Last week a video of students celebrating Harry Kane’s winning goal against Denmark in the Euro 2020 semi-final went viral. The reason? The clip was filmed at Blackburn Muslim boarding school and the pupils were from minority backgrounds. In the accompanying Tweet, Hasan Patel echoed the thoughts of many that Southgate’s team is a true representation of what this nation is, stating that ‘the racists can do one’. It felt for a moment that the Euros had brought people together in a way that would tackle racism in an impactful way.
I spent the day of the Euro finals in London with my husband and our two children, meandering along the Southbank where clusters of fans wearing England shirts and the St George’s flag as capes pounded the streets chanting football songs. They are pilgrims, I thought, their chants like hymns drawing in other pilgrims who echoed the refrain. There were whistles blown, drums beaten, beers clutched, drunk, splattered onto concrete; precursor of the carnage that later followed.
Back home that evening watching the match, my son wearing his oversized England shirt, brown face lit up in the blue glow of the television screen, I realise that he has a sense of belonging that I did not possess when I came to England as a child. My son shares my brown-skin, yet he doesn’t have the same sense of dislocation as I did at his age. He was born in London. His first language is English. When he sings, ‘it’s coming home,’ I realise that for him, England is unquestionably his home. At 7, he hasn’t been asked where he is really from or been told to ‘go home’.
Home is meant to be a place of safety. Home is a meant to be a place of belonging.
The very same players who were celebrated for helping our team make history by reaching the Euro finals were subjected to vile racist abuse within moments of the game ending, reinforcing the ‘Good Immigrant’ narrative expanded on in Nikesh Shukla’s compilation of essays which explores “what it means to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you”. The treatment of our Black players highlights the fact that PoC are only valued for as long as they are of use. As soon as the penalties were over, my heart ached for not only Rashford, Saka and Sancho, but the entire Black and non-white community because I knew the vitriol that was coming.
Whilst the Prime Minister tweeted his condemnation of racist fans, Gary Neville drew attention to the hypocrisy of this on Sky News: "Gareth Southgate and the players a few weeks ago - about five days on the trot - told us that they were taking the knee to promote equality, and it was against racism. The Prime Minister said that it was okay for the population of this country to boo those players who were trying to promote equality, and defend against racism.” Boo them for silently kneeling on the grass for a few moments in a respectful and non-disruptive demonstration against the racism that they faced within minutes of the game ending. This final did more than expose the unbelievable levels of racism present within our society, it highlighted the conflict between wanting a team to succeed as a result of a diverse squad with the knowledge that had we won, the win would be hijacked by a government that helped fuel hatred and division.
Credit photo: Getty Images
Growing up on a council estate in the 90s, skin-heads wearing England shirts were the people we ran from, not stood with, yet for the first time, I felt an affinity with the players and our manager, and so proud of what they represent both on and off the pitch. Marcus Rashford, for example, campaigned for school meals to be made available to pupils in families who face financial hardship during lockdown. Speaking in a video hearing, Rashford stated to the Commons petitions committee that, “The main point is children and families … need assurances that when they fall, they are going to have someone to lean on, they’re going to be protected,” Despite receiving criticism that he should ‘stick to football’, Rashford continued to speak out against child food poverty.
Amidst racial abuse, Raheem Sterling wrote an emotive essay for The Players’ Tribune last week acknowledging the journey and sacrifices made to get to where he is, and in celebration of the nation he represents. He writes, “If you grew up the same way I grew up, don’t listen to what certain tabloids want to tell you. They just want to steal your joy. They just want to pull you down. I’m telling you right now … England is still a place where a naughty boy who comes from nothing can live his dream.” The decorum and integrity of the England players and staff demonstrates the positive impact that can come out of the beautiful game.
A common reaction to racist fans is “but they are not real fans” and a similar reaction when talking about how racist this nation is, “but they do not represent England”. Actually, we all represent England and those racists are still football fans. Distancing ourselves from those who perpetuate hatred won’t change anything because it isn’t until people can sit with the discomfort of acknowledging that this also is England that we will be able to make meaningful change.
The reaction to the finals has exposed the depth of contempt and hatred towards PoC, though this level of vile racism was entirely inevitability, and as Gary Neville says, “it is coming from the top”. The pressure that our non-white players face when they go out in front of an international audience knowing that their own countrymen will boo them for taking a knee against racism demonstrates a strength of character beyond comprehension. With the World Cup looming next year, I feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I want so badly for football to come home, I just hope that ‘home’ will be a place where all feel welcome.
Written by Yasmina Floyer