Well, there's one thing you can say about England

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The Independent Culture
I'VE never particularly wanted to play for England. This antipathy has always been entirely mutual, of course, and is likely to remain so. Terry Venables may have recalled the veteran Beardsley to the international squad, but he's playing brilliantly for a top Premier League club. I, on the other hand, am struggling to hold my place in a thirtysomething five-a-side team that frequently starts the match a man short anyway. (In my defence, I should point out that Beardsley doesn't have to play with my friend Paddy, who makes me look bad by holding on to the ball too long and by frequently - wilfully? - misreading my shrewd flicks and subtle layoffs.)

I'm just not terribly patriotic, for all the usual reasons: both the Union Jack and the flag of St George have been tainted by their associations with all sorts of unsavoury people, a large number of England fans are monsters, everyone hates us anyway, etc. I would have wanted to play for Ireland, or Wales, or Scotland; those flags and shirts are soaked with a different set of meanings and aspirations, most of which are untroubling.

I was at the National Stadium in Cardiff for the Wales v France rugby international last month, and I envied both sets of fans their heartfelt and manifestly decent desire to see their team win. It is no wonder that those with even a fleck of non-English blood - anyone black, or half-Scottish, or a quarter Norwegian - chooses to flunk the Tebbit test: who would want to pass it, if it means playing on Norman's side?

Even so, I felt the strangely familiar little prickles of pride and hope after England's recent resounding 1-0 win over Denmark, just as I did after the 1990 World Cup semi-final, and have done during the first morning of the occasional Test.

It wasn't just that we (even the first-person plural pronoun has been taken out of the bottom drawer and dusted off) played reasonably well, and that Terry Venables is clearly a more competent and much more likeable coach than his predecessor, and that new brooms always cheer the place up anyway. It was more that I would very much like to be a part of a country which has some wit and style about it; our national sports teams seem to be selected by government committee simply to remind us that, if it is wit and style we are after, as opposed to warm beer and all those other things the Prime Minister likes, we were born in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Before Venables arrived, Beardsley (and Chris Waddle) were football's equivalent of cricket's David Gower and rugby's Stuart Barnes: witty, stylish, imaginative and, therefore, destined for the chop.

I don't want England - the country and the football team - to be better than the rest. It's not that sort of patriotism. But it would be nice if we were as good as everyone else - not perfect, but not always the hopeless, tacky, curmudgeonly losers. It would be nice if it were the Irish who were causing trouble over the enlargement of the EC, for example, but it's us. It would be nice if a Dutch footballer came back from the World Cup wearing a pair of humorous plastic breasts, but it was Gazza. It would be nice if comprehensive education were controversial in any other major industrialised country, but not even the Americans have a problem with the idea that kids of different abilities should go to the same school. It would be nice if the French had funded the Pergau dam, if the Australians had a Scott inquiry, if Basque separatists were raining mortar bombs down on major Spanish airports, but no . . . Why is it always us?

When I taught young Europeans, I used to bridle at every complaint they made about Britain. I tried to argue the case for carpets in bathrooms and separate hot and cold taps (a particular and peculiar cause of continental outrage); I denied that we have an aversion to rinsing washing-up, even though I suspect that we do; I accepted, grudgingly, that our public transport systems were ruinously expensive, but hit back with some equivalent complaint - about French pop music, or Belgian culture, or Italian referees; I waxed lyrical about the British climate, sang loud hymns to the glow and variety of English cuisine, defended our dress sense, scoffed at myths about our sexual ineptitude, and mimed astonishment at suggestions that we were unfriendly, cold-hearted and repressed.

But one hot Sunday afternoon, after an England v the Rest of the World football international in Regent's Park, I gave up. The two teams went to a local supermarket to buy cans of drink; some chose beer. We have all grown up with the knowledge that the desire for a can of beer on a hot Sunday afternoon is unreasonable, sinful even, but this was news to my students, who seemed to regard a cold Heineken - just the one - as harmless. And when the shopkeeper said that they would have to wait until 7pm to make their purchases, it was incumbent on me to provide the logic. 'You see, Sunday is the Lord's day, and He doesn't want us to drink beer between 2pm and 7pm - well, He doesn't mind us drinking it but doesn't want us buying it, and He also wants us to close the pubs at 10.30pm instead of 11pm because, you know, that extra half-hour, and . . .' It was then, I think, that I stopped apologising for England and started despairing of it.

What is there in contemporary England - I'm not talking about Our Glorious Heritage, about Windsor Castle, or Dickens, or Fawlty Towers, or the Sex Pistols, or the health service - that we can feel unequivocal about? I have always been amazed that we are the only European country to have dispensed with National Service (it would be more characteristic if we were the only country to have retained it); and then there is General Rose, Body Shop Black Cherry bubble bath, our stupendous range of crisp flavours (you try finding a packet of cream cheese and chive crinkle-cut anywhere else in the world), our curry houses, a few pubs, Colin Jackson, Mike Leigh, Simon Armitage, and, pace Michael Portillo, our deep and endemic cynicism . . . It's not much, but it's home.

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