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Nice team, but old divisions run deep for England’s neighbours

Ancient wounds, modern political divisions and the perceived arrogance of its supporters will see England's neighbours in the United Kingdom largely rooting for Italy in Sunday's Euro 2020 final

England players celebrate the goal by England’s forward Harry Kane during the UEFA EURO 2020 semi-final football match between England and Denmark at Wembley Stadium in London on July 7, 2021. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths / POOL / AFP)

Ancient wounds, modern political divisions and the perceived arrogance of its supporters will see England’s neighbours in the United Kingdom largely rooting for Italy in Sunday’s Euro 2020 final, even if many recognise a likeable team.

While cities and towns across England erupted in joy after the men’s team on Wednesday advanced to its first major final since 1966, football fans in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were less enthusiastic.

Their fans frequently talk about being supporters of “anybody but England”, reflecting the deep animosity often felt by local rivals of club sides.

“Asking Wales fans to support England is like asking Everton fans to support Liverpool or Spurs fans to support Arsenal,” said football writer Tom Williams, who used to work for AFP, on Twitter.

“In sporting terms, England are Wales’s arch-rivals. Yes, they’re a likeable team, with a likeable manager. But you can’t actively ‘support’ your rivals.”

A snap online poll by TV show Good Morning Britain found that to hold true: 63 percent of fans in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be supporting Italy.

– ‘Arrogant‘ –
Fans of the UK’s smaller nations often pinpoint similar reasons for their anti-England sentiment.

“Wales has endured centuries of oppression at the hands of England, and (Prime Minister) Boris Johnson’s government treats the nation as an after-thought,” wrote Laura Kemp in regional news outlet Wales Online.

“And don’t forget the neanderthals who rip up bars and piazzas wherever they go.

“It’s the arrogance and entitlement of England too.”

England fans argue that other supporters judge them by their worst-behaved supporters and most jingoistic elements of the media and that they get called arrogant for trying to encourage self-belief in their team.

For example, England fans repeat the ritualistic mantra of “Football’s Coming Home”, a song recorded for Euro 1996, at each tournament.

Having gone 55 years without a major tournament win is a sign of overbearing and unwarranted entitlement to critics.

“Football’s coming home, is it? So, England effectively owns the sport. I don’t think so,” former Scotland international and Liverpool legend Graeme Souness wrote in The Times.

Before Wednesday’s semi-final against England, Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel asked pointedly: “Has it ever been home? I don’t know, have you ever won it?”

But England fans insist that the song is just a self-deprecating and humorous recognition of blind optimism in the face of crushing reality.

BBC football host Dan Walker explained on Twitter: “It’s about a dream that never comes true. It’s about past glory & the perils of missed opportunities.

“Most importantly, it’s about hope… hope that, despite the pain, never disappears.”

– ‘Challenging establishment’
While the four nations are happy to get behind “Team GB” when they compete under one flag at the Olympic Games, their individual participation in football tournaments exposes identity clashes and political divisions within the union.

Bubbling under the surface more recently are the Brexit tensions that have fuelled a push for independence in Scotland, which voted in favour of remaining inside the European Union in 2016.

To the other nations of the UK, England — home to some 56 million people and seat of political power for the whole country — embodies conservatism, colonial rule and centuries of historic oppression.

Stuart Cosgrove, a Scottish broadcaster, blamed media concentration in London for a skewed perspective.

“All the news is about England… It feels like we get a version of England’s story every single night on the television and it is deeply, deeply frustrating,” he said.

“It is patronising as well and it doesn’t allow Scotland to move forward, because it is through our 0-0 draw with them (earlier in the Euros) is some kind of minor victory now when we had a poor tournament.”

At the same time “seeing Boris Johnson there or (Home Secretary) Priti Patel photographed, both wearing England tops when they claim they are a British government” also rankles.

“I suspect it would not register as much with them had it been Scotland getting this far,” he added.

Despite that, some critics have been impressed by Gareth Southgate’s England team, who have vocally supported causes such as racial equality — taking the knee before games — and gender equality.

Through his social media campaigning, striker Marcus Rashford even forced Johnson’s Conservative government to make a U-turn on providing free school meals to poorer pupils during coronavirus lockdowns.

“That version of chest-beating imperialism which people love to hate, has absolutely nothing to do with this England team,” said Kemp.

“They are challenging the establishment just like those in Wales who are sick of the privilege of the Etonian elite.”