BBC News Magazine

Page last updated at 14:26 GMT, Monday, 14 June 2010 15:26 UK

What's behind Anyone But England?

Scottish football fan

By Jon Kelly
BBC News Magazine

As the World Cup kicks off, many football fans from the UK's celtic nations say they will support ABE - Anyone But England. Why does this inflame so much passion on both sides?

When Fabio Capello's men run out to begin their World Cup campaign in Rustenburg, their shirts gleaming in the South African evening sun, an unknown number of their fellow British citizens will be cheering. For the USA.

On June 18, the same group will support Algeria. Five days later, it will be Slovenia whom they get behind.

And if Rooney, Lampard, Terry and company make it past the group stages, these UK passport holders have a handy phrase to remind them with whom their loyalties will lie: Anyone But England.

Anyone but England T-shirt
The T-shirts support any team but England at this year's World Cup

Few subjects on football message boards generate more ire, head-shaking and mutual antipathy between the constituent nations of the union than that of ABE.

To plenty of England supporters, the phenomenon is an unseemly grudge-fuelled display of bitterness by those with an inferior international record.

Meanwhile, to a certain breed of Welsh, Scottish and Northern Irish fans, it is either a natural expression of friendly rivalry with one's near-neighbours or a necessary corrective to the perceived arrogance of an English-dominated media, which appears not to be able to discuss a soccer tournament without copious references to Bobby Moore and 1966.

As the historian Eric Hobsbawm observed, a nation of millions "seems more real as a team of 11 named people". Consequently, football has become emblematic of ongoing trends such as devolution; Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism; and English resentment over the West Lothian question.

I have to say, it does wind you up when you switch on the TV and hear about 'England expects'
Dr Martin Johnes

When Dunblane-born Andy Murray, now Britain's tennis number one, said that he would be supporting anyone other than England in the 2006 World Cup, he faced a furious backlash from English Wimbledon fans who wondered why they, in turn, should be expected to support him.

Scottish Murray insisted his remarks had been taken out of context, and had only been part of friendly banter with Tim Henman, his English predecessor at the summit of UK tennis.

But the PR damage was clearly done, and Murray is now reported to be backing the English squad in this year's tournament.

It was the Scots' turn to be outraged in February, when police visited an Aberdeen clothes shop to warn staff that a T-shirt on display bearing the ABE slogan could be construed as racist. Predictably, the store would go on to report a surge in orders for the garment.

Dr David Hassan, senior lecturer in sports studies at the University of Ulster

"There are certainly those in Northern Ireland who would be quite happy to see England win the World Cup. There are others who consider this prospect fundamentally unpalatable.

The majority of people like to see England lose - and ideally on penalties or as the result of some obvious injustice.

The majority of the nationalist and republican population clearly want to see the English defeated, though perhaps not until the latter rounds of the tournament, and supporters of the NI team have a footballing rivalry with the English, which means they would be pleased to see England beaten too - albeit for different reasons.

It's a heady mix of rivalries around sport, politics, colonialism and nationalism."

But it seems little coincidence that the replacement of union flags by St George's Crosses among England fans first widely observed during Euro 1996 coincided with developments in Celtic politics that would subsequently see devolution in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland within a few years.

Fervent England supporter Mark Perryman, author of Ingerland: Travels With A Football Nation and a proponent of a tolerant, progressive English patriotism, says many of his fellow fans are perplexed and even hurt by this hostility from sides they would traditionally have backed when their own were not playing.

"I don't expect anyone in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland to support England - they've got their own countries to support," he crackles down a phone line from South Africa.

"Actively supporting whoever's playing us, though, just seems pathetic. We should all get over it.

"The driving force behind English nationalism isn't the English - it's the Scots. They have their own anthem, their own banknotes and now their own parliament. We don't have any of that."

But defenders of ABE deny that the phenomenon is politically motivated.

Hamish Husband, of the Association of Tartan Army Clubs, is a Carlisle United supporter who has lived in England for much of his life, and insists that football rivalries between national squads are no different from those displayed by fans of club sides.

Scottish football fans
In 1977 jubilant Scottish fans trashed the Wembley goalposts

"England and Scotland first played each other in 1872 - it's the oldest international football rivalry in the world," he says. "There's nothing political about it all.

"The overwhelming majority of the Tartan Army have absolutely no animosity towards England fans as people. It's no different from Liverpool fans wanting Manchester United to lose in Europe."

At any rate, Mr Husband insists that ABE is far less prevalent than is normally supposed, pointing to a recent YouGov/Daily Mail poll which suggested that while 24% would support any opponent of England, the same proportion wanted England to win. By far the biggest group - 38% - said they did not mind whether the Auld Enemy did well or badly.

Indeed, no less an authority than the Craig Levein, manager of the Scottish national team, has said he hopes the English have a good World Cup. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond of the pro-independence Scottish National Party has likewise wished Fabio Capello and his men well.

But what does appear to push many into the ABE camp is a perception that the media and business presume everyone in Britain is an England fan.

Mars faced a backlash when it brought out a range of chocolates wrapped in the St George's Crosses - some of which made their way north of Hadrian's Wall and west of Offa's Dyke, to the indignation of some locals.

Andy Murray
Andy Murray ruffled English feathers with a throwaway remark

Dr Martin Johnes, a history lecturer at Swansea University, has studied anti-Englishness among football fans in Wales. He believes ABE is generally far rarer among supporters of the Welsh national team than among fans of club sides like Cardiff and Swansea, who play in English leagues, or rugby fans, who see their sporting rivalry with England as one of equals.

But he says media coverage of international football can turn otherwise-harmonious neighbours against each other.

"I have to say, it does wind you up when you switch on the TV and hear about 'England expects' and 1966," he says. "Over the course of the tournament, I suspect more people will end up ABE than at the start.

"Only about 10% of Welsh people want independence. All we're looking for is respect - to be treated as equals."

ABE, then, may be about no more than three small nations feeling that they have to go that extra mile to distinguish themselves from a big nation.

But it may be too much to hope that anyone will blow the whistle on the grievances and grudges it provokes.

Below is a selection of your comments.

As a Celtic supporter who will support Rangers in Europe, I do despair at this anti-English attitude all the time. Maybe this explains why I have lived in England longer than I have in Scotland. My kids and partner never support anyone but Scotland. My support for England only changes when Scotland are involved - not the case this time sadly.
John, Horsham West Sussex

It's the arrogance thing, definitely. We Welsh cheerfully accept that our team never make the grade. On many occasions, England has only narrowly qualified for international competitions, then proceed to announce that they have the team to win it, when they so blatantly don't. They never make the grade - 1966 excepted. If they took the viewpoint that "we're lucky to be here and we're going to enjoy it and do our best" then there would be a lot more support. As it is, the "we're going to bring the cup home" attitude is as unhelpful as it is unrealistic - especially if it comes down to penalties once more.
Meurig, Caerdydd

Meurig, I don't think it's arrogance. I am keen for England to win and tell people I think we can/will win. But in my heart I am realistic and know we have a reasonable side that can get to the quarters on merit and can win if the wind blows the correct direction. The media hype is all part of the fun getting people wound up, and I think if you have two flags on the car you should have both a St George and a Union flag because ultimately England are representing the island as far as I'm concerned.
Mike, North York

Can I get a T shirt for ABF (Anything but Football). The social stigma of being completely ambivalent about football has dogged me for years. It is impossible to say "I do not like football" in any public context without people trying to shout you down or sway your opinion. I have no interest in it, no allegiances, no opinions, nothing. It is not England I am failing to support, it is football. I simply don't care who wins. I wish no ill to the England team, nor any other, I simply find the whole game pointless and meaningless, hence I shall not be supporting anyone but England, I shall be trying to find a way to spend the next three weeks with anything but football
Ian Hart, Wellingborough, England

As an Irishman (from the Republic) I always support Ireland first, England second and my adopted home Australia third. But it must be pointed out that all things English suffer from the more rabid opinions of the British media. When I mention that I enthusiastically lend my voice and hope to England's chances in any international, to my Australian, Irish, Scottish etc mates, many admit that they do too. But, and there is a caveat, they all would love to see England in a final with their home teams only to see the Lion and Unicorn be utterly humiliated in defeat. Fair enough. Ultimately what many of us worry about is that should England win, would the nation be as good at being winners as they are at being losers? I know many Australians who refuse to support their national teams in cricket and rugby union because both teams have shown themselves to be less than humble champions. To quote Sir Terry Pratchett: "The thing about football - the IMPORTANT thing about football - is that it is not just about football."
Malcolm Hamilton, Adelaide, SA

In 1998 Scotland opened the tournament with a game against Brazil; roll forward a few days to England's first game (Algeria I think), cue Des Lynam opening the coverage, "The tournament started four days ago, but this is where it really begins." This type of attitude is what turns off the Celts, it's really not political. I wouldn't be surprised if there is an ABG campaign in Austria.
Stephen Jamieson, East Kilbride

Well, I'm half Scottish and half English living in Wales. I have always supported my "heritage" countries (except when they play each other and then I hope for a draw) and have added Wales to the mix as I've met many fine folk here. However, this time I will be an ABE. Why? Because I have a moral abhorrence of the on-the-record politics of the England manager who believes that General Franco was a jolly sound chap who did marvellous things for Spain. Too many of our ancestors have perished fighting the ideals that the England manager holds dear so, much as it pains me to do so, I will hope that England leave asap and then follow tradition by sacking him.
Dave, Newport

This analysis totally ignores the historical impact of English dominance of the Celtic nations and other parts of the world. As a descendant of Irish grandparents, who socialises in the Irish community most of the time, this antipathy does very much exist and is real. I support England as I was brought up here and England is my homeland, but I am very proud of my Irish heritage as well. Ironically with the ABE sentiment that exists amongst the Celts, why do they so fervently support English PL teams such as Man Utd, Liverpool etc. A case of having one's cake... perhaps.
Tony, Coventry, England

This article is an excellent example of the media perpetrating the Anyone But England myth, you can't even get the Andy Murray context correct - the journalist involved has repeatedly said it was a joke by Murray in response to teasing of Scottish football by Englishmen. Put simply, I don't support England because I'm not English. I won't be supporting Brazil, Germany, Italy or anyone else at the World Cup either, because I'm not of those nationalities.
Kelly, Edinburgh

Born Scottish, living in England, this article glosses over the main argument, which is the national re-assignment of a success or failure. Andrew Murray is hardly ever referred to as Scottish in the media, he is British, whereas when the English hooligans were causing havoc abroad, they are also referred to as British, not English. When the Scottish hooligans caused problems in the 70s, they were Scottish. The media cannot and should not have it both ways. I am proud to be supporting ABE.
A Jarvie, Manchester, England

I was born in England to English parents but now live in Scotland. I love and support both countries and am proud (for the most part) to be British. When it comes to supporting a sports team I think everyone has the right to support who they want to. However, I am saddened by the ABE slogan because it has come about due to continued simmering resentment and bitterness that has nothing to do with sportsmanship. Chris Hoy is my role model as a sports personality, he is classy, has integrity, is obviously proudly Scottish first and respectfully British second. We are a nation that shares so many similarities (whether you like it or not), including a love of the beautiful game. I say come together as a nation to enjoy the next three weeks, whatever team you support.
Susie McRae, Aberdeen

I am happy to go along with the ABE thing, it's always a fun thing to rib your English mates about, if Scotland aren't there are we just supposed to forget the friendly rivalry, hold hands and support the same team? Where would all the humour go? No, we carry on supporting North Korea over England (if they are playing).
Jamie, Amsterdam/Edinburgh

I'm English, but I still "support" (if that is the word) ABE on the straightforward grounds that an early exit for the England team minimises the amount of vandalism and violence associated with any given tournament. I still haven't forgotten the national shame of a Russian student (not a football fan) being stabbed to death in Brighton during Euro '96 simply because a group of England fans thought he had a German accent.
Ian Kemmish, Biggleswade

"But what does appear to push many into the ABE camp is a perception that the media and business presume everyone in Britain is an England fan."
This sums it up perfectly for me. Aside from the fact that football is perceived to be a sport full of over-paid yobs and thugs, the media in general seem to forget that there are people who can't stand the sport, and certainly don't want some of these players to be seen as ambassadors for their country, or indeed any other of the "home nation" countries. Am I going to be an ABE? Nope, as I've supported England in the past Rugby World Cup championships when Wales haven't been there. I'm just going to ignore the competition full-stop.
Jamie Stevens, Connah's Quay, Wales

Me too. I am English, but have only a very mild interest in football and then only for important matches like the World Cup or Cup Final. I find this insistence that "the whole country is behind our team" very annoying and the constant dwelling on VERY long ago glories is intensely embarrassing. I will be winding up the saddos in my office by announcing my support for a real underdog, such as Paraguay.
Alison, UK

I am a Scot by birth and I agree entirely with the notion that it is the mass hysteria surrounding the England football team which drives us to ABE. A few weeks back I was fairly ambivalent, but the build-up has been so in your face, I was browsing ABE T-shirts online last night with the full intention of buying one. I work for a large multinational company with many colleagues from European nations - and yet the business is also now forcing the "Come on England" mentality upon us in our workplace. If everyone would just calm down and stop getting so worked up, then ABE would be far less well-supported than at present.
Paula, Southampton

Dr Martin Jones is absolutely correct in his analysis of the media contribution to ABE. The vast majority of Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish have no axe to grind with the England players or manager and would wish them well on a personal basis. However the media's persistence in mentioning England and 1966 at every opportunity (sometimes even during commentaries on games not involving England) and their expectation that England will dominate is what really gets people's backs up.
Kim, Aberdeen, UK

You have successfully answered your own question. Just take a look at the only fan picture you've chosen to display, that of of the now well-behaved Scots fans "trashing" Wembley's goalposts 30 plus years ago. How is that relevant to this article? Perhaps if the entire media weren't so biased toward England, and the Celtic nations didn't have it thrust down there throats so much, they might think differently. I hope England don't win, we'll never hear the end of it.
June, London

I think it's just racism. I had the misfortune of having to work around the Newport, Gwent area during the 2000 World Cup. In the pubs, the TV was off during England games. While at work I wasn't allowed access to either the hot drink, cold drinks or food facilities, as I was told "because you're English". Honestly, for those few weeks I found unchecked racism highly entertaining, but I can tell it would get incredibly annoying after a few years of it.
Nic, Nottingham

I personally think that the ABE campaign is one of the most misguided ideas in football. If I was to label myself I would say that I am an Irish Nationalist and I shall be supporting England throughout this World Cup. What has the English team of World Cup 2010 got to do with Scottish, Irish or Welsh politics? Not one thing. It is stupid to think "I don't like what the English have done to my country over the past centuries, so I hope that the football team loses." I watch the premier league week in week out, I support Man Utd. Why then should I stop supporting players that I enjoy watching every week just because they now form one team? The national pride and camaraderie that goes hand in hand with the English and their football team is something to be admired, and should be embraced by the home nations when their teams are not playing. And I for one shall be adopting England... until Republic of Ireland qualify.
Mark, Belfast

What is wrong with people? The build-up to the World Cup may be a strain if you are not a football fan but it is no worse than other sporting event, such as the Olympics, Wimbledon etc... Support whoever you wish but don't use it as a reason to be spiteful. At the end of the day, supporting anyone but England in order to offend will not affect the outcome of the games.
Jaelithe, Plymouth, England

Yeah OK, but it's fun to wind up Engerlunders.
Davie, Edinburgh

Print Sponsor

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific