Written by Mike Swadling
I’ve just spent a week in Florida; a trip to see among other things the USA Men’s Soccer team play Panama (they won 5-1). Why would I (a Brit) do that you might ask? Well apart from the sunshine, the lack of lockdown with commitment to freedom in Florida, and the opportunity to find myself drinking cocktails on Daytona beach, a mate had a spare ticket. As anyone who has ever visited the United States will understand, the impression I came away with was one of unabashed patriotism. This leads me to two thoughts – firstly, why aren’t we left with that impression from Hollywood and our media, and secondly, how do we get some of that over where we are?
‘Soccer’ as our cousins across the Atlantic Sea insist on calling our noble game has been growing rapidly in the US in recent years. Their top flight football ‘Major League Soccer’ (MLS) has expanded from twenty teams to twenty-nine teams since 2016. After failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the national side has now qualified for Qatar 2022 with a team of an average age of 24 who should be at their peak for the 2026 World Cup jointly hosted by the USA, Mexico and Canada.
Football is best played in a stadium where supporters are close to the pitch, fans are singing, and they have roofs over much of the stands to keep the noise in. The Exploria Stadium in Orlando ticked the boxes for the physical requirements, and the US fans sure brought the noise. Soccer support in the US runs somewhat as a counterculture, for people who fall outside the mainstream. It has a base both in the universities of the well-travelled middle class, and with recent immigrants who bring their soccer traditions to the US.
Match day means a few drinks to warm up for the game – fan zones nearer the ground and general enterprising zones of pubs further away. The Stars and Stripes were ubiquitous, but then they often are in the US. The crowd enroute was a mixture of accents, races, regions, all routing for one thing – the USA. It’s fair to say many people among this crowd did wonder who these people were in sports kits. Soccer for all its progress is still a minority sport in the US, but once people knew that the USA, their team, their nation, was playing at frankly anything they could not have been happier to see us – even to see the English bloke tagging along.
Back to my two questions. These Americans no matter where they were born were proud to be American; ‘why aren’t we left with that impression from Hollywood and our media’?
The media, political, “expert” class who frankly blight our lives too much just don’t get it. To quote C. J. Cregg from the television programme The West Wing, ‘being considered an “average American” is something Americans find to be positive and comforting’. I think this is equally true of most Brits. All too often we’re just not meant to show it. Maybe it’s that bad news sells, but surely somewhere we should see that Americans love America and that they couldn’t be happier to celebrate their nation, which in many cases is their new nation. It’s common among US soccer fans to have their state’s name and the year they joined the union emblazoned on the back of their replica shirts. This leads to little more than some gentle ribbing and largely becomes a great conversation starter. You’d struggle to imagine that here.
Which makes me wonder, ‘how do we get some of that in the UK. or even just England?’ There have been various initiatives to get the Union flag flying on government buildings, although it often feels they are swapped out as quickly as possible. It’s never been the case that local councils, government agencies, schools and other state institutions routinely fly the flag of the United Kingdom, or flags of each member nation. In the first century BC, Hillel the Elder said ‘If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?’. The elites might not be, but Main Street USA is certainly for the USA. For societies to function we don’t need high taxes or welfare systems, but humans do need to feel part of a community at multiple levels. For us to respect each other’s rights to say things we disagree with, the ‘man on the Clapham Omnibus’ needs to feel the other person is stuck on the same bus with them.
Here in the UK, we could stand up that bit more for the country and for our own nations within the Union. For all the problems with our history we should remember all the good our nation has done. We should remember that we are part of a Commonwealth comprised of fifty-four separate states all over the world. We are a democracy and broadly, although under constant attack, we have free speech. We should also remember we have no hope of living a harmonious society if we refuse to believe in the nation we live in. It was great to see unabashed patriotism in the US. A belief in their state, their team, their country. I don’t for one moment think waving a flag, or all the flags of the UK will bring everyone together and solve all of society’s ills, but in a world where more people are from more places, we need to find ways to build communities. Unashamedly getting behind our flag and our nation isn’t a bad place to start.