England’s football team are currently in the late stages of Euro 2020. (At any other time it would seem ridiculous that a tournament titled one year is played in another, but we all know these are not normal times.) I had a vague awareness that they’d played a few games recently, seen reported results, but only realised in the last couple of days that it wasn’t just the odd friendly and this was serious stuff. Perhaps it was because their win over the Old Enemy (Germany – nothing to do with war) was splashed all over the news even in this country, where football is very much a second-class sport. Say football to a Kiwi and their mind settles on men playing with odd-shaped balls, which anywhere else would be called rugby. I am apparently so English for pointing that out, but I refuse categorically to use the word soccer.
New Zealand has only one professional football team. (That’s not a typo; there is just the one and even the national team, the All Whites, have the odd non-professional player). They’re based in Wellington, although all their opponents are across the ditch in Australia, and named Pheonix, which is unfortunate as they seem to have to rise from the ashes at the end of most seasons. Still, it gives sports writers an easy headline.
Sport is taken very seriously in this country and the proponents of it often treated like gods. Criticise a sporting legend at your peril, especially if they wear the hallowed black jersey. To become a resident of New Zealand you have to be able to name half a dozen All Blacks players, past and present; to become a citizen you must pass a written test to exhibit your knowledge of the rules of the game, name the current squad and their whakapapa (genealogy), and dissect five recent performances. I’m almost not kidding.
The team you support, football or otherwise, isn’t something that is dictated by common sense. It is dictated by passion. It doesn’t matter if another team is more successful, the heart will overrule the head like a referee will overrule a linesman on an offside decision. To prove the point, my team is Sheffield Wednesday. If I was looking for sense in that choice, there is none. In fact, it’s not a choice. I grew up in a Wednesday household and supporting the Owls was ingrained in me as much as a love of tea and Walkers crisps.
A confession: when it comes to rugby I’m not an England supporter. I attribute my support of the greatest rugby team in the world to the fact that I’d never seen a rugby match until we moved to New Zealand. My first experience was a work colleague of Neil’s inviting us to a local bar to watch an All Blacks game. He patiently tried to explain the rules and what was happening, but I clearly didn’t grasp it (possibly because we were in a bar) as I still can’t tell you why everyone sometimes stops playing and gets together in the middle of the field for a group hug. Later that year we saw England, against the odds, win the World Cup. So I do know what a drop goal is. To get there they had to beat the All Blacks, which is when we realised the passion Kiwis have for their team, the mood the following day being sombre and dark, with talk of doom and the end of the world. (A news report included a helpline for those contemplating suicide – seriously).
As in many aspects of my life I have a foot in both camps. I’m generally a fan of the underdog and like a result where they pull off an unexpected win against a favourite. But the underdog can go chase a rabbit if the All Blacks (rugby) or England (football) are playing. I hope it does come home, even if I no longer live there.
Come on England!