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On Nationalism (and Sport)

ON A DAY WHEN England is about to play Croatia in the semi-finals of the World Cup, when every passing white van seems to have flags of St George sticking out of its wing mirrors and the local little Hitler has unfurled four giant Union Jacks from the corners of his property, I have been thinking about the rights and wrongs of nationalism.   A week ago, when the World Cup quarter finals were being played, a friend who had been at a cricket match at Edgbaston, England versus India, told me how the crowd, predominantly Asian, after clapping and cheering  and singing the Indians to an 8 wicket defeat of England, had then stayed behind to watch the end of the England/Sweden game on the giant screens. He said how strange and moving it was to hear a crowd who had been humorously booing the English cricketers, become so involved in cheering every move of the English footballers,- especially how strange it was to hear the anthemic “It’s coming home” song being chanted by this mainly ‘Asian’ crowd.

Clearly a need to belong, to support with fanatic loyalty, some local identity, has deep roots in our psyche… however fickle and irrational that support may be.  Thus, having supported Norwich City football club for some 40 years while living in Norfolk, following every match, every twitch, every rise and fall in their fortunes, I have, since moving to the West Midlands, blithely switched my loyalty to the Wolves,-  for no better reason than that I like the famous “old gold” of their kit plus something of their history.

I suspect that our almost tribal need to support (and feel supported?) must go back a long, long way into our personal insecurities and prehistoric past.  Also I suspect that it is mainly a male phenomenon. Women don’t seem so fussed about whether England or Croatia will win tonight.  One mother I know hopes that Croatia will win because otherwise the next round, the World Cup Final on Sunday, will interfere with her child’s birthday party…and who’s to say such motherly priorities are wrong?

As to the ancient roots of our loyalties, Margaret Macmillan, in a recent Reith lecture about War, has suggested that hunter gatherers, always moving on to new territories, were probably more peaceable than the farmers of the Bronze Age who, having settled on desirable farming land, would therefore become more supportive (and defensive) of their local tribal areas. Certainly hill forts seem to have developed at that time – suggesting a  link (especially for the male warriors and their male chieftains)  beween place and a kind of early patriotism.

Of course at its worst Nationalism as well as being narrow-minded can be fiercely hateful. After the recent match against the Colombians I overheard several pubsters ascribe the tricks of diving and tripping and feigning injury to the innate tricksiness of the Colombian character; in less politically correct times they would perhaps have called them ‘dirty dagoes’.  And, while respecting much about Scottish culture and character, I know that when the rugby Six Nations matches are being played, I will always get a primitive delight in seeing a Scottish team humiliated.  I think that prejudice must go back to when I was at boarding school and had several uncomfortable dealings with a Mc***** who seemed to embody, with his freckles and flame-red hair, all of the more fiery characteristics of the Picts. He has probably grown into a charming respectable member of society, but my deep down fear of him and his race remains, especially where sports are concerned.

We all know what terrifying excesses the Eugenics preachers, the pure race merchants, of the last century predicated.  Perhaps it is a reassuring fact that so many of our best football teams, including the Brazilians and Colombians as well as our own “national” English team, are such a wonderful mélange of races and mixed races.  Indeed maybe the Final Solution to Nationalism in its nasty narrow aspects will be the increasing evolution of genetic intermixing?  Meanwhile the best of our instincts must be supra-national, transcending our silly local loyalties/prejudices?

While on a tour of Northern Nigeria ten years ago, our driver (named “Driver”!) took us past a valley entrance hidden among the ancient piled up boulders of the Gwoza hills.  Local memory placed this secret valley as where a culturally mixed people  from many different tribes, having escaped from their Arab gang masters (the valley was to the side of one of the old slave routes from Lake Chad to the Coast)  built a new conglomerate society, even evolving their own language. One would like to think of that place of refuge and cooperation as a metaphor for supra-nationalism.  Similarly, it is forgotten that the nurse Edith Cavell, who was shot by German firing squad for sheltering wounded servicemen from both sides during the first world war and whose image became a recruiting poster-girl for anti-German nationalism, should really be celebrated as an icon of supra-nationalism. Her last written and spoken words were to insist that “Nationalism is not enough.”


I append an unpublished poem about my (then) loyalty to  Norwich City Football Club – unpublished because I suspect that, although intended to be humorous, it is really rather misogynistic!





compared to being a Norwich City supporter



Not exactly what you’d choose. More a case

of where you happen to find yourself.

Mostly mid to low table non-Premier stuff.

The likes of Chelsea (their film star lives

featured in “Hello”, stables full of cars

and fantasy WAGs, the latest models)

impossibly beyond our dreams and pocket.

Mostly a struggle, just scrapping to survive.

But still you remember

the good times. Those cup runs of ’59 or ’85.

Also the torture of last year’s Play Off.

Mostly it’s thankless, travelling away

to stand, a lonely knot of yellow and green

on the blasted terrace of some Northern town

wondering why you’ve come. The brutal truth?

It’s one part hope to ten parts’ disappointment.

Just occasionally at the Barclay End

surrounded by a thousand bodies pumping as one

like a porno film as Huckerby weaves his magic

down the left wing and the gathering roar

of the crowd builds to a last minute GOOOAAAAL!!!

you feel ecstatic, raised above yourself

by more than old loyalty, bringing home

the post-coital glow of a close win.

That – or you feel like nut-crackering the cat.














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