Thursday, 8 December 2011

Am I Just Getting Old? Where Has National Pride Gone?

Nottingham Forest beat Malmo to win the European Cup

The reaction to last night's elimination of both Manchester clubs from the Champion's League is causing me to look back on yesteryear with a hint of nostalgia. I'm not sure if I'm looking back on the past through rose tinted spectacles though. Has it always been this way? I hope not. Childhood memories of a nation coming together to support our representatives against the mighty Germans, Italians, Spanish or whichever other European upstarts stood in our way, would be shattered beyond repair. I'm not sure I can cope with anymore shattered childhood illusions. I'm still getting over the fact that cattle grids aren't for cows to wipe their feet on!

In my mind's eye my family was a typical family. My Dad and I huddled around a television watching an English team showing Europe that fancy tricks didn't always win the day. The team we were watching was not our team, but that night it was. They were England. It didn't matter that usually there were more Scots and Irish in the team than Englishman. On that night they were representing our league and our country. Whether it was Liverpool, Nottingham Forest or Aston Villa we supported them because we too got to bask in their reflective glory. I cheered goals from Alan Kennedy, Trevor Francis and Peter Withe as loud as if it had been scored at my beloved St James' Park.

Maybe I was just too young and too naive to notice the hatred and the resentment that actually really was all around me after all. I'd like to think not though. There were not many years of disappointment during the late 70s and early 80s but when they did come about then the disappointment seemed genuine and widespread. I'm sure there were always a hardcore from each set of supporters who couldn't bring themselves to enjoy another team's success and a few local rivalries that just couldn't be overcome, but I don't remember the outpouring of joy at seeing another team lose that I witnessed last night. What has changed?

I guess one of the biggest changes is that everyone has a voice now. We're all pundits and any Tom, Dick, Harry or Craig can inflict their opinions on the world via the interweb or twitter. We've all got something to say and we love saying it. The wind up merchants have a nice new toy and they are very good at dragging the rest of us into their world of hate because we let them. There is also the fact that it is always the most provocative and vitriolic headlines and comments that we notice. The measured, considered responses tend to slip under the radar. Why are so many people now pleased to see home football clubs fail though? Shouldn't we still be getting behind our country's representatives?

Ahhh. The penny drops. That's when it all changed. Neither Manchester City nor Manchester United were our representatives in Europe. They were just two of them. How can a whole country get behind a team when there is more than one team to get behind. It isn't the European Cup of Champions anymore. Neither is it really the Champions League. It is now a mini-league of Europe. Not all, but most of the continent's top teams competing for the prize. In the knock-out stages our teams are as likely to draw another English team as any other - well maybe not this year, but most. I shouldn't complain. As unlikely as it sounds my team, Newcastle United, were the first English team to benefit from qualifying as 'non-champions.' The change has had an effect. Rivalries that once would have been set aside in the name of national pride now remain live as teams are competing with each other in Europe. Everybody wants to be top dog and that means that other teams need to fail.

For fans of teams not competing in the competition there is also an element of jealousy and resentment. We may not like to admit it, or call it by that name, but I believe that is what it boils down to. Such sentiments are not without foundation either. The rewards on offer for competing in the Champions League create a system where the rich get richer and it becomes harder and harder for 'outsiders' to break into the coveted inner circle. Barring the intervention of an oil billionaire, the top clubs can afford to invest their winnings to ensure that they stay as the top clubs without any worries of a newcomer spoiling the party. So perhaps it all makes sense after all.

Perhaps, rather than lamenting the passing of former ways, I should accept that it's every man (team) for themselves now and let the gloaters gloat without feeling uncomfortable? A word of caution first. We have all got very used to the idea of our top four teams qualifying for the Champions League. Qualification depends on our country's co-efficient determined by ranking points gained through success in Europe. I wonder how loud Chelsea, Arsenal or Liverpool fans will be laughing should they find themselves in fourth place come May only to discover that there are only three Champion's League places available? For that matter, how loud would they laugh finishing fifth to discover they had not qualified for any European competition at all? It's not as far fetched as you may think. So perhaps we should all take a deep breath and reflect on whether we do have a reason to hold onto some of that national pride, even if it doesn't come easy to some of us.

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