A migration instinct and sense of duty saw hundreds of England fans travel to Croatia to a match they won’t be able to attend
On Friday night, for the first time ever, England will play a match “behind closed doors,” when they travel to Rijeka in Croatia for a match in the Nations League.
It will be England’s 988th senior international and the first since 1872 which supporters haven’t been allowed to attend.
Given the chequered history of England’s travelling supporters it’s perhaps a surprise this hasn’t happened before, but it’s the Croatian FA who are being sanctioned, for offences dating back to 2015, including a swastika marking on a pitch.
The stadium won’t be completely empty, but with staff, officials and media taken into account the crowd will be more like that for a non-league game, just four months after the sides played a World Cup semi-final in front of over 78,000 in Moscow.
Manager Gareth Southgate has been preparing his players by showing them footage of last season’s game between Barcelona and Las Palmas, played at an empty Camp Nou due to political unrest in Catlonia and the British press has been full of stories of England fans who aren’t quite sure how to cope.
England’s migration instincts
Around 700 are expected to travel regardless, with some planning to watch in bars and others scouting the local hill sides for vantage points that offer at least some view of the stadium.
Yet the most obvious question remains “why?” and it isn’t just because they stand almost no chance of being allowed in.
In his seminal book about England’s 1990 World Cup campaign, “All Played Out,” Pete Davies included a scene that still resonates almost 30 years later. England were labouring to a 0-0 draw in a qualifying match and a section of fans were embarrassing the others. Davies turned to a fellow supporter and asked him why he’d bothered coming.
“Why shouldn’t I?” was the reply, illustrating a dilemma for the ages. England fans get rightly indignant about being tagged as imbeciles because of the actions of a small minority. The problem is that however small that minority is, it isn’t small enough.
The English FA has spent decades trying to detoxify its reputation and the problem has evolved. Actual violence is now rare, but walking around foreign cities displaying your man-breasts while off your face on 12 pints of lager isn’t actually illegal in most countries, making it more difficult to deal with.
Cleaning up England’s image abroad
Media coverage of the issue is often deliberately inaccurate, depending on the prevailing agenda. England’s so called “night of shame” in Stockholm back in 1989 was used to sell newspapers and demonise football supporters.
The legacy of this kind of reporting means that English football journalists are regarded as being barely any higher up the food chain than England’s hooligans.
So when something like this happens:
… their credibility is questioned and anyone who reports on this as being anything other than “banter” immediately gets accused of having no sense of humour. Usually by people who have no sense of humour.
When the BBC’s Andrew Jennings tried to expose a different kind of hooliganism, specifically the industrial-scale corruption of FIFA’s ruling class, he was initially regarded as a “vile traitor” by a social media mob who thought he was trying to scupper England’s bid to stage the World Cup.
Even Gary Lineker, in a remark he almost certainly now regrets, said he felt the timing of the BBC’s reporting was “unpatriotic.”
For anyone under the age of 60, supporting England has been the equivalent of following a fading mid-table team from a neglected provincial area. They never win anything and the fleeting bouts of optimism are swiftly crushed.
With nothing tangible to celebrate, some England fans still feel the need to sing about the a war against Nazism, which ended 73 years ago and which none of them actually fought in. The fact that fans are banned from Friday’s game because of a Nazi symbol could be an ironic punchline to a joke, but as Morrissey once sang: “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” And it stopped being funny around about the same time as Morrissey did.