Laugh at culture war over England jersey - but we may soon have our own cross to bear

The Irish team has so far avoided becoming the focus of a culture war in the same way as the English team has.

THERE ARE TIMES when following Ireland merely seems to be a means of finding different ways to have the same argument. 

Who should the manager be? What should the style be? Do we have the players? Or do we simply just not have the players? And why do we speak so often about the CEO? 

This week at least provided a novel, will-the-interim-manager-whom-the-FAI-insist-won’t-be-the-manager-actually-end-up-as-the-manager twist to the discourse. But otherwise we have been having these conversations for decades, punctuated by the odd clamour for a jilted midfielder. 

If you are sick of your arguments repeating on themselves, then you should look across the Irish Sea for relief, where England’s brilliant team remains a rich source of hysterical sideshow. 

The latest instance came in this international window, over Nike’s “playful update” to the St George’s Cross on the back of the new England jersey, splashing it with a bit of purple in a supposed nod to the training jersey from 1966. 

london-uk-23-march-march-2024-the-new-nike-england-football-shirt-with-the-controversial-design-change-of-english-st-georges-cross-flag-is-displayed-on-sale-at-the-niketown-flagship-store-in-oxfor The offending interpretation of the St George's Cross. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

Cue the outrage. 

Henry Winter said Nike had committed a “playful desecration” of the Cross, lambasting the FA for going along with it and not respecting England. 

David Seaman was wheeled out on TalkSPORT, presumably drawing on his experience with Ronaldinho at the 2002 World Cup to become an authoritative voice on misjudged crosses.

“What’s next, are we going to change the three lions to three cats? Leave it alone”, wailed Seaman. 

Peter Shilton, meanwhile, told the BBC that he was dead against it. “I’m a traditionalist, and England represents our country and red, white and blue are the colours we have on our flag,” he said in defence of a flag that doesn’t feature any blue. 

“I represented England as a schoolboy to U21 everytime I put the shirt on to play for my country I felt pride, I felt honoured, I felt united and inspired because I was wearing a shirt that had my national flag on it,” posted Jamie O’Hara on X, tagging Nike and calling for them to “give our players there [sic] flag back.” (This is the same Jamie O’Hara who told TalkSPORT in 2019 that one of his biggest regrets is turning down the chance to play for Ireland.) 

Shilton also claimed that Nike’s decision was “woke”, and the Telegraph did their bit by suggesting the colours of the cross on the new set of England jerseys were inspired by LGBTQI flags. That claim has been denied. 

But the fulminating over the issue was such that both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer were asked about it, and both said the cross should be restored to its original colour. 

The I newspaper pointed out that this is not the first time that England’s kit manufacturers have re-worked the flag: it’s happened eight times previously, and England have never in fact worn a traditional St George’s flag. There was no outcry over any of those kits. 

But don’t let precedent get in the way of another manufactured skirmish in the culture war. Vast parts of England’s right-wing press have become the handmaidens to what is now a fag-end government, whose last hope is to deflect from the crises they have caused by making the electorate angry about something in another direction. A bepurpled cross on a football shirt is just the latest emblem to be thrown on the pile marked “woke”. 

England’s football team have been a crucible for the culture wars in recent years, most obviously at the previous European Championships, when they took the knee at Wembley and were booed by some of their own supporters, whom Boris Johnson then refused to condemn. 

Read the recent history of the English football team and you’ll read the history of a country angrily disagreeing with itself. 

National football teams are among the highest-profile expressions of one’s country to the world, so perhaps it’s natural for those teams to attract these kinds of, er, national debate. 

The Irish team have been largely kept away from these kinds of arguments, however: the team has rarely, if ever, been used as a battleground for those who disagree vehemently with each other. 

Sure, the team has been reverse engineered to fit simplistic narratives, like the moronic idea that Italia ’90 was the moment that began the Celtic Tiger, and figures like Roy Keane have been co-opted as an avatar for the role of modern Ireland on the global stage. This, though, is largely the tendency of the opinion writer who occasionally frolics to the sports pages to cherry-pick a few handy images. 

We have mercifully not been convulsed with arguments of heat and no light about how the players should act, or what the team should represent, as England have over the past few years.

Let’s hope it stays that way: these debates are deliberately alienating and exhausting. With a very loud minority in Ireland now wrapping themselves in the tricolour and bleating that Ireland is full, it doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to foresee them trying to hijack the national team to amplify their dribblings. 

Starmer said the original St George’s Cross should be restored to the England kit as the flag is “unifying”, which is clearly wrong given it was used in this exact instance to divide. 

The basic fact of the national team is what should unify. Unlike virtually all other realms of life, it is a pure meritocracy, which therefore makes it truly diverse, and a representation of us all. Let’s hope we never lose sight of this fact. 

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