With the majority of NI hoping for an Italian win, the resentment towards the England team here is just odd, says John Toner
Most of Ulster will be saying “No” to the thought of England winning Euro 2020 tonight, but as a fan of the Three Lions, I don’t think it needs to be this way.
I will be in a tiny minority of people in Northern Ireland cheering on England this evening, with nearly two million others hoping and praying for an Italian victory. I should add I was born and raised in London.
A friend once said nothing unites the fractured communities of this place quite like hating the English football team. I’m starting to see what he meant.
The outpouring of bitterness over a perfectly good penalty during the semi-final against Denmark was testament to the ill-feeling which will no doubt be 10-fold tonight.
Watching the game in a Belfast bar, you could feel the collective weight of desire for England to lose and the deflation when the final whistle went and those hopes were dashed.
Being reasonably well-versed in my history, I understand where this comes from and the reasons for it on both sides of the sectarian divide, but it has always puzzled me given the popularity of English football teams here.
The relationship between the English and all the peoples on this island has been long, turbulent and destructive.
Due to the way nationalism tends to work, those long-held resentments are channelled into international sport. I get that.
But the anger and resentment in a sporting sense is difficult to square with the sheer number of Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea and, latterly, Manchester City fans here.
It’s not just the big clubs that are well supported here either. The likes of Leeds United, Aston Villa, Everton and others have significant followings, with the popularity of the Premier League far outweighing the enthusiasm for Irish League football.
It seems odd to me that players such as Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Harry Maguire et al can be heroes to fans here in club football, but as soon as the whites of England go on, they become mortal enemies. It doesn’t make sense.
It becomes more illogical when we look at the make-up of international teams these days, particularly across these isles, many of which undercut the very idea of nationality.
This current England team is a prime example, with stars Declan Rice and Jack Grealish playing for the Republic of Ireland at youth level before switching to England.
Harry Maguire was eligible to play for Northern Ireland and the Republic via his grandparents, while Wolves captain Conor Coady was also eligible to play for Ireland via his grandparents.
Leeds midfielder Kalvin Phillips was eligible to play for the Republic via his mother, while Spurs striker and England captain Harry Kane is half-Irish, with his father Pat hailing from Co Galway.
Had many of the players in this England squad, and in the current Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland squads, had different paths, they would be heroes instead of villains to many, which somewhat undermines the desperation across the province for Italy to win tonight.
I’m not saying you should support England, but you don’t need to be that upset if football does, finally, come home.
Italy fans across Northern Ireland are gearing up for tonight’s Euro 2020 final including the owner of a popular ice cream parlour who predicts a big win for the Azzuri.
Nicole Morelli (51), owner of Morelli’s To Go in Portrush, Co Antrim, has kitted her staff out in Italy shirts, decorated her shop in Italy posters and has a team photo on the front door in preparation for tonight’s big finale.
Ms Morelli, who holds dual British and Italian citizenship, said it would be pints of of Peroni and glasses of Prosecco if Italy lift the trophy at Wembley.
She said: “We’re all ready for the big game, I’ve watched a few of the matches throughout the tournament but haven’t been able to catch them all due to work — but we’re very excited. It’s great, especially as they didn’t qualify for the last World Cup which plunged the country into national mourning, so this has given everyone a bit of a lift.
“It will be a nice story if they win. In 2006 we gave out free ice cream when Italy won the World Cup but we can’t do that this year due to Covid-19.
“I think I’ll just celebrate with a nice glass of Prosecco and a pint of Peroni if Italy win, if we lose I’ll be sad for my dad who is back in Italy.
“He’s a big football man and will be watching it with all his friends and he’ll be 90 next year so it would be lovely for him to see the team win.
“Having said that I’m a big fan of Gareth Southgate and I think if England were to win it would be an amazing achievement too.”
Nicole also predicted a big win for Mancini’s men, adding: “I’m going to stick my neck out and say 0-3 to Italy.”