THERE WAS a smug shot of Christiano Ronaldo on my desk yesterday (I was writing a little colour piece for the paper about the Euros being more enjoyable without England) when a passing colleague not normally given to outbursts of vitriol leant over and pointed at Diveinho and snarled: “I hope he gets his bloody legs broken… both of them!”
That may not be the spirit of touchy-feely pan-European fraternity through football that UEFA are hoping that the European Championships might promote but it seems a fair reflection of at least one dark aspect of public opinion that these set piece events can trigger. There is a lot of sublimated anger out there and with or without England, for some, it will be a theatre of hate.
Scientists have long speculated about the presence of anti-matter, a negative force equal and opposite to the more measurable building blocks of the universe. Pah! Hey, boffins, get your instruments and start work on the average football crowd. For the next three weeks there will an upsurge in tangible social and emotional forces as usually placid individuals declare themselves irrationally and passionately anti-German, anti-French, anti-Spanish and especially – because of the gravititional pull of the sulky stepover show-pony – anti-Portuguese. My colleague will not be the only one hoping to see Ronaldo snapped in half, and now, after his shameless spell of brazen flirting with Real Madrid, some of them will be Man United fans.
A survey out this week suggested the English will be supporting Portugal and Spain in the tournament which strikes me as bad science. Who did they ask? Band-wagon jumpers and playground glory hunters in the Home Counties? As the BBC adverts suggest, little Scousers will support Torres, Surrey schoolkids will back their local lad Ronaldo and Arsenal and Cheslea fans will probably thrown their weight behind France – but just as many real supporters will be cheering on the opposition to those teams as a direct and conscious act of anti-support.
It is a media and marketing myth that the entire watching audience is a single entity that lines up behind whoever the spin-machine decides is the story. Just because Ronaldo is a G14 marketing man’s wet dream doesn’t mean we can be manipulated into some flimsy support for them because it suits a corporate branding strategy. There is nothing more infuriating than to be told by an employee of Rupert Murdoch that “the whole nation is behind XXXX tonight” just because their continued participation can help them sell more dishes, more papers, more advertising space and condemn us to another round of sensational sizzling superlatives.
The media always call this wrong. Real fans with a partisan commitment to their own team do not switch allegience to another side so cheaply. Sorry but I won’t be backing Man U or Chelsea or Liverpool in the Champions League. I want them to lose. I want them to get thrashed, have three sent off and another six heavily injured. I want their plane to break down on the way home so they sit on the runway for six sleepless hours waiting in the cold and I want them to get battered in the next domestic game because of they are fatigued. I hate the Big Four and see no benefit for Boro in their winning a single game ever, even in training.
And the same logic applies in international tournaments. I will not be dragooned into supporting some remote national entity just because their team includes a member of the elite marketing team of prima donna pin-ups central to an structurally distorted money making enterprise rigged against my own side and who sell fizzy drinks, razors and god knows what else over-priced tat.
Far from the gullible nation lining up behind Ronaldo, Torres and Anelka most and partisan supporters will line up against them. And do it vocally. It is healthy.
Of course, there is another darker dimension that is also waiting to be manipulated. While fans proxy passion will be partly channelled based on individuals there is also an insidious under-current of barely disguised xenophobia. Let’s be honest here, the English don’t like a lot of other countries, especially when they have the audacity to overtly display their own nationality through something like football. And even less so when they do well at it.
The English view the rest of the world through a particularly limited lens of history when it comes to football. It is a case of 1966 And All That. Most English supporters, when they are not screaming against individual hate figures will be anti-supporting entire nations, principally those playing against Germany. Anti-support of Germany is practically a national duty, just as in chilly Jockoland it is a badge of civic pride to oppose England at every turn. The nightmare scenario for such Little Englanders will be a Germany-Portugal final.
Not for me though. I grew up in Germany – I first started going to watch football regularly at the mighty Arminia Bielefeld – and love the place. Germany has a brilliant football history and a lively fan culture that revolves around standing, singing and drinking plus low prices and superb stadiums designed with the spectator in mind. What’s not to like? The war? We’ve fought wars against everyone bar Portugal so if you are thinking like that you may as well get your Ronaldo replica shirt on now. The main reason the English hate the Germans is because with their arrogance they remind us of ourselves. I always back Germany in tournaments, much to the annoyance of the rest of the office. They hate it when I get my huge post-ironic “Teesside Krauts” banner out.
Meanwhile, as an illustration that it is not just in England that football is viewed through a patriotic prism with echoes of the war. There was a juicy cross-border tabloid spat in the build-up to the big grudge match between d Germany as a robust Polish tabloid sparked a storm with a neat bit of photo-shopping that showed their manager holding the blood-soaked severed heads of their neighbours’ manager Joachim Lowe and captain Michael Ballack. Fleet Street’s finest will be kicking themselves that they hadn’t thought of that one.
There have been a lot of formal apologies flying around but Poland midfielder Jacek Krzynowek, who plays for Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga, said the newspaper stories were just: “Part of the psychological war, and it didn’t start yesterday or the day before, but a long time ago.”
You half expect famous Polish hotelier Jan Cleesowitcz to goose-step through the opening ceremony urging spectators not to mention the war. It is not just in England that sport is reflected throug the prism of military history. And some of the other potential fixtures have far more edge than anything we can imagine too.
The English have a rivalry with German because “they bombed our nana’s chippie” but we were not invaded, brutally repressed under the iron heel of the Nazi jackboot and we certainly didn’t have millions of innocent men, women and children slaughtered or marched off to gas chambers. The Dutch, Czechs, French, Austrians and Russians don’t like them much either.
Enjoy the football. Enjoy the absence of England and the media hysteria and over-hyped expectations. Cheer on Pogatetz and Tuncay. Ignore sycophantic commentators telling you to fawn over the usual suspects. Don’t get too angry when my lads win. Cheers, I’m off to buy 240 cans of German lager, a Scorpions compilation and a pile of bratwurst.