Play up, play up and play the game

I started writing this with the World Cup well under way and England about to kick-off against Algeria in their second match. Even before agonising through the lacklustre performance, the disappointment of a worryingly inevitable goalless draw and Wayne Rooney’s sound bite bemoaning our booing fans I was feeling increasingly uncertain about it all. My dilemma is that as an Englishman I should be rooting for my country – all the flags of St George hanging from bedroom windows and adorning car roof trims implore me to – but in actuality, I don’t feel at all enthusiastic about supporting our team.

Now, to clear any misunderstanding flowing from that statement it’s not because I’m unpatriotic; I’m not and I like football. I played when I was younger and enjoy watching an exciting match. What I don’t like is the phenomenon that English football appears to have become; a circus populated by [with a few notable exceptions] inarticulate, overpaid, self-important individuals who equate money and celebrity with substance. I’m sort of wishing I was, well, Brazilian or Australian, maybe Dutch or from the States or even Mexico. I have real issues with the way the Dear Leader runs North Korea like a personal philosophy experiment but earlier in the week I found myself cheering his little guys [along with the Chinese rent-a-crowd] and was out of my seat when they scored. Point is, I desperately want to enjoy it and get swept away with it all but in England we seem to have forgotten that. No, try as I may I just can’t get worked-up over our sullen, pouting, aggressive and egotistical crew, encouraged as it is by tabloid hyperbole.

Truth be told, I’m a little shy of being in any way associated with it all. I heard one English fan interviewed on radio a few nights ago as he set off for the trip to Cape Town, the location for last evening’s event. He complained about the camping site, the food, the journey ahead of him and then advised the BBC arrogantly and with quiet venom, that if England didn’t beat Algeria he’d never go to watch them again. I can’t make sense of his motives for taking that sort of attitude or for his being there in the first place. Surely it’s supposed to be about representing England and supporting the team, isn’t it? Not all English fans were booing yesterday but our Wayne clearly didn’t feel that he had responsibility to anyone other than himself when he shared his less-than-deep thoughts with the camera and the world before finishing his rant with a trademark four-letter word.  

As far as I’m able to find out the refereeing fraternity hasn’t been given a special course on Slovenian profanities or been tutored on how to deal with abuse from Uruguayan players; those safeguards have been reserved specially for us. And I can’t recall any of the other teams being booed by their fans either. Most Nations seem to be pretty happy about their team having qualified for the finals and their travelling supporters, despite some disappointments, are doing just that – supporting. OK, Italy’s squad was booed by fans upset that the players had refused to stop and sign autographs when they arrived in South Africa but, for the most part, it’s ‘party on’ and the fans are enjoying the trip as well as the football. Why are we like we are? I just don’t get it.

Sir Henry John Newbolt, an English poet, wrote a poem in 1897 called Vitaï Lampada – the Torch of Life. Whilst it was more about playing cricket and going off to The Great War than the World Cup in South Africa it was very much about being English and the sentiments are still relevant. Our team and our fans would do well to reflect on the words I’ve repeated here before and after the game against Slovenia on Wednesday. By that time the fate of some of the other teams will be known and bags will be being packed. I suspect that a lot of people will be feeling proud of what their team achieved and will have enjoyed the contribution that they made as they think about leaving. It’s old-fashioned, I know, to be proud of your country and life in England these days often gets in the way of such sentimentality. Next Wednesday might be the last chance we get to make a contribution and I hope we do. I might feel a bit more like cheering for the Three Lions than I do today.

Vitaï Lampada

Sir Henry John Newbolt

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night —
Ten to make and the match to win —
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, —
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; —
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind —
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”


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