Arguments over England players ‘taking a knee’ before their Euro 2020 matches at Wembley have catapulted football, race and Englishness back into the headlines. This row should not overshadow just how much English football has contributed to the fight against racism and efforts to build a shared English identity in which we can all take pride.
There is a common sense consensus today that you do not have to be white to be English. Football did more to change minds on this question than any other sphere of our society. A pioneering generation of England players of the 1970s and 1980s – such as Viv Anderson, Cyrille Regis and John Barnes – had to face down the racists who insisted that black goals didn’t count. They won the argument decisively. There was little fanfare when we reached the landmark of 100 black English players – almost a third of new caps over the last four decades – in the run-up to this tournament.
In his pre-tournament letter to the fans, England manager Gareth Southgate recalled his first World Cup memory, from Spain 1982. It was the first World Cup that I can remember too. As I anxiously scoured Shoot! magazine for news of Kevin Keegan’s battle with injury, I was lucky that nobody ever told my eight-year old self that there was any question of whether I could be English.
Of course, by the time I was a teenager, I had found out that not everybody agreed. As a teenage Everton season-ticket holder in the 1980s, football introduced me to a scale of overt public racism that I doubt we will ever see again in our stadiums. Yet football introduced me to anti-racism too, some years before I knew anything else about politics or civic activism outside sport.
English football helped to rewrite our national story again in the 1990s. This was surprising, since the era of hooliganism had made football central to the problem of how national identity could take xenophobic and violent forms – and had led to English clubs being banned from European competition when Italia ’90 took place.
It was the magical summer of 1996 that made me much more confident about England. Fans of my generation remember the great sporting moments against Scotland, the Netherlands and Germany. What happened off the pitch felt just as important. As the St George’s flags flew around Wembley stadium, in Three Lions we found a new unofficial national anthem too. “It created a very unusual thing – a non-aggressive, non-triumphalist patriotism. It was a soft, sad type of pride being expressed, not a vanquishing, overcoming one,” its creator David Baddiel said recently, his wistful tone reflecting on how national identity seems more polarising now.
Yet, 25 years on, football still provides much the most confident expression of an inclusive English identity.
New research from British Future and the Centre for English Identity and Politics finds that an inclusive, civic idea of Englishness remains a work in progress – across both minority and majority groups. Confidence that English identity can belong to those of all ethnicities is shared by three-quarters of the white English, along with two-thirds of ethnic minority respondents. Almost a fifth of ethnic minorities in England do still feel that you have to be white to be considered truly English, while approximately one in ten white respondents prefer an ethnically exclusive idea of who can be English. Older Black and Asian respondents are more sceptical than young people, who are more likely to have been born in England.
The England football team commands most confidence as a symbol of English identity shared across ethnic groups. The research finds broader confidence in the England flag as a healthy sign of an inclusive patriotism when it flies during a tournament than the rest of the year around.
As for taking a knee, the Marcus Rashford generation feels there is more to do to tackle racism in sport and society, and this gesture is how they have chosen to show that.
Reasonable as well as unreasonable points can be found on both sides of these arguments. This gesture does split opinion more than other anti-racism messages. Attitudes to players taking a knee tend to correlate closely with opinions of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests themselves, which secured the broad support of two-thirds of ethnic minorities in Britain, and about half of the white population. Views differed notably by age, education and political views. The England squad has an average age of 25, so the players’ stance reflects the view of a broad majority of their generation, that ‘taking a knee’ is a simple and important anti-racist statement.
Some critics suggest a more unifying gesture should be chosen, as with the Premier League evolving from putting Black Lives Matter on shirts to a “no room for racism” slogan. Yet the players were hardly likely to want to retreat after the gesture was booed in the pre-tournament friendlies at Middlesbrough. Gareth Southgate and his players have explained what it does and does not mean to them.
Some voices in this debate show little interest in football. The actor and failed Mayoral candidate Laurence Fox has found a highly unpopular populism by affecting to support “Anybody but England”. I am not sure that Croatia or the Czech Republic will find him actually tuning in to cheer them on.
Among real fans, only a small minority of those sceptical of the gesture would boo their own players. After all, we embraced Southgate – rather than booing him – when he missed that decisive penalty against Germany in 1996. If I had a ticket for Wembley, I would join in the applause for the team, mainly to show that those who would go so far as to jeer their own players for taking this stand are a vocal minority too.
So the players’ choice may reinforce the sense among ethnic minorities that the Three Lions have stood up for an inclusive idea of English identity. Yet this controversy is likely to reinforce a sense of English identity today as contested and polarising. Football has played its part in forging a more inclusive Englishness – yet it too often finds itself top of this league by default. It is time for other national institutions to enter the field. Twenty-five years since Euro ’96, both the progress that we have made and the gaps that remain show why forging an inclusive Englishness cannot be something left to football alone.
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