragon.
The English, as a nation (there are of course dissenting individuals), appear to me to give their allegiance to the ‘poetic reality’ that England’s true destiny is not to be merely a normal, unique, beloved country among other normal, unique, beloved countries. England’s destiny is to be triumphant, victorious, pre-eminent. In its apotheosis – the 1966 World Cup – Bobby Moore plays the role of St George atop the white horse of poetic reality, while prosaic reality, embodied by the German Hun, is crushed like the dragon. This is England’s quasi-religious faith (no wonder it’s so fond of William Blake and so lukewarm on real religion), yet the English must endure repeated attempts by foreigners to show that it is not so: to demonstrate that the white horse is an also-ran. This battle of realities is epitomised on the football field, and it will be enacted again in Euro 2000. In Euro 96 the England fans sang about football coming home in their new hymn to poetic reality, and about Britannia ruling the waves in their old one. In prosaic reality, football’s home is the world and, as Canute showed, waves are not for ruling.
Prosaic reality is low, democratic, mercurial and mutable. Poetic reality is lofty, exclusive, constant and glorious. Foreigners, with their adherence to prosaic reality, are therefore a nuisance, standing wilfully between the English and their goal, insisting on the primacy of technicalities and scorelines and the decisions of foreign referees. (Can it be fair that when England is playing a foreign team, the referee is always foreign too?) Foreigners are a constant reminder of the de facto supremacy of prosaic reality.
The chasm between England’s idea of its destiny and the demonstrable mediocrity of its true position is a source of genuine hurt, resentment and confusion, which are seen as having been caused by foreigners and are held against foreigners. England sees itself – with Brazil, Argentina, Italy and Germany – as a great nation of international football, and always destined to be the greatest. (Although, in glaring contrast to Brazil et al., it has only once reached the final of a major competition.) The aspiration to world domination can often be heard in the English commentator’s voice – the fond hope that order is about to be restored; that poetic reality will have its day once more.
Before the England–France game at Wembley in February 1999, in which England were beaten 2–0 and utterly outclassed, some England fans carried a banner with a picture of the World Cup and the slogan ‘It should have been us’. This neurosis also infects the team, however unconsciously. After England’s 0–0 draw with Sweden at Wembley last June, Richard Williams put his finger on it when he wrote in the Independent that Keegan’s team ‘took the field, as England so often have, powered by a curious and delusional sense of entitlement’. In other words, they expected to ride to victory on the white horse of poetic reality.
In former times, at the height of Empire, the English knew they were the best – poetic and prosaic reality did not diverge. Now it’s different: institutions have crumbled; doubt has crept in. Prosaic reality can be difficult to ignore. Hence the English were pathetically flattered and reassured when Newsweek described London as the coolest city in the world. Hence the festival of self-congratulation, or self-reassurance, that has been ‘Cool Britannia’ – a truly confident country would not have needed it.
The desire to see the chasm bridged – to poeticise reality – is somewhere at the heart of the English identity; the desire not to see the chasm bridged is at the heart of the wish of the Irish, Scots, and every other nation that knows the English well to see the English national team lose. Nations that don’t know the English well are blissfully unaware of the existence of England’s poetic reality, and are always slightly surprised when it comes calling in the shape of some hooligan’s boot (‘nor shall my sword rest in my hand’). English hooligans, however moronic, believe in some part of their psyche that they are the embodiment of St George (this quasi-religion allows transubstantiation), and the foreigners represent the dragon. The trouble with this dragon, of course, is that even when defeated it’s never really dead: it keeps picking itself off the floor, like an English hooligan attacking a foreign policeman, and coming back for more. ‘They think it’s all over’, but it never is. The next World Cup or European Championship is always just round the corner. Therefore, as Ardal O’Hanlon wrote after Euro 96, English supporters don’t celebrate when their team wins: they just get slightly less angry.
The battle between poetic and prosaic reality is fought in all the areas of life that touch national identity: immigration, race relations, the pound sterling versus the euro. Weak-minded people, seduced by poetic reality and unsure of their personal worth, tend to move to the right; this culminates in the unadulterated fascism of groups like Combat 18, which wallow in football-related violence. Populist English politicians will always climb up behind St George on his charger and lead the cheers for Harry, George, England and poetic reality. But a good government for England will be one that gently and soothingly tries to wean it away from fables and into the real world, where it will be reconciled to seeing itself as a normal, unique, beloved country among other normal, unique, beloved countries. In the words of John Lydon, there is no future in England’s dreaming.
So, what of England’s prospects for Euro 2000? Kevin Keegan’s philosophy as England manager seems to be to invoke poetic reality and then hope for the best, whereas the managers of Portugal, Germany and Romania will probably have given some thought to tactics and suchlike. England, then, are likely to be home before the postcards again.