And then everything went wrong, pretty much forever. For a start, I became a grown-up, and became much more troubled about what it meant to belong to a country; meanwhile England's football team was hopeless. The equal-best team in the world didn't even qualify for the World Cup finals of 1974 and 1978; the world-class players we'd been blessed with during the 1960s had gone, and anyway, by the 1980s, the whole subject of patriotism and football had become much more complicated. In the mind's eye now, England games during that decade were frequently only just visible through a cloud of tear gas, used by European police to disperse our rioting hooligans. England fans were fast becoming a pretty sinister bunch; and though our club games were frequently plagued by riots, it never felt as though the yobs were setting the tone. If you went to see England play at Wembley, as I still did, once in a while, you could observe people around you making the Nazi salute during the national anthem, and abuse of black players—even the black players playing for the home team—was commonplace.
In those days, Wembley held 92,000 people; neatly, there were (and still are) ninety-two professional football clubs in England. Sometimes it seemed as though the thousand worst scumbag fans from every single league club were gathered at Wembley so that they could make monkey noises and sing anti-IRA songs. It was these people who helped create the commonplace fear and loathing of our two national ﬂags. If you saw someone coming toward you in a T-shirt sporting either the Cross of St. George or the Union Jack, you'd have been best advised to cross the street. The T-shirt was a graphic alternative to a slogan which might say something like, "I'm a racist but I hate you no matter what color you are"—or, as a piece of graffiti captured by the Philadelphia photographer Zoe Strauss read, F*** YOU IF ARE YOU READING THIS. And if he didn't get you, his pit bull terrier would.
And so, perhaps understandably, some football fans started to feel a little conﬂicted about the national team. In 1990, when England played Cameroon in the quarterfinals of the World Cup, it wasn't hard to find people in England—middle-class, liberal people, admittedly, but people nonetheless—who wanted Cameroon to win. I watched that game with some of them, and when England went 2–1 down (they eventually won 3–2 in extra time), these people cheered. I understood why, but I couldn't cheer with them, much to my surprise. Those drunk, racist thugs draped in the national colors. . . . they were, it turned out, my people, not (as I'd previously thought), the nice liberal friends I was watching the game with, and England was my national football team. I mean, you can't choose stuff like that, right? The 1990 World Cup turned out to be something of a turning point. The team wasn't embarrassing—not after the opening games, anyway. The fans weren't embarrassing either, apart from the odd skirmish. And in the end England lost, narrowly and bravely, to Germany, on penalties, in the semifinal. (England, incidentally, has been sent home in four of the last six World Cups by either Germany or Argentina, two countries we have had Issues with in the past. Those familiar with the bellicose nature of English tabloid newspapers can imagine that these misfortunes have done little for the cause of world peace.) After a horrendous couple of decades, the national team, and the national game, were once again basking in the warmth of the nation's affections.