The Cross We Have to Bear
Wilby, Peter, New Statesman (1996)
A football World Cup is supposed to unite the nation, or at least the English part of it. Football, we are told, is now so much part of our culture that it cuts across barriers of race, class and even gender.
This is poppycock. Most of us may support the England team. But how we support it leaves us more bitterly divided than ever, mainly on class lines. You can see that from the press coverage.
On Friday 2 June, the Sun launched a campaign "to defend the right of all English men and women to fly our national flag". That day, it printed 20 St George's crosses. Eight days later, it had 56, with the cross appearing on assorted faces, cars, balloons, balls and bottoms. To the "killjoys" of NTL, Tesco and others who had banned their drivers from flying the flag, the Sun front page screamed "Up Yours", words which may have seemed inspired when Kelvin MacKenzie aimed them at Delors 15 years ago, but now seem crassly unimaginative.
White, male and tattooed
In the Guardian, a couple of weeks earlier, Joseph Harker had used even ruder words: BNP. The drivers of vehicles flying the flag, he wrote, were largely "white, male, tattooed, pot-bellied 35- to 55-year-olds". They were the sort who had been on TV saying they voted BNP because "we're losing control of our country". Then Michael Henderson in the Observer announced he would be supporting Germany, the land of Beethoven and Wagner, not England, the land of yobbish fans and players who dropped CD wrapping out of car windows. The Independent searched for a gentler, more inclusive spirit. Illustrated by a taxi festooned with the dreaded red crosses, six pages were devoted to 1930s and 1940s radio talks by the late John Betjeman on railways, churches and so on. These, we were advised, offered "a glimpse of something eternal" in English life. However, the paper's front page on the morning of England's opening match took some deconstructing. The headline, "England expects", was exactly the same as the Mail's. But the Mail's picture was of Nelson, with two flags of St George behind him, while the Independent confined one little English flag to a bottom corner. The rest of the page featured 31 other flags (one for every competing nation) with a mugshot alongside each.
Star players? I don't follow football closely, but Croatia surely couldn't be playing 29-year-old Anita Maric. Turning the page, I learned they were supporters, all resident in England, explaining how they would celebrate their nation's victory. …