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Come on you Ghana, Brazil, Spain, Mexico, Korea, Italy…

The World Cup and the pleasures of neutrality
The Guardian, 8 June 2010

With the football World Cup pressing hard on us and England mania on the rise, spare a thought for those of us who are not England supporters. Though we go largely unnoticed in the England-centred media coverage, we’re here and we’re a significant minority.

For a wide variety of reasons, many people long resident or even born and bred in this country will not be supporting England, though they’ll be following the football with passion. In London, there will be clubs, pubs and restaurants packed at various times with supporters of Argentina, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Brazil, Mexico, Ghana or Cameroon cheering on their sides. England’s 2018 World Cup bid makes a virtue of this disparate fan-base, arguing that every country will enjoy local support.

Then there’s what I suspect is the much larger constituency of neutrals: people (like myself) without a fixed loyalty to any of the finalists but who will nonetheless follow the Cup with keen interest. We’re a minority in England, as in every other qualifying country, but globally we’re the majority. The largest chunk of the TV audience will be in China, India and south-east Asia. Despite not having a team of their own to root for, World Cup audiences in these regions are expected to exceed previous records by a wide margin. And they’ll contribute heavily to the global spending spree that makes the World Cup, in the words of the marketing director of Carlsburg, the official England beer, “like having two Christmases a year.”

When it comes to football, India is of course a nation of spectators. Way back in October 2007, in the preliminary to the qualifying stage of the World Cup, India was knocked out at the first hurdle by Lebanon (6-3 on aggregate). Its FIFA ranking currently stands at 132 out of 220. Nowhere is there a greater disparity between numbers of footballers (small) and numbers of football fans (legion, though mainly an upper middle class hooked in to cable television). As in many other parts of the world, the following for English, Spanish and European Champions Legaue football has boomed in recent years. So fans tune in to the World Cup already knowing many of the leading players and initmately involved with the many sub-dramas of the global game.

India’s non-performance as a competitor has one great advantage. Indian spectators can enjoy the pleasures of neutrality. They are spared the anxieties and the agonies of following their own national team. Indian viewers, along with many others, will switch their loyalties as they please and according to what transpires on the pitch (or in the media).

It’s not that we neutrals are aloof and non-partisan. Far from it. We tend to pick a selection of favourites, based on any number of criteria, ranging from the whimsical and arbitrary to the philosophical and political. How many Arsenal players do they have? Have I been there on holiday? Do I like their strip? Do I like their style of play? You could go through the whole Cup simply backing the underdog in every match and thoroughly enjoy the experience. Though more often than not your favoured team would lose, on the occasions when they won, there’d be that extra satisfaction. That little private fillip you get when something happens in sport that seems to defy prevailing assumptions.

We neutrals shift our loyalties from match to match or even from half to half. Any match that promises dramatic football is an occasion for us, and no match is of less interest just because “our” team isn’t playing. We’re more open to untainted delight in the highest skills, the most creative play, and especially to those moments which lie at the heart of the promise of the World Cup: those moments when the miraculous is made to look easy or when the fortunes of the game make a mockery of the predictable.

For certain, we’ll have a team in the final that we’ll want to back – but we won’t be crushed with disappointment if “our” team fails. We neutrals are always winners, as long as the football is exciting. Though we can’t share the (rare) ecstasies of supporters with single loyalties, I think we’re better off without much that goes with it.

When England bowed out of the last World Cup after a failure in the penalty shoot out, I watched a miserable crowd leave the local pub where they’d been watching the debacle. Among them was a well-dressed young couple. The man’s smooth face was twisted in rage. “Useless cunts. Fucking Lampard fucking bottled it. The cunt fucking bottled it…” and so on. The woman’s face was blank, affectless, as if she had absconded to some remote inner hideaway for the duration of the tirade. Of course, not all England supporters shared this extreme response. But most felt distressed and frustrated, and I’m glad to have been spared that burden.