2 June 2023

What football’s tribes can tell us about an inclusive nation


It will be Manchester’s day at Wembley on Saturday. City and United, the two biggest footballing tribes in the city, are no strangers to cup finals, but their 140-year rivalry has never seen them meet in a cup final before.

It will be another occasion that again demonstrates the incredible, sustained depth of footballing identity across England. Last weekend almost 75,000 fans watched Sheffield Wednesday and Barnsley compete in the third tier play-off – a level of interest unprecedented anywhere else in Europe. The extraordinary roller-coaster journey of Luton Town, from the top division to non-league football and now back again, is one of many examples of how fans have been rewarded by incredibly resilient responses to adversity.

I am an Evertonian. As I was a couple of hundred miles from Goodison Park for their crucial match last Sunday, I draped an “Everton are Magic” scarf over the in-laws’ television set to spiritually claim that small corner of Essex for the blues’ L4 postcode. The scorelines were ominous at half-time, as I inflicted the emotional roller-coaster of a relegation battle on my daughters, yet we were able to celebrate as this grand old team just about kept intact its unbroken seven-decade spell in the top flight of English football. Evertonian relief at the final whistle brought an equal and opposite misery to the fans of Leicester City and Leeds United.

Mine is a lifelong allegiance acquired by chance. I did not inherit any footballing loyalties from my cricket-mad Indian Dad. Living on the Wirral, my Mum realised that a short, mixed race kid growing up with a Scouse accent might want to know a little bit about football. When I was five, she brought two football mugs with the Everton and Liverpool club badges on them. I chose the Everton one and my younger brother got the red one. I was so excited to get the full kit, shirt, shorts and socks, when I was six, for Christmas.

Fans in that era celebrated Merseyside’s pride in a friendly rivalry. Ours was one of many cars to travel down to Wembley with one blue and one red scarf hanging out of each window on the motorway. Yet I was tribal enough to refuse to ever wear any red item of clothing – until the Hillsborough tragedy changed how I thought about our footballing tribes.

I had been back on a football terrace the next Saturday as Everton visited Tottenham. It seemed a numb, collective act of bearing witness. Liverpool, with dozens of supporters’ funerals to attend, took three weeks off.

As I tuned into the BBC to watch the replayed semi-final that had been abandoned at Hillsborough, I found that I wanted Liverpool to win a football match for the first time in my life, so they could meet Everton in the cup final. Most Evertonians were proud of how we mourned alongside our local rivals. Because this fierce rivalry was central to who we were, that made their grief our grief too. I understood better what we shared with the neighbouring tribe. I no longer tried to remain cold to You’ll Never Walk Alone, though I still support Liverpool’s opponents almost every weekend.

I reflect in my new book How to be a patriot on how much sport has taught me about identity. ‘The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people. The individual, even one who only cheers, becomes a symbol of his nation himself,’ wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm. This can apply to local as well as national identities.

Newly industrialised cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield produced great football clubs, in an era of great population movements into urban areas, because incomers were looking for something to belong to. Our changing society today has not lost that need for shared identities, experiences and rituals.

Anthropologists could doubtless point out that fans of Sheffield United or Wednesday, Manchester United or City, Everton or Liverpool are indulging in what Freud called ‘the narcissism of minor differences’. Yet the real reason that each of our footballing tribes feels exceptionalist from the inside is because these are communities of both faith and fate. The shared experience of a goal, each result, and every season forms one more dot in a wider narrative of belonging, identity and memory that can compellingly connect our past, our present and our hopes for the future.

It is remarkable how strong these identities remain in a sport and a society that has been transformed in many ways.

I regret the stratification at the very top of the professional game, so that realising the long-held dreams of Manchester City or Newcastle United fans depends on Saudi or Emirati cash. But I have seen much change for the better in our fan cultures too. Football showed me how we can practically shift ideas about who is included, or excluded, when we talk about what it means to be a red or a blue, or indeed English or British.

Attending this year’s women’s FA Cup final at Wembley – as part of a record breaking-crowd with my ten-year-old daughter – it was moving to see new fan cultures being forged in the embrace of this occasion by so many fans of primary and secondary school age, too young to know how novel this level of excitement around women’s football is.

Football has taught me that we need not dissolve nor dilute our identity tribes to make them more inclusive. At their best, our footballing tribes exemplify the confidence that comes from having an identity secure enough to believe in its power to attract allegiance – and to invite incomers to share the anxiety, the agony and occasionally the sheer joy of being part of the club.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future and author of 'How to be a patriot'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.