Look back through the archive photos of England’s victory over Germany at the 1966 world cup and you’ll notice something rather strange. The cheering supporters aren’t waving the flag of St George. Instead the jubilant crowds are draped Union Jacks — reflecting the more fluid blend of loyalties of an age when Britain was much more at ease with itself.
Now tune into the delayed Euro 2020 matches: you’re unlikely to catch the red white and blue standard of the United Kingdom. During the last England match, there was a lone pair of Rangers fans defiantly waving their Union Jack. These are my people. I'll watch for them during tonight's clash with England, but won't be holding my breath.
It’s a shame that the UK doesn’t have a national football team of its own during events like the Euros. The game is a natural focus for patriotic pride across the world, but here it can only spotlight our divisions. This seems to have become much more the case over the past few decades, with the rise of nationalism and the apparent retreat of the Union Jack from the stands.
Not even the most muscular of muscular unionists would try to consolidate the four teams into a British national side, of course. Even a happy warrior in the cause of shuttering the Scottish parliament must concede the impossibility of that vision.
But with saving and strengthening the Union supposedly one of this government’s top priorities, it cannot afford to neglect the question of sport — and football in particular. Even without a national team, there must surely be ways to lend a greater British dimension to the beautiful game?
There does seem to have been some movement on this from the government. After the collapse of the European Super League, there were reports that ministers were exploring the idea of a ‘British Super League’, which would see top-flight Scottish teams playing in the Premier League as a handful of Welsh sides do already.
Why stop at bolting a few teams into the English system on a case-by-case basis though? There is surely, in the era of cash-rich football, chartered flights, and levelling up, a case for exploring the creation of a properly-integrated, UK-wide league structure that would ensure the benefits of bigger profits at the top cascaded down to every corner of the country.
Oliver Dowden even has the powers he needs to help this along. Section 50 of the UK Internal Market Act authorises the government to spend on ‘supporting activities, projects and events relating to sport that the minister considers directly or indirectly benefit the United Kingdom or particular areas of the United Kingdom’.
He could likewise ring-fence some funding to ensure that Team GB regularly fields a football team at the Olympics and ensure talented young athletes from all four home nations have the opportunity to try out and compete. It may never have the prestige of the England squad but that’s not really the point.
Unless and until any of that happens, what are Brits like me, strangers in a strange land of sub-national nationalism to do? Well, I think we need to take inspiration from those two fine Scots last Sunday and reclaim a stake our national teams. If Britain doesn’t get a squad of its own — and its hard to imagine the international football community having much sympathy with the idea of giving us yet another one — then our existing ones will simply have to do.
Just as one can be English, Scottish, Welsh, or Irish and British, so too must our football teams also be, in some sense, British teams. So during tonight’s home nation game, I’m taking my Union Jack. It will annoy all the right people.