‘Will you be supporting England?’ English people have asked me ever since I can remember. My family moved to London from Kiev in 1980, when I was three. The question might look like a football version of Norman Tebbit’s ‘cricket test’. But one of the earliest things I worked out as an immigrant child is that you’re not meant to rush into English identity. You can do that in the US maybe, but it would be utterly un-English to try to be too English too fast. ‘Who do you support?’ is a bit of a trick question.
I’d felt this instinctively early on but Dr Douek, who cut out my tonsils when I was 18, helped me understand it in a more structured way. ‘The English are very accepting, as long as you don’t try to be pukkah English,’ he said, as he peered into my throat. He too had come here as a child, part of a family of Hungarian Jews who fled the Nazis. By the time of my operation Douek was well into retirement age but still spoke with a slight Mitteleuropean accent, which I suspect may have been affected, to show he wasn’t trying to be ‘pukkah’.
We agreed that becoming English took three generations. Someone born outside England was ‘from Russia/Hungary’. The second generation, born in England, might say they were English ‘but of Russian/Hungarian parentage’ (the ‘but’ is crucial). The third generation was pretty much English. Part of the process used to be changing your name: Vinogradov to Grade; Brokhovich to Brook; Mironov to Mirren. We discussed what my name might look like after linguistic surgery. Pomerantsev could be cut down to Mer, and from there it’s not very far to the very English ‘Moore’, though something tells me my descendants won’t bother.
But despite understanding all this, and always being very cautious when supporting England in rugby or cricket (I do so quietly), things are different when it comes to football.
When I came to England I couldn’t speak the language. Football was one of the few things I could join in with at primary school. Watching football on TV was a way into the language: listening to football commentary, which matches words to emotions and visual action, was an easy way to learn. Brian Moore was my first English teacher. I learned to read English from children’s football magazines (I preferred Shoot to Match). Long before I had a rich English vocabulary for emotional or home life (both of which were in Russian), I could talk fluently about corners and tactics.
Between four and seven I spoke semi-English. I only half understood people around me, and could only one-third communicate. I spent a lot of time in my head. I would compose football games in my mind, commentating on them. I invented teams. I described the players’ lives and moods in detail in the commentary. The players got older and had problems. They moved teams and were reinvigorated. I made up leagues. I kept dozens of pads with all my teams and the scores from games written down in them. I made up national teams. I spent my pocket money on cups from the local sports shop to present to the imaginary teams.
I was a player too in this imagined world, a midfielder like Ray Wilkins, and after many knock-backs I made it into the England side. But I used myself sparingly, often as a substitute; I preferred commentating on the others.
Once at school the headmaster came round and I blurted out that I was off to Montevideo to play in a tournament. He congratulated me. My teacher, Mrs Stern, called my parents and asked if I needed time off school for my trip to Uruguay. They told her there was no trip. The next day she asked me to stay behind after class. This had never happened and I knew it was important. ‘So it turns out everything you told us about going to Uruguay, about you being involved in football, was a fib,’ Mrs Stern said. From her tone I could tell I had done something wrong but the problem was I didn’t know what the word ‘fib’ meant. Back home I looked it up. It didn’t seem right. I hadn’t though of my imaginary world as a lie, just a parallel reality, and the one reality had spilled into the other.
By that time I was seven, and my English was getting pretty good. I had trained it up in the linguistic playing fields of my invented football universe. With the word ‘fib’, everything seemed to slot into place: I now had two words for the same thing (lie and fib) and it felt as if I had crossed a border into knowing English. At the same time, the shock of people thinking I’d lied snapped me out of living so intensely in my imagination. I locked up my pads of players and became more normal. I would sometimes tell fibs, obviously, but now I knew it was fibbing.
Still, every time I speak English, I’m linked to football. Every time I think in English, a bit of my mind sees Remi Moses. Every time I sit down to write in English (and every time is like conquering the language anew), I hear Brian Moore. Football, English football, is everywhere inside me.
I’m sick with nerves ahead of England v. Uruguay. I think about formations every seven seconds. And so, to answer the question: yes, I will be supporting England. But…