I know nothing about football. I am usually to be found rolling my eyes at the constant use of football metaphors in the political arena by my colleagues. My constituents’ loyalty, much like the home I was raised in, is torn between Aston Villa and Birmingham City, so I have never needed a political or personal reason to pretend that my heart burns for one or the other. I would like both teams to prosper.
My husband is the first cousin of the footballer Kevin Phillips who himself made eight appearances for the England team. While Kevin played at the Villa and in his time at Birmingham, he offered that we could attend matches. We never did, my husband knows and cares even less about football than I do. Yet whenever England play in any tournament, I become a complete and utter football obsessive.
This is not a new thing; I remember sitting on the floor of my living room while my family and gathered neighbours watched Italy ‘90. In 1996 I can still remember the feeling of the pints sloshing over me with every goal that was scored as I watched in a pub, which these days I imagine is stricter about age limits.
There is something about the patriotism that breaks out over the football that invites us all in, regardless of how much we know about the game. It is something about the hope, unrealistic expectations and collective suspension of disbelief that is so very enticing. I wonder, if England had never won the World Cup, would we still be programmed this way?
There is always a chance, and a sense that this “year is our year” and if we all just want it enough, we the people can collectively will it to happen. That is so delightfully infectious that against all my better judgement, I will always let it carry me away.
The patriotism that I feel about the England team in normal times has little to do with the country and the concept of England. I don’t feel particularly English normally, I feel British. My heritage is in part from every one of the four nations of the UK and if I had to pick a place-based identity, Brummie would be the most accurate.
The patriotism I feel during these big events is for the people, the lovely English people who, as the song so aptly points out, never stop believing. I am so proud of the English and their ability to hope for the best. I normally want England to win because I know that it will make a usually quite cynical and delightfully sarcastic people dumbstruck with hope and happiness.
That was until this year. This year I feel something different. It is still hope but hope that reaches beyond the dreams of my friends, neighbours and constituents. It is hope in the decent, the honest, the kind and the caring.
This England team, with a manager who hugs and comforts the players of the opposite team when they lose to his lads. This England team, facing down boos and heckles when taking the knee – encouraged by our nation’s prime minister and his eager cast of culture war vultures, desperate for some flesh to feast on.
This England team, made up of players who rolled up their sleeves to help out in the pandemic and who changed government policy to highlight the plight of the ordinary working class kids they once had been. This England team, inviting every kid in the country regardless of whether they watch the match at Wembley with their dad, or at the mosque with their classmates, to feel as if they belong.
I never thought this team would make it as far as they did. In the earlier rounds I, like many, felt that we wouldn’t embarrass ourselves but we wouldn’t set the world on fire. I was still glad that my country was represented on an international stage by some fellas I could be proud of.
How wrong we all were. No matter what happens now, I really believe that the England team deserves to win. They deserve it because of their decency for sure, but more than anything they deserve it because they have played with such heart and determination.
The government wanted a culture war, but what they didn’t foresee was that the nation wanted peace instead. The people wanted something that would bring us all together, that would celebrate our nation as it actually is, through hope and unity, not fear and division.
The football has not just been for the season ticket-holding purists, it has been for everyone, and no matter what the result, we have all been winners. COME ON ENGLAND!
Jess Phillips is the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley