I’m struggling to work up much enthusiasm about England’s progress in the Euros. I know, I know, Tuesday night’s victory was the first time England has beaten Germany in the knockout stage of a tournament in 55 years — and the moment Gareth Southgate, the team manager, finally made amends for missing his penalty in the semi-final against Germany in Euro 96. It’s conceivable we might make it all the way to the final, but I’m more excited about watching QPR play Leyton Orient in the first round of the Carabao Cup.
Why? One reason is that in the past ten years I’ve become a QPR superfan. Being a QPR fan means loathing Chelsea, whom we like to think of as our west London rivals, although that’s a bit like Cliff Richard regarding Elvis Presley as a close competitor. And the England squad has got three Chelsea players in it. When England played Scotland in the group stages of the Euros, I half-wanted Scotland to win because one of their strikers — Lyndon Dykes — plays for QPR.
I also dislike the fact that the England players take the knee before each game. I’m 100 per cent behind the cause of kicking racism out of football — although the only time I’ve ever witnessed it at QPR was when the Chelsea captain called one of our players a ‘black bastard’ — and I think the fact that Raheem Sterling receives racist abuse on Twitter is a disgrace. But couldn’t the squad come up with a way of expressing their support for the cause of anti-racism that doesn’t involve tacitly endorsing the Black Lives Matter organisation? Taking the knee is a gesture that divides football fans, making it harder for us to put our differences aside and get behind the national team. The players know that some England fans loathe it, but they do it anyway, and it’s hard to care about a team if they don’t care about you. Why not just stand in a circle and link arms to signal your opposition to racism? If the England players did that I doubt a single fan would boo.
Then there’s the awful spectacle of seeing Wembley half empty. I hated having to watch QPR play ‘behind closed doors’ last season, i.e. in empty stadiums, and was looking forward to seeing the Euros in front of capacity crowds. What better sign could there be that life is returning to normal? Yet in spite of the fact that 84 per cent of English adults have received at least one dose of the Covid vaccine and flu and pneumonia are now killing more than ten times as many people in England and Wales as Covid-19, the authorities still won’t let fans fill up the seats.
The result is that the only games in the tournament that have a decent atmosphere are those played at the Puskas Arena in Budapest in front of 55,000 people. Football is supposed to be about escapism, but the Euros are a constant reminder of just how cautious governments are being about easing restrictions.
Contrast this anaemic tournament with Euro 96, the last time England was one of the hosts. The high point was seeing Gazza score a wonder goal against Scotland at Wembley, flicking the ball over the head of a defender, then skipping past him and volleying into the back of the net. His celebration consisted of lying down beside the goal while his teammates squirted a water bottle into his mouth, a reference to the fact that he and some of the other players had disgraced themselves at a bar in Hong Kong a few weeks earlier, finding a dentist’s chair and taking turns to sit in it while hard liquor was poured into their mouths. When the pictures got out, the press went nuts, lambasting the players for not taking the tournament seriously, so this was their revenge — advertising the fact that they could get blind drunk in dive bars and still win football matches. It was a glorious way of sticking two fingers up to the pinched-faced puritans who’d been tutting away at the high jinks of the squad, a sign that the players were on the same side as the fans.
In the not too distant past, you got the feeling that everyone involved in the England football set-up was on the side of the belching, raspberry-blowing masses, but not any more. These days, it’s as if they’ve joined the ranks of the holier-than-thou elite and like nothing more than wagging their fingers at the troglodytes in the stands. It’s that, more than anything else, that has taken the joy out of watching England. They might as well be sponsored by Channel 4 News.