Right, cards on the table, and feel free to boo at the screen if you are so minded: This writer is backing England on Sunday. Not quite to the extent of wearing an England shirt (in the part of Monaghan were I grew up, that would invite a bullet, and to the kneecap only if you were lucky) or lustily joining into a rendition of “it’s coming home” (though, let’s be honest, it is a great tune). But supporting them, nonetheless, I am.
That said, there is a strong historic and social case for not supporting them. Sport, after all, is little more than the peaceful expression of nationalist sentiment. It is a way for one country to achieve a victory over another, without spilling blood. For this reason, it is common to see supporters arrive at a stadium wearing what, in the middle ages, we would have called war paint on their faces.
As Irish people, we are very unlikely to wage actual war with England. But the cultural and political history of our two islands are such that in folk memory, war with England is almost our default state. In that cause, we have allied against them at various times with the Scots, the Spanish, the French, and the Germans. It is not unusual, in the field of political, military, or sporting conflict, for the Irish to cheer the continent on against the English. We have historically believed, after all, that we would benefit from their defeats.
And this Italian team, it must be said, are easy to support. In Giorgio Chiellini, they have a likeable and charismatic captain. They play an attractive brand of football – which is historically unusual for Italian sides. After suffering more than anywhere else in Europe from Covid, an Italian win would be a nice fairy story. You’ll get no criticism from me, then, if you go into Sunday night fervently wanting an Italian win.
But I’m backing England. Not for political, historic, or cultural reasons (though it seems to me that if it were Ireland in the final, England would be backing us to the hilt), but because this is an easy team to support. Gone are the days of England’s big egos and “golden generation”. In their place is a genuinely humble manager, and a team filled with genuinely likable and decent players. Marcus Rashford, for example, who has done more for the poor kids of England this year than most politicians do in a lifetime. Or Mason Mount, who rushed after the semi final to give his shirt to a child in the crowd, and seemed genuinely delighted by her reaction.
An England win would also be good for football, not just in England, but globally. The English team are the world’s great underachievers: Despite more money going into the game in England than in almost any other country in the world, they have serially under-delivered at the international level. An English victory, even were it hated in Ireland, would be good for the game of soccer here, and in lots of other places, by increasing interest and passion amongst kids.
It’s been a great tournament, with some great games. Here’s hoping for a great final. See you Monday, folks.