Club versus country

Dave Renton


I was reading yesterday John Barnes' autobiography, which has some strong sections on playing for England. 'I am fortunate my England career is now complete so I don't have to sound patriotic any more', he writes. 'Nationalism causes so many problems. I hate it.' Barnes describes the experience of being harassed by a group of National Front supporters, just days after scoring that 1984 goal against Brazil. 'I tried hard for England out of professional pride not patriotism - because I never felt any.'


2006 is world cup year, of course, and I wonder how many members of the current England team would admit ever to feeling the same? There's a drumbeat playing: England must win, England have to win. If Sven Goran Eriksson had not agreed already to step down after the tournament, it is easy to imagine the headlines that would have accompanied any result short of outright victory.


It's not only England where the pressure is felt, although the legacy of empire encourages our papers to greater heights of expectation, and worse lows when failure inevitably follows. I've seen socialists in Istanbul argue that football is a distraction. Marxists in Egypt, so confident a year ago, can hardly have welcomed the hype that surrounded this year's African Nations tournament. Far from being a celebration of football, the tournament represented its diminution: just look at the tiny numbers who turned out whenever any team other than Egypt were playing.


I remember when I first started going to Anfield at the end of the 1980s, the fanzines of the time and most our supporters would have been delighted that Barnes disliked England. We were a club side, not a national team. Hansen, Dalglish, Souness were all Scots: why should we support England against a team in which they all played? In the later Fowler-McManaman era, we lent our players to the English team uneagerly, hoping that none of them would be injured: Jamie Redknapp at Euro 96 was. That disaster ruined what should have been the best years of his career.


I've written elsewhere about the differences between regional and national identity. But there are two sides to the contradiction: first, the followers of regional teams are expected to admire their players, side with their national side. Second, some escape. Because the reasons for choosing a club are personal and often parochial; because regional identity is often defined in opposition to the metropolitan centre. Because regionalism can reflect all sorts of values, left or right. 


The self-identity of most Liverpool fans was of course untypical. The team was built on the support of the first- and second-generation Irish fans who used to live along the old Scotland Road. Like the team, many of the supporters held passports that weren't English. There was often a sort of tacit acquiescence in the old Militant ideal of Liverpool against the world; people treated Hatton with scepticism, but that was as nothing for the venom they reserved for Heseltine and Thatcher. Those values held as long as Robbie Fowler's decision to wear a t-shirt for the dockers.


I recall the World Cup of 2002, and the idea that flag-waiving could be rescued for the left. I recall also Gordon Brown's recent speeches on creating a national identity, so well satirised by Steve Bell in the Guardian. The football culture in which I was raised would have held such values in contempt. 'I loathe the fact that the England team embody and foster nationalism', Barnes writes. There's a key word, there foster: football doesn't just reflect the 'national values' of Queen and country, shoot to kill, it can deepen and strengthen the antagonism between people. If we let it. Reclaim football, certainly. Reclaim England, never.



Picture credits

 John Barnes against Brazil: 

The Kop: 




March 2006

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