The Euros give a glimpse of a purer patriotism

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Two weeks before Euro 2024 began, it came to me like a vision: it was time for a work sweepstake. So I clicked send all and hoped that more than one person would be interested. I needn’t have worried. I’ve never had so many responses to a group email.

The enthusiastic reception means I’ve ended up running two sweepstakes — one with allocated countries and one more complicated: involving goal predictions and a feverishly updated spreadsheet. It has triggered another side in me (did I mention the spreadsheet?) and in my colleagues too. One even brought in a Euro wall chart for the office while another ungenerously hailed me as a ladette, which I hope will be quietly retired as a nickname.

The office this year has been a microcosm of what the Euros initiate. Even my colleagues who don’t like football have been invoking it as bonus snark: Oh, is something happening today?, one intoned on a recent England match day. The tournament encourages a different energy in both its followers and dissenters. The inevitable starting points for conversation — “How are you” or “how was your weekend”: questions doomed for mundane answers or hedged responses — have turned to new and knowing half phrases. “Presumably you saw . . .?” It is not that anybody has changed, but that a dynamic has opened up.

With the Euros, there’s an inevitable mutuality. It’s more wholesome than club football, where my Nottingham Forest scarf will prompt unpredictable reactions when I’m out and about. Instead, the days bring flashes of acknowledgment that we live amid many who care and fixate on the same thing. Sometimes that’s just a nod from a passer-by when I’m carrying a four-pack before a game, or small talk with a delivery driver. Sometimes it isn’t even about acknowledging but supposing — it acts as a reminder of our connections: that our evenings might have looked similar, and that the emotions packed within were likely shared. It was a recognition, strangely, that I repeatedly had during the pandemic — suddenly grouped together by a shared experience and knowing whoever I passed on the street was caught up in the same foreign world. 

The Euros is a cheerier equivalent. When Jude Bellingham’s bicycle kick landed the ball firmly in the back of the net last weekend, I felt myself as one of many exclaiming at the TV, shown the impossible that I had been willing the team to commit. I could see it like a kaleidoscope: one of millions on their sofa, at the pub or driving with the radio on, urging something to happen — followed by the thrilling shock when, beyond all probability, the call was heard.

These moments become markers of understanding, later to be repeated: poor old Scotland . . . did you see the look on Modrić’s face? . . . how many times will Ronaldo fail to score before he finally retires? They become hints of a larger question — were you there? — that hits more significantly than the fact of whether you simply watched a game of football. As shared sightings they act like pen strokes, drawing a collective map of what a country, together and apart, has witnessed. It only amplifies when you begin to think of the fans in other countries, making some of the same marks alongside their own.

International football tournaments provoke in me a feeling that is usually unfamiliar — one of collectivity and representation. For a month, every few years, I taste what it is to be patriotic. More than that, it gives me an idea of what a purer patriotism could be. I recognise the irony — English football fans hardly have a reputation for healthy patriotism. But it’s what supporting England does for me.

England is a complicated place, with lurking racism and tired ideas of nationality. We are a rich country yet I can barely get a train, or a doctor’s appointment, let alone a home to call my own. All these and more make Englishness and a sense of collective identity fraught. But for a time, while our players are in the base camp, something in the air agitates and resettles. I can feel it. It makes me aspire to an Englishness I’m comfortable with. It’s a long-term game, one that far outlasts the buzz of a tournament. But it’s a welcome side effect.

Rebecca Watson’s new novel, ‘I Will Crash’, is published by Faber

First appeared on www.ft.com

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