PARIS — When England played Wales in their group-stage match in Lens, I had an encounter that bothered me for some time after. I let it bother me until this morning, in fact. I was at the far end of the press section; only an aisle separated me from a bank of stands filled with English supporters. They were drunk but mostly festive. There was only a crackle of tension. “F— off, you Welsh bastards,” one English guy began shouting, which seemed a bit strong. Who hates the Welsh that much? Then another one of the English supporters hung up a flag.
Flags are an important part of the travelling English experience. They can seem to decorate entire stadiums like drapes. But this particular flag was tied to a stretch of fence that blocked the view of several of us in the press section. I couldn’t see maybe a sixth of the pitch. Because my job necessitates seeing the entire pitch, I asked a steward to move the flag, which he did. He moved it to a different stretch of fence that was, no exaggeration, 4 feet to the left. By some miracle, moving it there cleared everybody’s view, and the flag remained unfurled. Problem solved.
Not exactly. The guy who had hung up the flag seemed fine with our perfect compromise. But some of the other English fans took offense. One, in particular, went purple. He came across the aisle to scream at me through his gritted teeth. He wasn’t just upset. He was enraged. He called me that uniquely British insult that has been eradicated like polio from most of the rest of the world. He called me it again, and again.
I probably should have kept my mouth shut, but I said some impolite words myself. I would guess that what I said didn’t matter so much. How I said it — with my Canadian accent, easily mistaken for American — seemed to matter quite a bit. His bloodshot eyes went wide. “You’re not even English!” he yelled.
This morning I woke in Paris to the news that the United Kingdom had voted to disunite with the European Union. Apparently there is only so much unity that something like 52 percent of the British populace can take. The result was already sending shock waves through France, where it can seem as though nobody cares about anything, so it must be a really big deal. A friend of mine here had joked that the Remain side would win if only because so many of the Leave side were here watching football. Turns out more than enough of the Leave side had stayed home.
The ramifications of the vote, the scope of the change that is about to happen, are well beyond me. But I will say that I think I understand if not the arguments of both sides, then the roots of those arguments. I was born in England, and I can hold an EU passport, at least for now, and I can see very clearly its benefits. So many countries with open doors! I can also still see in my mind’s eye that English fan who was so upset because a flag was moved 4 feet.
There is an irony that Brexit happened at the same time as the European Championship. There are two ways to watch football. You can watch it as the one game played all over the world, perhaps the single thing beyond our biology that most unites us. You can watch it and divine all sorts of meaning about forces larger than you. And you can find in it hope and possibility.
Or you can watch football and see in it a fight. You can see it as two counter philosophies. You can measure the pitch as territory to be claimed and lost, and you can find in the colors of the jersey a nationalistic pride, a reason to find faith in your country.
That English fan wasn’t mad because the flag was moved. He was mad because that stretch of fence had been English, and now it wasn’t. He was happy with the way it was, and he was overruled by systems that felt outside of his control. I wasn’t even English. There were so many things wrong with his universe at that moment, he thought his chest might explode.
What’s hard to remember sometimes, and what will almost certainly be forgotten in the coming days and weeks of panic and chaos, is that both the Remain and the Leave sides, like the two ways of watching football, were so strong because they were both rooted in love. The division came only in the choice of how best to express that love, and to whom that love would be devoted, and whether there are limits to love and its powers called borders, or whether love is limitless.
I forgot that, too, that afternoon in Lens. Today is good day to try to remember. That English fan loved that flag and everything it represents. It was also blocking my view of the game I love and how I wished to see it. But each of our expressions of that love looked like hate to the other. That’s when the aisle between us became a chasm, and we were both left feeling wounded, as though another formerly sacred thing of ours was now ruined, and everything else was that much closer to falling apart.