Passionately neutral: Lessons from the World Cup about enemies

I'm not an England football fan.

I should be clear, it's not that I'm not a fan of the England football team. I live in England. My son was born in England. My wife is half-English. I like to see England do well and and I'd like to see them do well at this World Cup.

But I'm not an England football fan.

ReutersEngland's Jordan Pickford celebrates after saving Colombian Carlos Bacca's penalty during the shootout.

And that means this World Cup has seen me play to role of passionate neutral, two words that seem odd together when written down or said out loud.

It means I can watch any game I get the chance to but not worry about setting any alarms or cancelling any plans to watch 'the match'. It means I can choose who I'm backing without feeling the need to know the anthem, own the shirt or be able to clap in time (we all love Iceland right?)

It also means I get weird pangs of sadness when a nation I've sworn allegiance to just a few moments ago gets eliminated.

I didn't feel that pang when Germany got eliminated last week. It was more of a surprise than anything else. Like most people I'd expected them to do well. They're always in and among the 'favourites'. The expectations are often high and the performances tend to match.

The greater surprise however came the next morning. If you don't live in the UK you wouldn't have seen how our press reacted.

The collective glee ranged from glee-filled headlines ('What's the German for Schadenfreude?') to a news reporter wiping down a bar with a German flag on live television (yes, that actually happened).

The celebration of another team's failure was palpable. And it wasn't just the traditional media. Memes, tweets, Facebook statuses all rushed out to try and grab the first laugh at Germany's sporting demise.

History plays its part. A collective sense of an 'old enemy' looms large when any sporting contest put the two nations in opposition. Politics plays its part. The impending Brexit is starting to take on the tone of a Old Western duel, where neither side knows where it's happening, if they agreed sunset or sunrise, or if they even own a pistol.

And yet somehow the whole thing still felt ugly. The celebration of the failure of another in which the one celebrating had played no part.

It got me thinking about something Barack Obama once said. In the midst of a ridiculous conspiracy theory about his country of origin, he took the decision to release his birth certificate, and with it he emphasised the task facing him, his administration, and the entire country.

He said this: 'We're not going to be able to do it if we are distracted. We're not going to be able to do it if we spend time vilifying each other. We're not going to be able to do it if we just make stuff up and pretend facts are not facts. We are not going to be able to solve our problems if we get distracted by sideshows and carnival barkers.'

Those seem like wise words to me.

Sadly, just a short while later he took the microphone at the White House Correspondent's Dinner and, with the lead conspiracist – Donald Trump – sat in front of him, took the chance to publicly mock him. To humiliate him in front of his friends and family, in front of an audience and, within moments thanks to the internet, the whole world.

I know that feeling.

Trapped between knowing the wisdom of rising above it, staying focused on the bigger picture, trying to find common ground, running my own race and seeing those opportunities to score a point, settle a score, or celebrate my 'enemy's' failing.

Maybe that's why passionate neutral isn't so common a position. It's not particularly sexy being neutral, however passionate. And yet I wonder if it's a position I should adopt more? Taking fewer sides. Labelling fewer 'foes'. Deliberately forgetting old scores.

Not neutral in the face of injustice or oppression. Not neutral in my response to those things that need to be challenged or stood up to. But neutral in the way that I approach the world, and passionate when something grabs my heart, stirs my soul, or just needs my voice.

Like a Northern Irish man, with an English postcode, passionately hoping for a good result against Sweden.

Matt White is a Northern Irish TV producer living in Essex and working in London. Follow him on Twitter @mattgwhite

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