Kicking and Screaming England

13/06/2016 14:57

It looks like the England football team may find a novel way of leaving a major international football tournament in the early stages. Usually they just underperform on the pitch, getting inadequate results from matches against teams they should easily sweep aside. However, in the 2016 European Championships currently unfurling nervously in France, England's favoured strategy is suffering from a potentially fatal flaw: whisper it ever so quietly, but this England team is actually quite good. They could, in fact, do well enough to get out of the group stages and into the knock-out rounds.

Admittedly, they only drew against Russia in their first match, but they played the Cossacks off the park. Normally when they draw the opening game they play like a pub team with a massive collective hangover and only manage to avoid defeat because the opposition is too surprised by England's ineptitude to beat them.

So, given that this team might be too good to fail on the pitch, the country is having to fall back on an old nemesis to bring it national shame: the football hooligan. There is something morbidly nostalgic about watching heavily tattooed idiots hurling metal chairs at the heads of rival gangs, or separating an opposition supporter from the safety of his pack and then kicking the crap out of him as he lays helpless on the floor. This is how football used to be in the 1970s and 80s; violence was an ever-present, repulsive backdrop to the national game.

Today's thug has upgraded his technology: hooligan2.0 carries a mobile phone with him to make sure he doesn't miss any action. And, rather than being encumbered with a sledgehammer, he makes do with weapons that he can easily fashion from more innocent items found at the battle scene: bottles, glasses, furniture. But, at his heart, he's the same vicious brute as his Doc Martin booted, knuckle-duster adorned predecessor: out for a good time with his mates, mauling and maiming the opposition.

The efforts of this unlovable Band of Brothers looks like they may win for themselves an unlikely, if notorious, place in the nation's sporting history. Europe's controlling football authority, EUFA, has threatened both England and Russia with expulsion from the tournament if trouble like this flares again. The English FA's response has been, more or less, to leap to defend our brave thugs and blame the Russians for the fracas. Well, they probably did start it, so that's fair enough.

We face the prospect of England doing well enough on the pitch to progress in the tournament, but badly enough off the pitch to be sent home early. That would be a pity, not just for the team itself, but for the country as a whole.

It's a pity because football actually matters. It matters because it gives us an artificial tribalism, a safe place - usually - to tap into an instinct that first developed among homo sapiens on the plains of the Serengeti, an instinct to which we owe our survival as a species. Football gives us something to fight over, to experience triumph and tragedy, without actually fighting; without actually going to war. Let's hope we learn to take our tribalism seriously enough that we don't fight over it.

And let's hope England meets our expectations and fails to win simply by being not good enough, not because its tribe can't behave.

Paul Beaumont's acclaimed debut novel A Brief Eternity was nominated for the Dundee International Book Prize and is available on Amazon and other retailers.