My Three Lions Dilemma

As a teacher, I’ve always had an interest in tracking the football loyalties of the boys I teach. (Before I’m accused of being sexist, I’ll state that I work in an all-boys school in which the most knowledgeable and dedicated football fan by some distance is a Cliftonville & Arsenal-loving female teacher.)

I can recall a time when a smattering of Blackburn and Leeds United fans were counted amongst the pupils assembled before me, but they have been replaced by supporters of the blue half of Manchester in today’s classrooms.

For the most part, classrooms remain filled with fans of England’s original 21st century Big Four teams (Chelsea, Man Utd, Liverpool and Arsenal) with Glasgow Celtic also heavily represented, and I’ve little reason to believe that the picture differs greatly in schools across the tracks here, save for the substitution of Glasgow’s blue for green.

Sporting loyalties are a bit like religion: an inheritance foist upon the innocent and unsuspecting by fathers at an age before rebellion defines the father-son relationship, with enough time, energy and emotions invested in sharing support to prevent adolescent insolence from destroying the common bond of sporting affiliation.

I have written before about my experiences of bringing my 6-year old to Cliftonville games over the past 18 months and watching his love for, and knowledge of, the game develop before my eyes.

This is his first World Cup, and to say he has been having a ball would be quite the understatement. The nightly routine has consisted of watching football, learning of new countries and hearing names he immediately recognises from his ever-expanding Match Attax cards collection. I’ll say little on the matter of the lad’s bedtime routine as to elaborate upon that theme may leave me vulnerable in my professional capacity as vice-principal to the charge of hypocrisy….

I can still recall vividly my own first World Cup memory.

Sitting on a hard floor in our 18th Street and Bethany Home Road abode in Phoenix with my then 5 year old brother- I was seven-, both attired in a Northern Ireland kit bought for us by an adoring uncle just back from Belfast (he’d also brought us hats emblazoned with the words ‘West Ham’ and ‘Liverpool,’ which utterly perplexed us at the time.)  The television was tuned in to the Spanish language channel favoured by the Hispanic population of the city, and we were watching the Northern Ireland – Spain game. I can’t recall if it was live or repeated, nor do I recall any real moments from the game other than talk afterwards of the impressive nature of the victory by adults in the room.

We didn’t have any real sense of affiliation with any team but were absolutely enthralled by the ability of the commentators to pronounce the word ‘goal’ (or ‘gol’) in a way that made it last for what seemed like a full minute each time.

Schools are a great place to be during major sporting tournaments. Classrooms are bedecked with flag displays of all the Nations involved and children spend their break time tactically swapping Match Attax cards. Teachers are naturally creative and resourceful, and they waste little time in capitalising on the opportunity presented by the World Cup to teach themes related to Numeracy, Literacy and the World Around Us (Science, History and Geography in old money) using the World Cup as a context to excite the children.

Our own school mini-World Cup concluded yesterday afternoon in the baking north Belfast heat with a 3-2 triumph by Mexico over their North American arch rivals, the USA.

But back to sporting loyalties…..

My son’s first love is Glasgow Celtic. It helps that they appear regularly on Sky Sports and ESPN during this formative phase of his soccer affiliation life, and their success ensured by their current status as the only big fish in the small SPL bowl has meant that he has become accustomed to watching his team win, something which clearly helps attract and retain support for the big teams in any sporting code.

But it is no surprise that his sporting loyalties match those of my own. I grew up supporting and attending Celtic and Cliftonville matches, but my first love was the Republic of Ireland team.

My most cherished sporting memories are of attending Republic matches during the halcyon Charlton era with school friends and of watching the afternoon kick offs at home with my father and brother.

My son attended his first Republic match earlier this season (the first game of the O’Neill era) but it is with Celtic that his heart lies.

International football can be confusing for a 6-year old, and a lot of time had to be invested into explaining why it was possible to play for two different teams (club and country.) But as the penny dropped (albeit at an agonisingly slow pace), his eyes lit up with the revelation that a number of players from his beloved Glasgow Celtic would be participating for their National sides in the World Cup.

The more discerning amongst you will have worked out by now where this is going……

And so it came to pass that his allegiances for the duration of this World Cup would be found with the teams counting amongst their number players plying their trade in the east end of Glasgow: Greece (Georgios Samaras), Honduras (Emilio Izaguirre), Nigeria (Efe Ambrose) and….. England (Fraser Foster.)

Given that he passionately believes that Georgios Samaras is the fourth best player in the world (I’m told repeatedly in car journeys, walks to Tesco and at bedtime that only ‘Lee-o-mel’ Messi, Ronaldo and Suarez are currently in front of  the big Greek in international rankings), supporting Greece was a no-brainer.

Similarly, Izaguirre has a permanent place etched in his heart as it was the Honduras international who provided him with his first Celtic Match Attax card. Ambrose was a bit of a surprise to him and love for Nigeria does appear to be somewhat forced.

But Fraser Foster is one of his favourite Celtic players, and news that he would be in the World Cup has brought about a genuine love for the team sporting the Three Lions that has left me with a bit of a challenge.

I quite like the idea of watching the boy develop his own sporting affiliations and loyalties, and the simple logic of determining support based on wanting his team’s players to do well is utterly compelling. A republican friend of mine has always supported England on the basis that he finds it absurd that he is supposed to cheer for players in their red shirts at Old Trafford but jeer for them in white when at Wembley.

For me to suggest that, instead of cheering when Wayne Rooney equalised, that he share in the widely held sense of schadenfraude at the sight of England suffering yet another World Cup meltdown would be to introduce a negative element to his identity formation, a mistake we too often make in this society.

So I forced myself to cheer along, concealing my glee as Suarez rammed the winner home. I’m even getting used to him playing as England on the Xbox each night during game intervals. My life as a reluctant England fan has but one more game to endure….if I’m lucky.

The price we pay for peace eh……