A few weeks back, my ten year old son Abe was talking about his new obsession, a pair of Argentine footballers named Lionel Messi and Carlos Tevez. Seizing on his interest in this pair, I mentioned that we might go and buy him the famous blue and white striped jersey they’ll be wearing at the World Cup. Like every other parent on the make, I figured I could use this as a carrot to dangle in front of him to get him to behave for a couple of weeks. How wrong I was.
“Why would I want an Argentina shirt?” he asked.
“To cheer for them at the World Cup.” I replied.
“I won’t be cheering for Argentina, I’m for England. That’s the shirt I want, an England shirt.’
I didn’t have a reply for that. I was too taken aback. The modern father is prepared for all eventualities when it comes to parenting but there was nothing in the manual about what to do if your kid wants to root for England at a major tournament. At least not in the Irish edition.
“Eh, you can’t really, eh, cheer for them,” I stuttered.
“Eh…eh,” I struggled to offer a coherent reason and he filled the silence by babbling.
“I love the Premier League. (Wayne) Rooney and (Steven) Gerrard are my favourite players. I like (Frank) Lampard too. Of course I’m going to cheer for them when they’re playing for England. What’s the big deal?”
Out of the mouths of babes. What is the big deal? With one question, the child had captured the quadrennial conundrum. Where is the rule that says he can’t support England at the World Cup? Why am I so shocked that he wants to? And how do I explain the way we as a nation lose all sense of propriety and perspective when it comes to a team with the instantly-recognisable crest of three lions over their hearts.
All across Ireland in the next couple of weeks, grown men who spend small fortunes every year flying to Old Trafford will spend hours baying at television screens and cursing the same Rooney they worship as a god at all other times. Supposedly mature adults who have lived and died with Liverpool for decades will laugh every time a Gerrard screamer goes flying over rather than under the bar. Children with Lampard posters on their bedroom walls and his name emblazoned across the back of their Chelsea shirts will be punching the air every time he fluffs a shooting chance.
I’ve participated in this age-old ritual myself of course. I watched England lose to West Germany in the 1990 World Cup semi-final in a flat in South London. By the time the penalty shoot-out had ended, my uncle Finny and I were dancing around the living room with a glee that probably surpassed any emotions we’ve ever felt watching Ireland. Fortified by beer and now of course spared the possibility of the English winning the tournament, we went to the pub down the street to savour the atmosphere of loss and to (secretly) enjoy the mourning of the locals.
Those would be the very same locals who’d cheered heartily for Ireland during the famous victory over Romania and noble defeat by Italy earlier in that same tournament. These Londoners were capable of wanting us to do well. We were capable only of learning the true meaning of the word schadenfreude. Is it too glib to say, as many do, there are 800 years of reasons why?
Well, there are plenty other justifications available too. Listen closely over the coming month and you’ll hear variations on the theme that the English are too full of themselves, hype up their players to a ridiculous extent, and over-react when things go wrong. All of this is true and all of it can be applied to Ireland in equal measure. We are the nation who called a row between a manager and a player the country’s “second civil war”, wanted the rules of the game rewritten because a referee didn’t see a handball, and constantly think our own stars are a whole lot more talented than they actually are.
We see this in the English but not in ourselves. We profess to dislike their team yet we absorb their football culture as our own and ape so much of it that some of our fans sing songs in mockney accents. There are few sounds as disturbing in the world game than a group of Irish supporters, fully paid-up members of Jackie’s/Giovanni’s Army, belting out terrace chants in perfect Mancunian tones. This is not an urban myth. I’ve witnessed it all over Europe and indeed it’s not unheard of at League of Ireland grounds either.
All of this is wonderfully schizophrenic. So much so that by this juncture, some academic should really have tried to write a thesis on post-colonial hangovers and sporting hatreds. We suspect nobody has because it’s too difficult to explain the way a nation goes from so lustily cheering to jeering the exact same footballers in a matter of weeks every four years. How could anyone figure out a people who measure out their lives in Premier League fixtures yet go rabid at the sight of a white Umbro shirt? For a long time, the antipathy was such that the England jersey itself was an item of contraband in Ireland.
In the late 1990s, an RTE magazine show ran an item in which the journalist Paul Howard (before he mutated into Ross O’Carroll Kelly) spent a day trawling the sports shops of Dublin in search of the chance to purchase this elusive garment. At a time when it was possible to source the most obscure jerseys from Africa and Eastern Europe, the distinctive white of our nearest neighbours was impossible to find. No outlet deigned to even carry them. Why would they stock something for which there was no apparent market? Well, nearly ten years later, I found a couple of places in Cork hanging the three lions with pride. Have we matured enough to be able to regard this as just another shirt? Or are they catering for the increasing number of English ex-pats working in Ireland?
These questions will only be really answered in the affirmative if individuals wearing these shirts are allowed to watch games in bars unmolested over the next couple of weeks. Judging by the number of articles written in Irish papers lately about how hoping England fail spectacularly is as much a part of the World Cup tradition as expecting Brazil to do well and Eamon Dunphy to exaggerate, I doubt that will be the case.
My poor son then comes to this strange business from his own peculiar angle. Apart from possessing the innocence of every ten year old, there is his upbringing. Abe was born in Holles Street Hospital, Dublin but moved to New York at four months old. He’s American enough to be able to recite the pledge of allegiance by heart and to have a stars and stripes flag pinned to the wall of his bedroom. He’s Irish enough that I fear one of these years he’s going to come home from college with an ugly “Fighting Irish” leprechaun tattoo on his arm like so many other misguided children of the diaspora.
Yet next Saturday, he will be sporting white and cheering for England over his own United States (the outfit I will, as a grateful immigrant and not at all, at all, ahem, as an anti-John Bull fan, be shouting for) in the opening game of Group C of the World Cup. “Because I prefer their players,” he answers coolly when I seek some sort of reasoning for this traitorous behaviour against his homeland. Meanwhile, I have a theory of my own for his desire to watch that game wearing the England rather than the American shirt.
In the sporting half of his wardrobe (which is the entire thing), aside from a raft of Cork county jerseys, there are the colours of Barcelona, the Green Bay Packers, Cork City, the Cleveland Cavaliers, Liverpool, France (a pre-Thierry Henry gift from his aunt in Paris), the New York Knicks, Manchester United, New Zealand, and of course, Ireland (rugby and soccer). This is a child of ecumenical tastes who thinks nothing of wearing Liverpool to school one day, and Manchester United the next. He supports whoever he wants whenever he wants. England contain more of the stars he watches every week and mimics on FIFA 10 each day than any of the other countries in South Africa so with perfect ten year old logic, he’s for the side boasting most of his heroes.
Maybe he’s better off unencumbered by the weight of history forced upon most Irish fans from an early age. Some kids aren’t that lucky. I have two friends who moved to England in the early nineties. They married local girls, and made good, prosperous lives for themselves there. Both have beautiful children who speak with the wonderful Received Pronounciation accent of the BBC World Service. Where these men differ though is in their approach to the national team of the country that has been so kind to them both. One cheers for England, along with his English son, and even has an England shirt he wears playing five-a-side games.
The other rabidly roots against them, revells in every defeat, and constantly explains to his boy that he’s not actually English, he’s a “Plastic Paddy”, the affectionate expatriate term for kids born to Irish parents in Britain. This may seem like odd behaviour but, in the context of our approach to the English team, it is par for the course. It is perhaps no more or less bizarre than the minority of England’s travelling hordes who still think singing “No Surrender to the IRA” is an integral part of supporting their squad.
A week or so after I broke the news to family in Ireland about my son’s, ahem, new allegiance, and his overwhelming desire to win his first cap for England at this World Cup, the child broke his elbow on a trampoline. When I emailed my brother in Cork the news of what had happened his nephew and godson, he replied rather succinctly: “Good enough of the Tan bastard.”
If you don’t know what he meant by that, you’ll never quite understand the whole Ireland-England thing.
(This piece first appeared in the Irish Daily Mail in May, 2010)