Over recent years I have lost all interest in football. I used to play and watch it a lot but not any more. I think this loss of interest is due to local teams no longer being local. Instead they are made up of professional players from anywhere and everywhere. Now it isn’t specific regions or towns that tend to do well due to their footballing tradition. Instead the teams that do well are those that some Russian oligarch has decided to buy.
Several years ago my own local team was bought by a rich foreign businessman whose strategy was to buy his way up though the divisions. Those fans who wish only to see our team win every week and achieve the dizzying heights of Premiership and European football are happy about this. They don’t really care who the team members are, who they played for last year or will play for next year, just as long as we win. These are presumably the same fans that are happy when our team is awarded a penalty, even though it was an obvious dive by our lightning fast, cheating number 9. Also the same fans who shout filthy abuse at opposing players because they are the opposition.
The desire to win without any local players in the team strikes me as going against the whole ethos of what supporting your team means. To me it means sticking with your team through thick and thin because it is your team. To do otherwise would be like changing sides during a war when your side starts losing, or ditching your wife because things are no longer as exciting as they once were. Of course it is possible to buy the whole squad of another team so that the team that is Arsenal one year becomes Chelsea the next but what would be the point?
I must confess that I am happy enough when my team buys a cultured foreign centre-back who is a vast improvement on the dirty, primitive local we previously had. Even better, in post-match interviews he seems pleasant and articulate, despite English not being his first language. And I can imagine him sticking with the club even when they are doing badly. Such players can come to be seen as intrinsic to the team, so the ‘local vs outsider’ divide is by no means non-porous. Time of stay, personality and attitude can all help to make a player ‘belong’ to the club. And if all the team members were like our centre-back then having a side of non-locals wouldn’t bother me so much.
Yet many of the players are not at all like him and when my team loses we don’t have the consolation of thinking, ‘Well, at least they’re our boys, even if they are rubbish’. My team now seems to be made up of charmless mercenaries who I neither know nor care about.
Supporting a team of locals regardless of their success can be fun. The players’ personalities and styles of play are familiar to the fans and thus good topics for conversation. Supporting a winning team whose squad members change frequently but who seem likeable and reasonably loyal can also be fun, though slightly less so. But trying to get up any enthusiasm for a bunch of over-paid journeymen who are clearly here on a temporary basis is hard, especially when they lose. Hence my loss of interest.
I feel the same way about our national football and athletics teams, and about Britain as a whole. Our national teams and our country in general are partly made up of non-natives who, even when likeable and talented, can’t help but erode our sense of a shared ancient history. Nowadays a passport acquired yesterday is thought to take the place of a historic common ancestry. Any suggestion that one person might be less British than another is quickly squashed. If you have the right passport then you are as British as John Bull, or so some people’s thinking goes. That there might be differing degrees of Britishness or that ‘being British’ might be a ‘cluster concept’ is a thought too difficult for some.
I sometimes wonder who I would support if the England football team, made up entirely of black players, played against a New Zealand team consisting only of British emigrants. I have a strange feeling that neither the shared genes nor the shared nationality would win me over. It would be whichever team wore the England shirt! I have been conditioned to cheer on anyone who wears a white or red shirt with three lions on it.
Then again this might be nonsense. In 2001 I found myself in a bar in Barcelona watching England play Greece in a World Cup qualifying match. England needed to win to go through to the finals and Beckham was diving around all over the place trying to get a free kick. With a few minutes left to play he was given his umpteenth free kick on the edge of the box and this time duly scored. The bar erupted with jubilant England fans but I could barely raise a smile. Beckham had dived. I now wanted Greece to win, despite them wearing the wrong colour shirts.
I have changed my allegiance many times like this during football matches on the basis of the good or bad conduct of a team. This suggests to me that a shared sense of fairness rather than shared genes, shared nationality or even the right shirt is the determining factor for me.
Anyway, just as I would like football to return to being about team continuity and loyalty, so I would like our British immigration policy to take the same factors into consideration. Neither football teams nor nations should be dictated by economics alone.