Waving the England flag from afar.
It was only a small amount. A few dozen of us had convinced our parents to pay for a boring bowl of cornflakes and some face painting consisting of the English flag. We must have entered the assembly hall before 7am for this quarter-final between Brazil and England, as this first World Cup from Asia had many other games starting early in the day for us Brits.
Official football shirts were always considered too expensive, so my mother dressed me similar to the other kids: a forgettable t-shirt and shorts combination completed by an England flag worn as a cape. I felt like a superhero. We were ready to shout and cheer the team on with whatever superpowers we had in the school hall that morning, watching the game through a projector.
I don’t remember much of the grumblings between the Asian kids if we were going to go or not, knowing then as 11-year-olds how unusual it would be for us to act patriotic this way, St. George’s cross plastering our small bodies. In the end, there must have been fewer than two dozen schoolkids in total, with just one other Pakistani kid. I remember he asked whether he could have his face painted with the colours of the Brazilian flag though, despite wearing an England shirt. Maybe he had the right idea, as England lost and we were left deflated for the remainder of the day.
Ever since, whenever England play in a major football tournament, I dust down my bedroom curtain rail and the surrounding area, ready to hang that same flag from morning to night. Yet it’s a strange tradition, one that I’m always cautious to continue. Usually it involves encouragement from the rest of the family.
It might be down to my own hesitance of watching England play. Not that they’re bad, but there were definitely times in recent years where watching each match would feel like a chore. The last time I was truly excited to see them was during the 2010 World Cup. In fact, one of my sister’s multi-day wedding celebrations took place when England faced Germany. Flashy phones weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now, and everyone was trying to keep up with the score. I even had a friend helpfully text me frequent updates, adding colourful commentary as the game went up and down, and then finally, dead.
Soon after, every pundit and former England player thought the best way for the team to reinvent themselves would be with an English manager. It felt odd watching these requests during highlight shows, as English football is filled with foreign managers, creating one of the most exciting leagues in the world. It’s also a bizarre coincidence this was hammered into the FA, as this last decade or so has seen a massive increase in xenophobia and outright racism, especially as the dying generation here revel in “Brexit Britain”.
I’m still fascinated by the way we choose the teams we support. When I was obsessed with football as a kid, nothing interested me more than Leeds United, unsurprising given I’m from Yorkshire. But after the racist assault on a student by players Lee Bowyer and Jonathan Woodgate, my father would never miss an opportunity to say that the club was racist in its support of them, something that took me a while to understand properly given my young age. After receiving a Huddersfield Town shirt from an after-school club during this period, I was happy to change allegiance.
Today’s England team is a reflection of the change football has undergone in these last two decades, thanks to billions poured in from all corners of the world. Supporting them is easy. I still think it’s perfectly fine for British Asians to support both England and the teams of their heritage when it comes to cricket, nullifying the idiotic “cricket test” of a Conservative politician from a bygone era. Because forced patriotism is always a transparent way to divide a population, however foolish the methods.
Yet despite sport being this great way to unify a country, it becomes clear with time just how meaningless borders become, especially with greater movement of people and the insights we mutually experience. In the meantime, I’ll keep hanging the flag, even on the days I’m feeling a little reluctant.