July 12, 2021

Early that morning, an ice cream van passed below my flat, playing the Match of The Day theme tune louder than bombs.

Nobody needed the reminder. Everyone knew it was England day. The Germans? Outmaneuvered. The Ukrainians? Thrashed. The Danes? Defeated by a purely accidental laser flash in the eyes of Kasper Schmeichel. England were in the final.

The Queen wrote the team a letter to mark the occasion, and so did the Prime Minister. Even poor Ed Davey released a statement ahead of what his PR flack called the “Euro Grand Final”. There was no room left on the bandwagon. It was possible to broach a conversation with a complete stranger — even in London — as long as you were talking about Harry Kane. The streets filled with flags and shirts.

When England were last in a final football, frankly, was not that important. Wembley was called the Empire Stadium, the fans wore ties and jackets to the game, and this was still a country where schoolboys understood what John Bunyan bangs on about in A Pilgrim’s Progress. Men with antique names like Bobby and Nobby pasted the Krauts in extra time, danced on the pitch, smoked a few fags in the showers, and went home.

Now, the England team is a genuine national institution, capable of generating socio-political talking points. The game stretches and envelopes in all directions. And England, like every national institution, like Greggs’ sausage rolls, or Prince Harry, are conscripted into our rabid debates about who we all really are.

Is Gareth Southgate’s team displaying a truly progressive patriotism by taking the knee before matches? Or is the manager actually a reactionary gammon for saying that “people have tried to invade us and we’ve had the courage to hold them back”. This is what people with master’s degrees have been arguing about on the internet over the past four weeks, while England supporters emptied pints over each other in fan zones up and down the land.

It will always be the fans, not the manager, not the players, and certainly not the FA, who define English football. The pictures and videos of them in Leicester Square began trickling out around midday. It was a Hogarthian free-for-all, already, and kick-off was hours away. “Get the lads away from this”, Robert Baden Powell wrote of the football terraces in his Scouting Book for Boys (1908), “and teach them to be manly.” For better, and occasionally for worse, England fans are lads, not men.

These aren’t the ones who watch football on television in their millions. Nor are they the “one-off experience” crew who go to the Emirates as a birthday treat. They aren’t season ticket holders at glamorous clubs. It’s not me, it’s probably not you. I’m thinking of the hardcore, kamikaze, death cult fans. The forgotten dreamers, the miserable drunkards, the national team obsessives. How many times has following England led them astray, embarrassed them, infuriated them? Too many times.

Financially, culturally, and spiritually, they are English football, even when they boo anthems, or sing “vile chants” about German bombers. They are not perfect, they’re not popular, and I’m pretty sure they never will be. Mainstream British culture could not be less interested in lads. And lads could not be less interested in mainstream British culture, if such a thing could even be said to exist anymore. Football, which money has made classless and popular, is one of the few places outside of ITV2 you might spot them. Beneath — only just beneath — the sponsorship and philanthropy and dazzle of the modern game, these lads are there watching England blow it.

The English are earthbound, pedantic, stubborn, loud, wooden, and superstitious. We feel frustrations of a powerful and obscure nature here. Football is the imperfect outlet for them.

For we never win. Frustration is sublimated into yet more frustration, a state of affairs as mad and as pitilessly illogical as an Escher staircase. Losing at football is the national birthmark, part morality play, part musical hall joke. The rest of the world deliberately misunderstands its place in our national psyche, and calls it arrogance.

Arrogance? For English football fans, arrogance is 55 years of paying the money, boarding the replacement bus service, and flying to the Pristina City Stadium in Kosovo, deeply aware that whatever happens, the future is going out of the next tournament on penalties. Arrogant fans? England lost in recent memory to Iceland, a country with more volcanoes than professional footballers. And they still turn out, wrapped in their flags, singing their songs.

Beating Italy in the final would have been the ultimate moment of national catharsis. It might have resulted in most of the West End being cheerfully set ablaze by midnight. I took the Bakerloo Line towards Piccadilly Circus to see it for myself.

The carriage in front of mine was full of England fans. Every thirty seconds or so, a young lad with glassy eyes poked his head through the window, stared at us, and said “Waheyyy!” The third time he pushed his head through the window, I realised what was wrong. He was missing a front tooth. There are dry dark wine splashes down his tracksuit top. The tooth went earlier that day. His eyes glittered. “Waheyy!”

At each stop, more and more England fans entered that carriage. Older lads, at each platform, moved unsteadily towards the noise, like fat bees giddy with pollen, bumbling towards the next flower. More at Paddington. More at Marylebone. They banged the roof of the train. A tourist opposite me looked concerned.

On the street there were bodies in replica shirts everywhere. I saw a few Rashfords randomly strewn under bushes, a Maguire lying in the middle of the road, a Bobby Moore headfirst in a puddle, and Kanes slumped against railings, shop fronts, and walls. The sound of the word England echoed off buildings.

We all found a place to watch the game. England tried, and they were not quite good enough.

Around Trafalgar Square, the grotesque comic energy of the earlier crowd had evaporated. The serious boozers, some Italians, those who are buying or selling drugs, and whoever was looking for a fight were the only ones left by 11.30pm. Many had vomited, or were about to. I was envious of them — this was a terrible night to be sober.

“It’s disgusting… mate,” said a squat man with a bucket hat on. His eyes were bloodshot. I asked him what was so disgusting. “It’s disgusting, disgusting… It is disgusting, mate.” He was waving around an empty bottle of Famous Grouse. He could have been talking about that, or the game, or the Francis Bacon painting unfolding around us, and he would have been right three times at once.

A band of Italians marched towards M&M world in Leicester Square. They did not burn it down, nor even ransack it. The Italian fans were happy, and brave. They moved, hands above their heads, bellowing, straight through hundreds of addled, angry England supporters. The floor was carpeted with thousands of potential projectiles — bottles, shards, horse shit, inflatable unicorn floats.

A gym bunny guy decided to have a go. He aimed his pint at the Italians. It sailed past them, and hit a English woman wearing a string bikini top flush in the face. He stumbled off down an alleyway. She shrieked.

It was chaotic in Piccadilly Circus. Lines of riot police tried to make rings around other groups of Italian fans. Five buses, each facing a different direction, were immobile. Fireworks zagged crazily into the sky and exploded.

We all stood around and watched the Italians, enviously, as they bounced up and down by the boarded-up fountain. We all waited. “It’s going to go off cuz,” someone said hopefully into a phone. Maybe that’s what we were waiting for. Violence.

Wankers, wankers, wankers, chanted the England supporters at the Italians. The ground shook. The crowd felt like it was one signal away from a surge. A frightening English crowd. Maybe, I thought, losing would confirm what we knew all along. Half the fans were there because they wanted to punch someone in an out-group.

I spotted a bloke preparing to lob a traffic cone at the Italians. Here we go then. He threw it up in the air, where it seemed to hang for a few seconds. It floated down into the arms of a big boy who waved the useless English weapon above his head. The scenes repeated themselves, with less and less energy. The evening turned to black and white, then to the colour of the stuff inside a Hoover bag.

What would it have been like if England had won? I’m glad — and, yes, also devastated — that I didn’t find out. I doubt it would have changed the country very much, once the euphoria wore off. And it would take much more than footballing success to change our fans.