“Enjoy your stay…Have a nice day…Good luck.” It was the usual pleasantries you’d expect and appreciate from your air hostess on a sunday morning flight at 6:30 AM. Just not if you’re an England fan. No, “Don’t wish us good luck. We’re English. We don’t need luck, we’re going to win.” These were the words of one England fan on my plane to Kiev. The same fan was later overheard telling a perplexed Italian teen that “You can’t cheat against us, we’re English” in his best Brian Blessed voice. It therefore came as an earth-shattering shock when later that evening I saw Diamanti slotting home the match-winning penalty for Italy. Turns out when you have a players who can pass a ball you don’t actually need to cheat. Who’d have thought?
This was my first experience watching England at a major tournament, one I have always been desperate to taste. From my television screen the atmospheres always sound intense and the games are always dramatic. Yet I was unsure of what to expect, both from the team I was travelling to see, and from the fans I was watching them with. From the outside, travelling England fans are often perceived as topless jingoists with a penchant for incessant renditions of The Great Escape theme tune. Despite the immense amount of misguided emotional investment I make in England every other summer (2008 excluded), I am still wary of labeling myself as anything other than a Charlton fan. A sentiment I am sure countless followers of other clubs would share. On Sunday, in the midst of glaring sun and with a relatively cheap pint in hand, I saw many of my suspicions confirmed.
I found the experience of following England away was essentially the same as supporting any club team. An unlikely bond forged over 22 men kicking a ball.
The middle of the Kiev “fanzone” had been completely taken over by England fans and flags. Shirts were off, beers were in. In between familiar favourites from the DJ (Vindaloo, Three Lions etc) there were countless renditions of Rule Britannia, The Great Escape and more. All the classics. I bought myself and my brother a drink and watched from the side. I enjoyed it. The England fans, and of course band, make it easy for those watching from home to be cynical and snide about them. I’ve often found myself a part of such a twitter brigade. But in the Ukrainian sun I was enchanted by the fun. At a tournament where Croatia have been fined for their fans racist chanting, where Russian fans have attacked stewards and organized provocative marches and where Germany have been fined for the presence of a neo-nazi flag in their match against Denmark, England’s fans have been generally good-natured.
Their critics will no doubt point to the admittedly crass and unpleasant “f**k off Sol Campbell” chant that found its way into the playlist as a suggestion of otherwise. I myself thought so too when I heard it on TV last week, but seeing it sung first hand it became clear that it was nothing more than an example of a stupid and disrespectful (a man with 73 caps deserves far better) song heard at every ground week in and week out. Most England fans simply wanted to have a good time and to follow their team, and didn’t want to be told otherwise. This was just a misguided way of expressing such a sentiment. I found the experience of following England away was essentially the same as supporting any club team. You’re not going to be best friends with everyone sitting around you in the stand, but, for a few hours at least you are united by a common will to see your team win. That’s part of the beauty (to me at least) of being a football fan. An unlikely bond forged over 22 men kicking a ball.
Not even the presence of the affable Chris Kamara on my flight home could raise a smile. A grown man with flakes of face paint slipping off him, snored loudly behind me.
When the match finally arrived my spirit and excitement for the game had hit its peak. Enthused by the songs and spirit of the afternoon I was there to cheer my team on blindly. We were going to do it. Football was coming home and we were all here to see it. The Olympic Stadium in Kiev is a grand arena, one I felt privileged to be in on such an occasion. It is majestic in scale yet never felt too impersonal from the events taking place on its field. I was surrounded by an interesting array of characters. Four rows behind me sat one England fan who took it upon himself to scream “You S**t c**t!” at any England player who made a glaring mistake. I imagine he ‘s still nursing a pretty sore throat. What made the situation worse however, was the presence of Joe Hart and Ashley Young’s family a further four rows behind. I had already embraced England’s players despite their many flaws yet seeing their families so close instigated a level of empathy I never thought I would have for the pampered professionals. It’s often hard to see beyond the mammoth salaries, flashy jewelry and inflated egos but in reality England’s players are normal boys from normal homes living the dream. That player you just called a pr**k is someone’s beloved son, that t**t is a cherished brother. Looking back over my twitter feed when I got home was a sorry sight. More depressing was the revelation that the police are investigating racist abuse aimed at Ashley Young and Ashley Cole on the same sight. It’s perhaps an obvious conclusion to many, but no fellow human deserves such abuse simply for missing a penalty. As Young’s penalty cannoned off the crossbar, I looked behind to see his mother and father both frozen in fear at what this would mean for their boy. Our players may be technically limited, they may even be big-game bottlers but that does not mean they are sub-human scum worthy of such virulent vitriol.
2:30 am Ukrainian time and I found myself wedged in between two overweight old men, my knees crunched against the metal frame of the seat in front of me. Not even the presence of the ever-affable Chris Kamara on my flight home could raise a smile. A grown man with flakes of face paint slipping off him, snored loudly behind me. It was a depressing situation and one I didn’t want to find myself in again. I was utterly exhausted, less from the long day and early start but more from the shouting and swearing, from the spasms of frustration as another long ball was punted towards Carroll’s head and lost, from the unavoidable admiration of Pirlo, from the drama of penalties. But mostly from the hope. The hope that was aroused from every set piece, that had existed within since Lescott headed in England’s first goal against France. The hope had kept me going on two hours sleep, it had kept me believing despite the misplaced passes and hopeless headers, it had united me with a number of unlikely fellows. In one kick it was punctured, within seconds I was utterly deflated. I promised myself that never again would I surrender myself to such a hopeless cause, never again would I invest in disappointment. I closed my eyes and slowly fell to sleep. I started dreaming. It was a promise impossible to keep.
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