By Rosie Harrison-Nirawan
The European Championships are a historical symbol of international relations. Some see in this a positive message of inclusivity and respect beyond borders, but it is also evident that imagined boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ risk becoming more pronounced in an atmosphere defined by international competition.
What is the significance of flags and national anthems in the context of European football? Are they symbols of something positive? Something negative? Do they connote international cooperation or an instance of modified cultural warfare? The answers to these questions most likely differ greatly from person to person, but it is a prominent phenomenon when football recontextualises the subject of nationhood.
Racism in football is a hotly debated topic, but perhaps a less popular conversation is one regarding anti-European xenophobia. Black players on the England team who have been the victims of horrific racial abuse – such as Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling – arguably become far more encompassed in the hysteria of national ecstasy when they are scoring goals for ‘us’ – at the expense, nevertheless, of European teams transforming into a far more consolidated, hostile ‘them’.
The psychology behind such a phenomenon appears relatively simple: people find a sense of belonging when part of a wider team spirit, feeling safely connected by experiences such as watching an England match alongside much of the country, sharing in both the emotional highs and lows. Alone, the desire to belong is not harmful, but if based on a precarious or imagined sense of superiority, the boundaries between patriotism and nationalism can become aggressively blurred.
When England played against Germany last month, emotions ran particularly high. The game eventually became the most watched programme of the year at the time, with 20 million people tuning in. England fans received warnings from UEFA for chanting ‘10 German Bombers’; viral memes of a German girl crying at her team’s loss included captions such as ‘Think we forgot your grandad killed Anne Frank?’; and, in light of Germany’s defeat, newspapers ran headlines such as ‘Kane Finally Scores as 3 Lions Thump Old Enemy’ and ‘England Erupts as we Beat Old Foe at Wembley – Ending 55 Years of Hurt’. This is a clear illustration of how a sense of nationhood is often rooted in the past, with fans and newspaper headlines alike referencing historic world wars as sources of England’s ‘sporting’ conflict with Germany.
Such xenophobic language is exacerbated by the context of both Brexit and the Coronavirus
pandemic, since there is an implicit boosting of national morale in the ‘thrashing’ of our European ‘foes’. Our collective psychology is perhaps in need of a positive experience of unity and shared positivity, but this is by no means reliant on an illusion of either historical or national superiority.
Indeed, a pronounced enthusiasm for the past can make the concept of national belonging more elusive, taking the focus away from the commendable symbols of tolerance and inclusivity within modern football, such as taking the knee or wearing a rainbow armband. Undoubtedly it is these outstandingly progressive actions that provide a source for patriotism in many England fans, and it is precisely this pride that can fuel crucial interrogations into how a nation can become more tolerant and more inclusive, as opposed to an island nation that thrives off disassociation.
After all, no man is an island and only through seeing the strengths in other team colours can we improve our own; responding in any other way can only result in an own goal.