It was very, very quiet at the mosque for sunset prayers on Tuesday night – in fact I don’t think I saw any of our younger worshippers at all, and this wasn’t just the case at my mosque but across the country. Young Muslims were all glued to TV screens, behind the national team.
Some 23.6 million people tuned in to watch football coming home as England beat Colombia to progress to the World Cup quarter-finals – a victory made all the sweeter, if more nerve-jangling, because it came by a penalty shoot-out. Not exactly our speciality.
England manager Gareth Southgate has spoken of football’s capacity to bring people together and how this young team in particular – the most-diverse team ever to represent England at a World Cup – has a power to connect with people more broadly across England:
“We are a team that represents modern England. In England, we’ve spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is…Of course, first and foremost I will be judged on football results, but we have a chance to affect other things that are even bigger.”
This Saturday it won’t matter what colour your skin is, or which country your mum and dad came from. Come 3pm, all that will matter in households all over England is whether we can score more goals than Sweden.
The question of whether you could be black (or brown) and British was answered a long time ago. Englishness has often been seen as more difficult, partly because we seldom talk about what it means except, as now, during sports events. But while we have come a long way on attitudes to race, for Muslims these difficulties have been heightened since the hateful terrorist atrocities of 7/7 and more recently.
Fear and suspicion has led to less contact and understanding: some non-Muslims question whether Muslims want to integrate; some Muslims wonder how it will be received when they try. I wonder whether some of my congregation would think twice before flying the England flag, worried that someone may tell them they’re not entitled to. That seems a terrible shame.
Perhaps this shared experience of supporting our England team can, then, do something more than just offer us some brief moments of excitement and pride? Might someone at the school gate, who thought they had little in common with the Muslim mum or dad collecting their kids, ask if they watched the match? Or vice versa?
There’s no reason why not. There are so many things we share. That goes further than this football team, too – Englishness itself could be a “more in common” identity that unites us all in England. And if a tiny minority of racists want to say otherwise, they will find little support among the vast majority of people across the nation. There was once, believe it or not, a time when some England fans wouldn’t count goals that were scored by black players. How would that view have fared in homes and pubs across the nation when Marcus Rashford stepped up to take his penalty?
A Survation poll for British Future found that three quarters of the public, and of Muslims too, feel that our national team is a symbol of England that belongs to people of every race and ethnic background.
That’s a higher figure than for the St George’s flag ; though it’s worth noting that British Future also found only 11% of people feel that the flag is a “symbol of aggressive nationalism”. The majority of the public, of ethnic minorities and of Muslims too, all agree that it’s a symbol that belongs to us all. So let’s not get squeamish about showing support for our national team – we can all fly the flag this Saturday, from our homes and our cars, our shops and our cafes, across the nation.
Asian players have yet to break into English football at the elite level, of course – and that’s a real shame. It may just be a matter of time – Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Danny Baath, of mixed English and Punjabi heritage, did captain his side to promotion to the Premier League this season. And one can only imagine how powerful it would be to have a Muslim player of Mo Salah’s ability pulling on an England shirt, as Moeen Ali does for the English cricket team.
Their time will come – and would come sooner with greater efforts to get Asians into football. But this team that we have already looks a lot more like modern England than teams past – and it is one that we can all get behind. Everyone in England should be able to come together to celebrate our Englishness. No matter what our faith or ethnic background, we can all cheer the team this Saturday.
Football is coming home, and it is a home that we all share.