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This is England: Football and the nation

Ciara Garcha investigates the links between nationalism, racism and the English national football team.

“I have never believed we should just stick to football”, England manager Gareth Southgate asserted in his open letter to the country published by The Player’s Tribune just before the start of the Euros. In a profound and poignant piece of writing, which ranged from the duty of representing one’s country to racial injustice, Southgate directly and passionately addressed the country, and both the English footballing and English national identity. 

At the close of the letter, Southgate articulated his hope for “a summer to be proud of”, and, after making it to the final and losing narrowly to Italy on penalties, Southgate’s England has made good on this promise. But the players’ behaviour throughout the tournament; their solidarity; their attitudes and values – those articulated and discussed in Southgate’s letter – have made this tournament and this team significant for reasons beyond what played out on the pitch. The National Team has been reinvented both in a footballing sense and in terms of offering a more positive future and image of Englishness. 

Boos rang out as England players dropped to one knee just before the kick-off of a friendly against Austria back in May. The gesture, ‘taking the knee’, first done by American football player Colin Kaepernick, has become a symbolic and powerful protest against systemic racism and racial injustice. Though the hostile reaction was dismissed by the English Football Association and by Southgate, who has repeatedly defended the gesture, the reception that the players taking the knee received hints at the National Team’s more sinister past and its challenging present.

Just two years after England won the 1966 World Cup, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton, Enoch Powell, predicted that continued immigration from former colonies to the UK would lead to “rivers of blood” on British streets. The phrase has since become synonymous with the racism and far-right activism of the following decades. The National Front marched against immigration to Britain, particularly targeting Black and South Asian immigrants and ethnic minority communities. Much of the NF’s rhetoric was around an imagined white British community and an imagined white English racial group that had come under attack or was diluted by non-white immigration, and as such much of its rhetoric and policy was built on reclaiming and protecting this perceived ‘nation’. 

This hatred, of course, spilled over into football. The notion that St. George’s flag was under siege created an exclusionary and aggressive imagined footballing community that was angrily and violently defended. The NF used both domestic and national football to pedal their agenda, often showing up in force at club and national team competitions to intimidate and cause trouble. When the first Black player to play for England, Benjamin Odoje, made his debut (for England schoolboys) in 1971, signs reading ‘No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs’ still hung bluntly in the windows and on the doors of many public buildings. Viv Anderson, the first Black player to be included in an England men’s team World Cup squad, faced racist abuse from both England and opposition fans. Anderson could expect to be pelted with bananas and have racist abuse hurled at him from the terraces any time he put on the England shirt. Chris Kamara recalls the National Front mobilising through his football league club, Portsmouth, to further their agenda. Kamara received death threats and open hostility from his own club’s supporters and was escorted to matches by the police, who feared that racists would act on the threats they issued. Clyde Best, a West Ham player from Bermuda, similarly blamed the racism he received whilst playing in England in the 1960s on the influence of the National Front and other far-right racist groups at football stadiums. 

This catalogue of abuse and the racist and hostile atmosphere of football in the 1970s and 1980s prompted the English FA to apologise for their actions during this period and for failing to do enough to tackle this footballing culture of endemic racism. The body, responsible for the national team and the governance of the English game, admitted that players from an ethnic minority background likely had their careers, domestically and internationally, cut short or disadvantaged by the FA’s failure to tackle racism and discrimination. One FA official said, “the FA was wrong not to challenge racism with football earlier” and admitted that footballing authorities had traditionally had a “narrow focus”, failing to “address wider social issues that have an impact on the game”. Groups like the NF created a hateful, dangerous, and poisonous atmosphere at football matches, and footballing institutions did very little to challenge this.

Intimidation was not limited to within football stadiums and on the terraces. Match day was a time when the far right would be out in force, attacking and harassing communities that were not part of their vision of the nation. Groups like the NF, though largely unsuccessful in institutional politics, had a notable presence on the streets of British towns and cities, where they would clash with counter-protesters and physically intimidate others. Often the towns or areas that the NF seized on were ethnically diverse with substantial immigrant populations. Areas like Coventry or Leicester in the Midlands, for example, had large populations of Indian immigrants, first-generation British-Indians, and a growing South Asian community from the 1960s onwards. Unsurprisingly, these locations were the sites of intimidation and harassment from ‘skinheads’ (so-called after the hairstyle popular amongst youths in far-right racist groups) who took to the streets to make their presence and opinions known. Match day, especially international match days, were occasions when these groups were emboldened. 

Coinciding with this, of course, was a peak in the football hooliganism that is so synonymous with British football in the second half of the 20th century. Organised ‘firms’ of hooligans wrought destruction and vandalism on stadiums and places across the UK. The Heysel Disaster, perhaps one of the most violent episodes of football hooliganism, left 39 dead and 600 injured when crowd trouble between Liverpool and Juventus supporters resulted in a surge by Liverpool fans towards the opposition. The 1985 disaster resulted in all English clubs being banned from European competitions for five years and led to the lasting association between English football and Englishness, with violence and aggression. ‘The English disease’ was the label given to football hooliganism in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Football, domestic and national, had a significantly violent political culture in this period – violent and exclusionary. As such, the famed three lions on a shirt did not mean the same thing to everyone and many Brits from ethnic minority communities continued to be forcibly excluded from the footballing community it represented. National football and the red and white of English football shirts were the preserve of white nationalists; ‘England’ was an exclusionary concept and the matter of who was part of this national footballing community was fiercely policed.

The recent tournament offered a challenge to this painful violent legacy. From taking the knee to standing against LGBTQI+ discrimination, this England team challenged the notion that football should not be political. Indeed, they recognised that, as the legacy of far-right abuse and racism in English football shows, football has always been political. After his (successful) campaign to get the government to provide free school meals for children in need throughout the pandemic, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford showed how football and football players could be a force for good. Raheem Sterling has similarly led vocal campaigns on racial justice, whilst team captain Harry Kane donned the rainbow armband, to show the team’s solidarity with LGBTQI+ communities. Indeed, in all England players asserting they would take the knee before matches, every player of every background stood in solidarity against hate and racism. As Southgate discussed in his open letter, this group of players did not believe they should “stick to football” but rather that they had a “duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial justice”, using “the power of their voices”. Southgate’s England epitomised this; the players used the platform they have and the platform the tournament gave them to push for change and inclusivity.

It is often said that national teams hold a mirror up to the society they represent. With multiple players from ethnic minority backgrounds and around 7-8 players in every starting 11 with at least one immigrant parent or grandparent, the national team reflected the diversity of modern England. In doing so, they provided a model of an inclusive understanding of Englishness. England fielded one of the most racially diverse squads at the tournament and actively embraced groups previously forced out of the footballing community. This team offered a definition of what it means to be English not restricted by skin colour, heritage, or identity.

Yet, what is equally astonishing is how quickly this new inclusive England, this welcoming vision of the nation, fell apart when the three Black players who stepped up to take a penalty missed. The social media accounts of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, were immediately bombarded with vile racist abuse and threats. Writing in The Independent, Rupert Hawksley argues that throughout this tournament many people in England have been fooling themselves. He wrote that in claiming the fans racially abusing the players did not represent the country, “you’d be lying to yourself”, and that a “culture of intolerance…has seeped across the land”. Hawskley goes on to argue, “we all exist in a society that has emboldened this sort of behaviour”. Indeed, both the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, have previously been accused of racism, including by England and Aston Villa centre-back Tyrone Mings, who accused Patel of “stoking the fire” of racism in dismissing the taking of the knee as “gesture politics”.  As former Manchester United and England defender, Gary Neville, pointed out, Boris Johnson has previously made comments about Muslim women looking like “letter boxes”, which Neville argued, amounted to “promoting” racism.

Johnson and Patel’s comments condemning the racial abuse received by fans were disingenuous, laughable, and far too late. We live in a society in which racism and racial hate crimes are on the rise, in spite of the undeniable ethnic diversity embedded in the fabric of the country. Homophobic and transphobic hate crimes have doubled in England and Wales since 2014Domestic violence increases by 38% when England lose, as infographics, which flooded social media after Saka’s penalty miss, reminded. “This is England”, writes Hawksley.

For those that do not contend with these realities every day, this team and this tournament provided a moment to look away and assert that societal perceptions of Englishness had progressed and moved forwards. It was a moment for the nation to pat itself on the back and reassure itself that the nation and the values of the nation inclusive and just. Yet, the second Saka’s penalty met the hands of Italy’s Gianluigi Donarumma, the issues and tensions within Englishness came back sharply into focus. Many were welcomed into the national footballing community only to find that this membership was conditional on exceptionalism and success. Those who aligned themselves with Englishness perhaps for the first time have been cruelly reminded what this really entails. Histories of the far-right white supremacist groups violently haunting English football and jealously guarding the idea of the nation connected to it are not as removed from the present as many would like to think.

The national team celebrated diversity, embraced difference, and spoke up for those facing oppression. But this fails to map onto society at large. They showed what Englishness and our idea of the nation could be, but not what it is. The ideal of England offered throughout this tournament was just that: an ideal, far removed from reality.

Image Credit : irish-adam / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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