What's football got to do with it?

England v Argentina: It's about the battle of the Falklands, the hand of Maradona, and what it means to be English
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The Independent Online
THE FRENZY surrounding tonight's World Cup game between England and Argentina may worry some people that the country is in the grip of nationalist hysteria and that the Sun's brand of xenophobia has finally triumphed.

After all, St George's flag, once the preserve of neo- fascism, seems to be flying everywhere - on the tops of car aerials and from the most respectable residences.

So is tonight's match just a sick replay of the Falklands War?

"There is a danger of stepping over the mark between patriotism and jingoism," said one England fan, Mark Langford, 24, a trainee solicitor from west London. "I can imagine some of the headlines if we win - or if we lose."

The Sun has already raised the temperature with its front page on Saturday: "Now Bring on the Argies." But, talking to fans, it is clear that the battle on their minds is not the one in the south Atlantic. It is the one England lost in 1986. That was when Argentina's Diego Maradona committed a foul by pushing the ball into the net with his hand. It was the World Cup quarter-finals. England were rattled into defeat by what Maradona later referred to as "the hand of God".

That moment "has lived on in English footballing history as a score to be settled," according to Sean Perkins, research associate at Leicester University's Centre for Football Research. "Of course football is influenced by national tensions borne out of armed conflicts. But fans are more interested in exacting revenge over a football conflict than a military conflict." Until now, however, they have had little chance to get that revenge: the two nations rarely play each other and don't compete at club level.

Andy Glanville, 25, a banker from Rayleigh, Essex, says: "It's a bigger game because of the Hand of God thing. I think the Falklands War is long buried. Obviously servicemen are upset, but it's in the past now. This is football not war."

When Maradona cheated, he offended a notion of fair play which is a defining feature of the English game. It built on a row going back to the 1966 World Cup about dirty play by the Argentines against England. This is a country which prides itself on heroes such as Sir Bobby Charlton who was never booked. Glenn Hoddle, an evangelical Christian, loves to claim the moral high ground. In this World Cup, England is top of the Fair Play League, as it was in 1990, the last time it competed in the finals.

The biggest grudge match for England would not, in any case, be against Argentina, but Germany. Again, it is tempting to see this as a replay for military conflict: the tabloids stirred that up during the European Championships in 1996. This century's world wars are a factor, but the main issue is that Germany knocked England out in the 1990 World Cup and the European Championships in 1996 in closely fought matches decided on penalties.

Mick Thomas, 35, a builder from Stevenage, catches the mood: "The best team to beat would be the Germans. We always seem to be so unlucky against them during penalty shoot-outs. We just don't like Germans. But as long as we win the World Cup, it doesn't really matter who we beat. That said, if it's not us, then, I hope it's not Germany or Argentina."

So is Britain in the grip of Sun-style jingoism? Flag- waving has certainly become trendy, perhaps as a way of gaining a sense of identity in these uncertain times of devolution and the creation of the euro currency. Jimmy Ford, who owns a flower stall in central London said: "I'm surprised by the type of people who buy them. It's right across the board. I see people coming down from the City and buying six foot flags. Where are they draping them? Out of their suburban houses and their BMWs?"

Alison Howells, 40, a civil servant from Newcastle, bemoans the whole event: "It's never off the television. If you are not interested in it there is a problem. I'm not sure if it brings the country together. I watched an England game with some Scotland supporters and they were supporting the other team."

But Shaun Spiers, Arsenal fan and Labour MEP for London South-east is more hopeful. "People are getting caught up in the whole thing. I don't see that is frightening. People are consciously projecting their sense of Englishness, which is quite new - we first saw the flag of St George a lot during Euro 96. Football is a game we invented and it brings lots of people together. That seems OK to me."

World Cup, pages 28-32