Background Story First, Relevance to Football Second. In this post I define identity as the multiple different groups or circles that an individual can belong to that collectively come together to shape a character. This is not an academic definition of what identity is, but it’s a good enough definition for now.
Small Towns play host to fewer migrants, both domestic or international, and as a consequence, Small Town Folk are less exposed to cultural diversity. Apart from the occasional Chinese takeaway or Indian restaurant, Small Towns in the UK are usually very culturally homogeneous thanks to their smaller and less attractive economies compared to Big Cities in the eyes of potential migrants. As such, Small Town Folk are less accustomed to questioning their identity. I would argue, as we live after the age of nationalism and nation-state formation, it is natural for the majority of people today to quickly name their country as the first circle that they belong to.
In schools, we learn of the history of a United Kingdom, historic events such as major wars are told through the simple narrative of countries behaving as single agents against others and the news channels we flick through go into further detail when discussing domestic stories than they do foreign affairs as they are broadcasters whose purpose is to serve the entire country rather than an international audience. There are hints all around us that we belong to a nation first and foremost. As Small Town Folk are less likely to mingle (and learn from) people of different international backgrounds, they will obediently go with the information they are fed. They are more prepared to state their nationality when discussing identity than their compatriots from larger cities are, who come into closer contact with individuals from other cultures who understand that it is possible for example to be “British”, “Indian”, “Punjabi”, “Sikh” and “Aston Villa fan” at the same time.
I am a Small Town Folk.
As a young man, I never questioned my identity or to which circles I belonged. I was English and British in the event of presenting my passport to airport customs officers. I learned about different religions, customs and behaviours from around the globe in the sterile classroom environment instead of from invitations to visit British-Asian friends’ houses to play, casually observing the subtle differences there to my parents’ house. I never had the opportunity to contemplate the ways in which we can explore our individual identity and I was ignorant to the fact that I can belong to different demographic groups because of the lack of cultural diversity around me.
I was ignorant. But then I left my isolated Small Town for a Big City in another country.
Half a decade has been spent living, working, joking, dating, flirting, fighting, learning, drinking and of course watching Football with people who are not from an English Small Town. What’s more, many themselves are not even from my new Big City, but likewise from Small Towns in Germany, Denmark, France, Poland, the States etc. It surprised me how similar their opinions, outlooks and political views are to mine, even though their countries have such a different character in popular opinion. These guys are just like me, and I belong in this shared international circle. Nowadays when I spend time back in my Small Town and bump into people I went to school with, conversations can be difficult because our contemporary realities are very different. We are both English, but nowadays we belong to different circles and are very different people. I have less in common with them than I do my foreign friends in the Big City.
The entire world view I had growing up has been shattered. There are other circles that I belong to than just the “English” one. I am English. But I am European. I am a Yorkshireman. I am from Humberside. I am young, sexually active, adventurous and competitive, a low-income earner, a Centrist, skeptical, moderately educated, a skilled linguist and liberal-minded. Those circles form my identity, which does not begin and end with my nationality. I couldn’t appreciate that in a Small Town with little cultural diversity. I took a move to a Big City to learn that lesson.
But it takes a Football World Cup Year to really test how much you still identify with your “first circle”. Having a full British passport and being the son of two English parents, England will of course be the team that I hope wins the Cup this year, even though I may have soft spots for other competing nations (such as the one mentioned in the URL above). But that hope comes with a touch of bitterness. On the 24th of June 2016, I woke up to find that my countrymen had decided that I should be denied the eligibility to live and work in another member state of the European Union. The voting pattern shows an overwhelming tendency for Small Town Folk to vote Leave. It astonished me throughout the build up to the referendum how many people were convinced by the frankly very backward narrative of “Great Britain doesn’t need other countries to succeed”. But as a Small Town Folk myself, I can completely appreciate the fact that those who are less exposed to cultural diversity are less likely to see themselves as part of something more than their country, and are more likely to swallow the rhetoric that Englishmen should only care about England.
I can appreciate it. But I cannot like it. Many of these Leave voters who have compromised my eligibility to remain a citizen of Germany will be adorning the St George Cross and cheering for England this summer. It makes me want to dissociate from the English national side. I don’t see myself as being similar to those fans who voted Leave who blindly identify as nothing more than their nationality (even though the World Cup is kinda geared toward that behaviour). I don’t want to be guilty by association in the minds of my colleagues and friends when the shirtless and sunburnt “Neva Surrenda” mob kick off again in the streets of Moscow as they did in Marseille. I want these people to cry as we are indulged with another tale of English capitulation and humiliation in the knockout stage.
I want England to win. But I don’t want to want England to win.
When people ask me where I am from, I try to emphasise my Yorkshire background. I play up the strong regional culture to foreigners who may be less aware of it and thankfully nowadays many people have heard of Hull City, another circle to which I feel I belong. But with the recent establishment of the Yorkshire Internationally Football Association (YIFA), my region, which I also identify strongly with, will soon have its own Football side. It just may be that I now have an international side my support for which will give me less contrition.