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The hat most common among the blokes on the drunken conga line tumbling its way through the crowd of England fans gathered for a World Cup showdown in the South African city of Bloemfontein in June 2010 was an inflatable Spitfire. And if the ubiquity of that icon of Royal Air Force prowess in duels with the Luftwaffe over the skies of Britain in 1940 seemed incongruous at a football match, that was nothing compared with the oddity of a World War II vintage Wehrmacht staff car pulling up to the event carrying a driver and officer in German uniforms — despite the fact that their vehicle was sporting Union Jack flags.
Their arrival prompted a mass rendition of a familiar fan anthem when England plays Germany: “There were 10 German bombers in the air, 10 German bombers in the air …” (Think “10 bottles of beer on the wall.”) As the “German officer” conducted the chorus, a person would probably wonder what German fans standing nearby made of the spectacle. “But the RAF from England shot one down, the RAF from England shot one down …”
The RAF, of course, has never been from just England; it’s a British institution. So, too, the Union Jack and the struggle and sacrifice of the war effort. But FIFA recognized England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as distinct national entities in international soccer for the best part of a century before Tony Blair’s policy of devolution. The English, however, have not always taken note.
The 1966 World Cup was hosted and won by England, but its iconography was inescapably British. World Cup Willie, the tournament’s leonine mascot, sported a Union Jack waistcoat, the publicity material and programs had the U.K. flag all over them, and among the crowd at Wembley the Union Jack outnumbered the St. George’s Cross — England’s national symbol — by 20 to 1. When Geoff Hurst’s goal made it 3–2 to England in extra time, the crowd spontaneously broke into "Rule, Britannia!" The victory party in London was likened to V-E Day, although not in Edinburgh or Cardiff. Scotland forward Denis Law remembered it as “the blackest day of my life,” while sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney recalled that in the press center, “Scottish supporters sat in smouldering sulk … and insisted that they did not know what all the fuss was about.”
As late as the 1990 World Cup, England’s turbulent ride through the tournament was accompanied by the Union Jack, but at Euro 96 English football and its fans looked different. Although the Union Jack was not entirely absent, it was, for the first time, completely overwhelmed by the St. George’s cross. Flags, homemade banners and face paint were red and white, but rarely blue.
Why had the English finally begun to recognize themselves? To a great extent, this was a reaction to what had been happening in Scotland and Wales. A decade and a half of Conservative rule had seen sharply rising regional economic inequalities whose impact fell particularly heavily on the Celtic periphery and its old industries. At the same time, the Tories had weakened key British institutions, like the National Health Service, or abolished them, like nationalized industries, both of which were prominent in the economies of Scotland and Wales. By 1996, Scotland and Wales had begun to feel like different countries from England, and there was growing momentum in politics for some kind of devolution of government. England, like it or not, was going to have to take legal, constitutional and cultural shape.
If Euro 96 had demonstrated that the national team had become a public theater of embryonic English nationalism, the political question of England’s meaning in a Britain where political power was being devolved was never addressed.
The Scottish model of civic nationalism rested on distinct Scottish institutions of church, law and education. Where were their English equivalents? The crown, parliament, the BBC and the armed forces were British. The law and even the cricket team were shared with the Welsh; the literary canon was considered English, but the language was now used by most of the world. The Church of England was available but reduced in significance by the multiethnic and multifaith character of religious England, and more so by the indifference of the predominantly secular majority. English Heritage? English National Opera? The English national football team presented one of the very few civic institutions that offered potential for a public expression of Englishness.
While the great drama of England’s World Cup exploits can shut the country down and get up to 26 million people seated expectantly in front of their televisions at a single moment — more than the number who watched the royal wedding —the notion of English nationhood had barely existed until the 1990s.
By 2006 the flag of St. George had gone mainstream. During that year’s World Cup in Germany, The Guardian reported that 20 percent of adults in England — about 10.5 million of them — had bought the white flag emblazoned with a red cross. The nation’s retailers spied an opportunity. Supermarket chains, garages, pound shops and DIY stores began to sell not only flags but chocolate footballs, drinking cups, school lunch boxes and what have you featuring the dragon slayer’s colors. Party stores even began stocking plastic chain mail for those aspiring to the combatant St. George look.
But while peddlers of everything from flags and underwear emblazoned with the red cross to televisions and beer cashed in on the massive consumption boom, the biggest winners of all were the bookmakers. Sports betting is legal in the U.K., and bookies collect around $1 billion in World Cup wagers every time the tournament comes around. English punters have typically put their money where their hearts were, backing England so heavily that the shortened odds made it look like a favorite — yet another financial illusion buoyed by unrealistic expectations and statistical sleights of hand. When the bubble inevitably burst and England was knocked out, the bookies breathed a sigh of relief, counted their winnings and started taking bets on who would be named the next England coach.
In an uncanny parallel with the decline brought on by Britain’s financial crisis, England failed to even qualify for the European Championships in 2008, and was swiftly knocked out of the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012. As the property bubble of the Blair years burst, the stock of what had been considered England’s golden generation — Lampard, Rooney, Gerrard et al. — was properly evaluated in the harsh marketplace of international competition and found to be oversold and overrated.
As a result of those defeats and disappointments, the mood in England this time has been more muted. Public expectations have — to the relief of everyone connected with the England football setup — acquired more sober dimensions. Nobody imagines England to be a World Cup contender this time. The appointment of the journeyman Roy Hodgson as England manager has brought a welcome degree of moderation and calm to the circus. His squad selection was met with little of the traditional tabloid rancor, and he has even been quietly praised for investing in the future by selecting a number of young players.
England’s campaign in Brazil looks unlikely to provide the stuff out of which triumphal national mythologies can be crafted. The political elites at Westminster remain wedded to the current constitutional order, fighting off Scottish nationalists in the independence referendum later this year and the populists of the U.K. Independence Party over European Union membership. Whether the Scots vote for independence or not, the increasing autonomy that is coming their way is going to force the English to have to think again about themselves and their identity. And even if they don’t blaze a trail of glory in Brazil, the England football nation and its story will be part of the reckoning.