Football / Fan's Eye View: Relishing national service: No. 47 - England

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The Independent Online
IN Bologna during the 1990 World Cup, our car ran over my foot. Panic set in, not in anticipation of the pain, nor at the weeks I'd spend on crutches, but at the thought that if I didn't act I'd miss that evening's England- Belgium game. Pointed shoes and lightning reactions meant that I escaped to see England win, but the episode is symptomatic of the crazy priorities of the committed football supporter.

I don't follow England out of any particular sense of nationalism and certainly not as an excuse to relive the great battles of history. I support England because I believe, despite the rise of global super-clubs such as Milan, Marseille (until their recent discrediting) and Manchester United, that international football remains the pinnacle of the sport. And since I went to Germany for the European Championships in 1988, it just isn't sufficient for me to watch those key moments on television. Anyway, all football fans know you don't just go to watch the match, you go to be part of the event, to influence its outcome.

England are one of world football's great underachievers. Not for us a stroll to the finals such as Belgium are enjoying; or the automatic qualification route the Germans so favour. We always scrape through with a hard-won point in the last game in some distant outpost of Europe. I wish it wasn't like this, I wish we played stylish, cultured football, like the French did in 1984, like the Dutch did in the 1970s, and like Colombia do now. But instead of Waddle we pick Sinton, and players such as Nigel Clough and Trevor Steven are peripheral squad members while Carlton Palmer, like the poor, is always with us.

We fans, though, aren't blameless. We like our football fast and furious and if the pace slackens we're soon exhorting players to 'Get stuck in'.

Not that our influence is much appreciated. Players rarely manage more than half-hearted applause as they leave the pitch by way of thanks for our five-day, non-stop return coach journey.

During post-Heysel paranoia, the Football Association even stopped taking tickets. That policy failed abjectly - people still went and usually got in - and was abandoned about four years ago. Nevertheless, obtaining a ticket through official channels still involves undergoing the modern equivalent of the Spanish Inquisition: provide evidence of how, when, where and with whom you are travelling; use only 'approved' routes; be vetted by the police; wade through official disinformation and pay the FA pounds 15 for the privilege. It makes some fans more bloody-minded and determined to beat the system.

And following a national team takes real determination. I met people in Italy who'd quit their jobs to be there, others who, flying in the face of logic, trekked all the way to Sardinia, lacking even the funds to buy just one Cornetto.

Followers of most national teams will recognise some of their own number here - one German supporter cycled from Frankfurt to Stockholm and back just for a single game in Euro '92. England's away following rarely exceeds 5,000 even at big international tournaments. Restrictions on travel and the fears the nutters have created are largely responsible for this.

It's hard to change the surly, aggressive image England fans have acquired and sure, some do adopt the 'no one likes us - we don't care' attitude. Urging the bemused citizens of Malmo not to surrender to the IRA or gathering, bare-chested and tattooed, around the omnipresent English pub singing 'We've got Carlton Palmer, he smokes marijuana' aren't the subtlest ways to improve international relations.

But do we get a fair crack of the whip? When Brazil play, television cameras search out pretty females in Brazil shirts. They are followed, after the team's inevitable demise, by shots of the same women in tears. Yet when England lost to Sweden and the lad behind me blubbed uncontrollably, were 3.6 billion people in 146 countries encouraged to share his grief? I think not.

Most of us do know how to enjoy ourselves and celebrate other national cultures. I've made lots of friends and acquaintances along the way and seen places, such as Cagliari and Poznan, I'd probably never otherwise have visited. Several thousand make following England part of their annual holiday and they see plenty more than the inside of the Red Lion in Rotterdam. And if England make USA '94, I'll be there.

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