On Sunday morning I wrote another version of this blog. Swept up in Euro 2020 fever, I wrote about my renewed optimism for an England that belonged to everyone, and where differences were celebrated. I imagined a future where we would look back on this week fondly. Of course I now realise how stupid and naive I was.
Football is such a strong part of our national identity, and last week, everywhere I looked everyone was celebrating the men’s England football team. I thought – our brilliant, diverse, socially active, campaigning players were the sign of a new era. An era so desperately needed.
As Gareth Southgate said in his beautiful letter to the nation ‘Dear England, You remember where you were watching England games. And who you were watching with. And who you were at the time.’ It’s true. I remember, aged 6 my dad explaining ‘the hand of God’ to me and in 1990 my whole family watching the disastrous penalty shoot out and our hero Gazza crying.
I look back on the summer of 1996 – when I was 16 – as a truly glorious time. With nationalism seemingly less of an toxic issue than it is now, St Georges flags were everywhere as England stormed to the European semi final. For the first time in my lifetime Labour were less than a year away from power. I was awaiting my GCSE results and so was on the cusp of new adventures. For met felt like a great time to be young and English. I watched England 98 in the pub with my friends, wearing face paint and comfortable sobbing boys on my shoulders as we went out.
This last decade has made me feel a complete lack of identity as either British or English. As Labour lost back to back elections, austerity turned the UK into a country I often felt ashamed of and then the Brexit result led to years of division. Last spring, after the murder of George Floyd the racist reactions of some people made me feel like I would never feel I really belonged in England again.
Then the last three weeks happened. Gareth Southgate wrote that letter making it clear that the England players would continue to take the knee before matches. He said ‘It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.’
When I read that, for the first time in a long time, I actually felt hopeful about the future of this county. Of course idiots like tory MP Lee Anderson complained, but the England football team were representing the views I hold. Better still the team included players who not only believe in social justice, but have actually gone out and fought for it. I’m talking, of course, about people like Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling. I feel good linking my identity with them. It’s been touching to hear both men pay tribute to their mothers, especially as in the 1990s when Sterling and Rashford were born, single mothers were demonised as ‘scroungers.’ Actually many were heroically bringing up fantastic kids, working hard & are worth so much more than those who criticised. It must drive those who condemned black single mothers at that time to see the men these mothers raised.
As the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others lined up to criticise the England team for taking the knee, rather than say they had made their point and stopping the team carried on – in full knowledge of the criticism it would bring. Harry Kane wore a captain’s armband with the pride rainbow flag on. The players gave money to the NHS. The strength those young men showed was simply inspirational to so many of us. It was simply joyous to see people celebrating England after previously feeling they were not welcome to – people wearing England tops and hijabs, elderly black women, people in turbans. This was the England I wanted to be part of.
If I am honest I’ve never derived much pleasure from watching actual football matches but what I do love is being part of a crowd, all singing the same songs and shouting the same chants and feeling the same emotions at the same time. In short – that feeling of belonging. The England team singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ with the crowd last week was truly one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen – made even better by knowing that – like me- people across the county were joining in – and that this team had made it clear they belonged to everyone.
Then Sunday night and Monday morning happened. Scenes of joy were replaced with ugly scenes of violence and racism. People around the world watched this unfold and no doubt made judgements accordingly. Far from a fine new era, it became clear little has changed in the last 40 years.
I won’t forget waking up Monday morning, and reading about horrific racist targeting of the black England players.
Let’s be clear, the hatred some people seem to feel for Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka is not borne of disappointment that they missed penalties any more than those furious over taking of the knee were really worried about marxism entering football. These people are motivated by jealousy and the fact that their pathetic world view that their own skin colour gives them some kind of superiority or deeper right to be English has been shown to be nonsense. People are not racially abusing players because of missed penalties: they are racially abusing people because they are racists.
Being patriotic isn’t about excluding others and it certainly isn’t about abusing others. We cannot keep pretending that racism will somehow sort itself out in the end. That it will die out with older generations, or that it’s fine because ‘things are better than they used to be.’
Imagine how black children seeing the headlines are thinking about how accepted they are in the country they grow up in. Indeed many will have heard racist chanting on their way from the match, others seen racist graffiti on walls as they walked to school on Monday. In years to come they will be reflecting on the events of this week and how it made them feel – no doubt a world away from my happy Euro 96 nostalgia! We cannot let this be a country where this continues. We owe all our kids more than this. We need to be a better England.
The way we make racism unacceptable is by not accepting it. We stop making excuses for racism – it’s not banter, it’s not emotion or passion and it’s not ‘having a laugh.’ Taking a stand against racism may be woke, but better than being asleep! Instead of true patriots, who happen to be of colour being afraid to come to football stadiums let’s make racists unwelcome there. Instead of people asking questions about why we did not win a football match let’s question why some people feel safe shouting abuse at others across terraces, and in pubs and booing national anthems – and made both completely accepted anywhere.
Let us fight to be the England I thought we were on Saturday.