Watching European football has always had an exotic element for us in Britain. In the 60s and 70s, abroad was a long way away. The world seemed much bigger and the visit of a team from Italy, Germany or Albania was like a visit from another football planet. We hadn’t heard of most of the players, we didn’t know much about the teams. How could we? They were not on TV and rarely covered in the press. Our only exposure to non-British players was at World Cups and on European nights. Hardly any played in the UK.
And on such nights, the vast majority of football fans, regardless of their day-to-day allegiances, wanted the British side to win. It was us v the foreigners. It should be said that for my dad’s generation this was largely because he didn’t like foreigners. He had never really got over blowing seven shades out of the Germans in the war, and every game between a British club and a European club was another battle in that war. If an Italian side played dirty – which they often did – he’d say ‘they never showed that kind of grit in the war.’ Similarly, a French side that let in five goals would be held in his disdain. ‘Typical bloody French – letting everyone run all over them.’ You can imagine what he said if Bayern Munich were playing.
But to me, born 16 years after the war, this was the ramblings of a silly old man. To me European nights were a kind of vicarious international. Victory brought glory on the country as well as on the club. So you couldn’t imagine supporting, say, AC Milan to beat Manchester United. It would have been thought of as unpatriotic. We even had a gym teacher who would tell us to root for the British clubs before the big games. He told us! You’d probably get strung up by the diversity police if you did that today.
But all this has changed now.
Perhaps we’re less nationally tribal than we used to be. Perhaps we’re more suspicious of anything that has the whiff of patriotism or jingoism about it, but it’s very rare now to find neutrals supporting a British side in Europe simply because they are from these isles. Indeed, many consider neutrals like me to be glory hunters because we get behind all the clubs and want to see them win. There’s a younger generation of fans who find this genuinely unpalatable.
This seemed to happen in the 1990s, possibly because sides began to be less British in their make-up, and thus seemed less an extension of Britain and more a cosmopolitan assembly. As we all traveled more and acquired friends from all over the world it broke down the national barriers. The expansion of the football media also seemed to harden people pro- or anti specific clubs. More football on TV gave people more reasons to dislike one side or another it seemed. Indeed, it often seems obligatory to hate at least a couple of clubs. I think this is weird. I can be indifferent to a club. I can dislike a specific player. But hatred? No.
While writing for football365, we get a lot of mail and comments to the effect that I ‘obviously’ hate and am biased against one side or another. I could spend every hour of the day saying this isn’t true, but it would make no difference. People are convinced.
The absolute truth is I don’t hate any club. Hate is far too strong and dangerous an emotion to assign to sport, for me. Rivalries in football should be based not in hatred but in piss-taking and banter. Elevating such a thing to hatred is surely madness. How can you actually hate a football club? What’s it ever done to you? It’s just a club.
I might feel like this after an extensive hippie education in my youth courtesy of the Grateful Dead and a lot of home-grown, but this is why, come European nights, I’m completely happy to root for the British clubs. It’s why I was punching the air when Rooney scored that fantastic first header on Tuesday night and why I’ll do the same if Arshavin volleys one in for Arsenal at Porto and Gerrard does the same on Thursday against Unirea and I could never imagine feeling any other way.
But I suspect I am sadly now in a small and dwindling minority.