Tom Peck: No Surrender for England fans, except to crowd psychology

COMMENT: If you're out of the World Cup in five days, you pick enemies who are no longer real

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The Independent Football

France twice, Germany three times, Chile, Sweden, Croatia, even Northern Ireland – just a few of the nations to whom the England football team have surrendered since the IRA formally ended its armed campaign in July 2005. But, as their travelling fans have again loudly testified, it will not surrender to them.

So what is behind this continued reluctance to surrender to an organisation that has long ago yielded? At first impression it appears misguided, but then, when you get knocked out of the World Cup after five days and with a match to spare, there is a logic to picking your fights only with enemies who are no longer real.

Then on Tuesday night in Glasgow, England surpassed themselves. Not only was there to be “No Surrender” to an ill-defined group that has had no practical function for almost a decade, but we also promised to “f***” them too. “F*** the IRA”, sung to the tune of the rather obscure England band favourite “Follow England Away”. Of course, there are practical benefits to f****** the IRA. It doesn’t exist, so you can’t go to jail for it. Nor on your release can you suddenly force your former employer into the reluctant position of becoming the moral arbiter for the nation.

“No Surrender! Naaaaao Surrender! To the IRA!” Is there a sporting refrain in any language guaranteed to make the heart sink faster? On more than one occasion over the summer, the Copacabana air was alive with its execrable sound, causing a few embarrassed England supporters in the beach bars to apologise to whoever was around – usually Argentines.

I happened to overhear one such conversation at the time. “What is this song about?” asked a man in a Maradona shirt, talking to the English table next to him.

“Erm, it’s hard to explain. It’s to do with the fighting we had with Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties,” they replied.

“Oh. Er. OK.”

As it happens, the Three Lions all but surrendered to Costa Rica the next day. The fans in the stadium couldn’t have cared less. It’s the Irish Republican Army, with its pursuit of peace through political means, that so winds them up.

It is a situation made doubly depressing by the sheer waste of it. Usually the one joyful recompense of supporting a team who repeatedly break your heart are the bittersweet chants. Yet even there England must be the tragic exception to the rule.

Who wouldn’t have loved to have been at Maine Road one afternoon in the mid-Nineties when, so the story goes, tortured down the right flank and having just sold a popular full-back, the Kippax broke out in, (to the tune of the Righteous Brothers classic): “We’ve lost, our Terry Phe-e-lan/Oh-oh our Terry Phe-e-elan/We’ve lost our Te-e-ry Phelan/Now he’s gone/gone/gone.’

 

Likewise, only a club as tortured as Norwich could come up with, to a rather well known Status Quo track: “Youssef Safri!/Moroccan All Over The World!”

Yet for England, it is No Surrender or nothing. Why do they do it? There’s been many an Anglo-Irish historian or cultural commentator addressing that question this week. The causes are there but the elastic of history has snapped. The answer now is that they just do. Why do Liverpool sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”? Why do they blow bubbles at Upton Park? Sure there are reasons but, given how few of those who take part actually know what those reasons are, they have all but ceased to matter.

The deindividuation of the man in the crowd and, by extension, of the fan in the stadium, has fascinated social psychologists for decades – whether it is true that the “I can get away with anything as long as everyone else is doing it” rationale takes over. The wisdom of crowds: wise enough to guess correctly the weight of cattle at a county fair, apparently, yet powerfully persuasive enough to convince whole swathes of otherwise productive, law-abiding citizens in the stands at Twickenham to hurl homophobic abuse at a gay match official, before catching the train back to the suburbs, putting their kids to bed and quietly ironing their shirts for the week ahead.

Pity poor Roy Hodgson, too, having to offer his diplomatic apology “if anyone was offended”. Graciously uncoupling yourself from well-intentioned support that you just don’t want is a tricky thing to do.

The efforts to stamp abuse out, particularly in football, and particularly with regard to racism, have been impressive. Personally, I have occasionally tried to make the argument that it isn’t football itself that is racist. Quite the opposite, in fact. If black players are being abused on the pitch it is simply because that is where they are. Football is the great meritocracy. The counter-argument is that it is the nature of a crowd itself that draws out people’s baser instincts.

That is something that will be harder to eradicate. Still, No Surrender.

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