Watching England play has always been an excruciating experience for my generation. It’s bum-clenching, temple-pounding, teeth-grinding kind of stuff. I watch games between my fingers, or from behind cushions. Apart from the repeated trauma and particular sting of lost penalty shoot-outs, there lingers always a terrible feeling that something is going to go wrong: the captain will get sent off for savagely kicking a member of opposition, the defence will fall apart like a badly packed kebab, a country with a tiny population of whale hunters will beat us.
Which is why, last weekend, I entered the England match as ‘WATCH ENGLAND LOSE’ on our weekend to-do list. My husband, somehow tricked into believing England are a good side because the country hosts the Premier League, couldn’t understand my pessimism. ‘Because they always lose,’ I explained. ‘Even if the other team are crap. But especially if they’re half-good.’
But somehow, instead of causing me angst, watching football has brought me a new kind of a calm. Perhaps it’s because this World Cup has been different, with England actually progressing, albeit with assistance from a laughably easy route to the semis: Tunisia, Panama, Colombia, Sweden. And that the team seemed to be improving match by match (until the semi-final), rather than imploding like a badly-trained kit of pigeons as usual.
But it’s also that, for the first time, I understand fandom, and why you might want to pin your emotional health to a sport. I experience a psycho-spiritual release while watching it. My heart rate may go up, and I might peek through my fingers as if it were a horror film, but when it’s over, I feel weirdly cleansed of my own worries and stresses of the day. Even when we lose.
The rational part of me is unable to justify my interest in something so pointless and ridiculous as 11 men skidding around after a ball, representing something as arbitrary and unreal as a nation. Ever the armchair sociologist, I tell my husband it answers a basic hunger for belonging, a need for a vessel to carry national identity, hopes and dreams, and to deliver a feeling of victory and superiority.
But inside, I’m experiencing the fledgling urges of an obsession, one that compels me to Google the life stories of each of the players, their training routines, habits, club performance: traits of fandom that I used to make fun of in others. It feels like pure fun, a vice that it’s actually okay to indulge. Why not fetishise athleticism? Why not allow yourself to feel there’s something more important than your daily struggles — even if it’s sport, and not politics?
There are probably many good intellectual arguments as to why not, to be honest. For a long time, it hasn’t felt okay to be an England fan (thanks to the hooligans braying at the gates), and flying the St. Georges flag seemed like a downright dangerous statement of spiteful and racist nationalism. (Although, in recent years, both have become more acceptable). Watching football is a diversion from what’s really at hand — as evidenced by the 10 o’clock news leading with England’s wins ahead of gobsmackingly terrible news about Brexit and the awful fate of the UK in the next few years.
Rationally, intellectually, usually, I’d argue that we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be distracted. To use a football metaphor: don’t take your eyes off the ball. Don’t laugh at Boris’s buffoonery at the expense of reading about the true shambles of the UK government, or climate change. But for now, in the summer of 2018, I just want to watch football.