Something strange happens to fans when they watch football. Even more so when watching the national team. For many, as their team progresses through a tournament, superstition takes over. They have to wear the same shirt (unwashed) as last time, or be in the same place to watch the game. The weather’s the same – an omen surely? Is the match on the BBC or ITV? In the 1998 World Cup, England even had their own faith healer. But Eileen Drewery couldn’t stop them losing to Argentina on penalties in the second round and was among the reasons Glenn Hoddle got sacked as manager the following year.
I asked my partner what goes through his head when England score. ‘Relief,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why. England has brought so much disappointment.’ We could have been talking about the football or the country in general. For me, the feeling is more like jubilation, though I shed tears when Raheem Sterling scored the opening goal for England. I don’t like to talk during the football (although, being a woman, I am often spoken at) and sometimes I prefer to watch games alone. Football can offer an almost meditative state – the opportunity to immerse myself completely in something that is important but inconsequential.
At the same time, supporting a football team is by definition a collective experience. We wear the same shirts, the same colours, to demonstrate our unity. On entering the stadium a fan is no longer an individual but part of a wider group of supporters. The terrace has long been one of the few places where men are socially permitted to express emotion. The monotony of work, enforced stoicism, internalised grief and loss; men needed an outlet and football was it. For some men, the emotional release has a dark side. Hooliganism outside the home has seen a decline since the introduction of the 1989 Football Spectators Act but in 2018 the Pathway Project ran a campaign to coincide with the World Cup: ‘No one wants England to win more than women. Domestic abuse rates increase by 38 per cent when England lose.’ (The same study found that abuse increased by 26 per cent when England win or draw.)
I know my opinion on football is less highly regarded because I’m a woman, although it’s arguably more coherent as I don’t have the luxury of being able to say whatever nonsense pops into my mind without being subject to intense scrutiny (in the same way that men are ‘assertive’ but women are ‘bossy’). Alex Scott and Emma Hayes are exceptional pundits, but both have had to work that much harder to avoid online abuse and sexist comments after every post-match analysis. The way women are treated in football is indicative of the way we are treated elsewhere.
Before the tournament started Priti Patel said it was fine to boo the team for taking a knee – she’d probably like to deport most of their parents – and Boris Johnson last year declared food banks ‘fantastic’ as Marcus Rashford was campaigning for free school meals for children during lockdown. But now even the cabinet have been forced to throw their support behind the team. A panicked flurry of awkward photographs have circulated on social media. Johnson trampled on a giant flag on Downing Street and Patel found her way into a pub (I shudder). It all brought back memories of Theresa May’s clumsy attempt to join in a Mexican wave during England v. France in 2017 (something you can never unsee). Politicians have long used the proletarian pastime to curry favour during a national tournament. Never mind what they say the rest of the time about football and its fans, even the government succumbs to the game’s allure during a national tournament.
The unequal pathways of progression mean Italy have had to beat far better teams than England have to secure their place in the final. They won their semi-final against Spain on penalties, and it was close, but Italy have been conjuring up magic from somewhere deeper. Their eagerness to win left Spain looking limp and Morata’s missed opportunity during the penalty shoot-out will have given his critics further fuel, even if he did score the equaliser in the first ninety minutes. Italy are current favourites but nothing in football is guaranteed (less than a month ago France were expected to win).
I moved flat yesterday and didn’t have the energy to make it to the pub, so stayed home to watch England v. Denmark. Deep down, perhaps I didn’t believe England would win it. And then – we conceded our first goal of the tournament but also made the final for the first time in 55 years. The commentator urged everyone to stay awake all night but to do so safely, ‘you deserve this … take note of who you are, who you’re with’. I was on my own, utterly content. No black magic, no dark forces, just me and the boy from Brent. The boy who by now should have earned the affection of every English football fan. Sterling’s performance hasn’t just been football: it’s been an examination of identity, and has rightly held a mirror to hypocrisy. After the game I checked the upcoming fixtures because I can’t quite believe it: Euro 2020 Final, Italy v. England, Wembley, 11 July.