As England progressed to the final of the UEFA European Football Championship, it was impossible for anyone to avoid mention of ‘football’s coming home’. A line from the chorus of a 1996 pop song by comedians Baddiel and Skinner, it has been used by media and fans alike at every football tournament since then to assert the perceived supremacy of English football. Following defeat to Italy on penalties after a 1-1 draw, instead of ‘coming home’ football went to Rome. For England, the only thing that ‘came home’ was the racism and violence that has marred its team, fans and football for decades.
Prior to the final, alcohol and cocaine-fuelled England fans caused chaos in central London, throwing bottles of beer and flares, intimidating anyone and everyone around them. At the Wembley stadium where the game took place, hundreds who did not have tickets, stormed turnstiles, overwhelming security staff before fighting their way into seats. National pride soon turned into national shame.
To add to that indignity, the three players who missed their penalties - Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, each of whom black and British - became targets of racist abuse on social media. Overnight, a mural dedicated to Rashford near his home in Manchester was vandalised. Widely condemned, the mural has since been resurrected by local communities covering it with messages of solidarity: a powerful statement against racism.
Deeply divided and ever more polarised along racial, class and political lines the nation and society both provide a seedbed for hate and extremism to fester.
The topic of race was an undercurrent of England’s participation in the 2021 Euros. Days before the tournament, Gareth Southgate – the England manager - published a piece titled “Dear England” in the Players’ Tribune. Somewhat unprecedentedly, as well as setting out a progressive vision of an inclusive England, he stated both he and his players had a “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”.
In doing so, not only was Southgate acknowledging Rashford’s lobbying of government to end child food poverty but also the England team’s commitment to taking the knee before kick-off, a symbolic gesture of solidarity against racial and other forms of injustice. Fast forward to England’s first match and having booed the Croatian national anthem, a significant number of England fans booed England players taking the knee. Similar to those booing players taking the knee in domestic games prior to the tournament, booing England was justified by media pundits on the basis that Black Lives Matter was allegedly a Marxist organisation that goes against ‘our’ way of life: ‘our’ being subjectively and perniciously used to exclude people of colour from the British nation.
Exploiting its culture war against ’Woke’, Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel voiced support for the booing England fans; Patel describing the act of taking the knee as “gesture politics”. Another Conservative politician, Lee Anderson, announced he would boycott England matches and not watch them on television until taking the knee stopped.
Now, four weeks on, both Johnson and Patel have issued statements abuse. The response was unlikely to have been what they expected. In a tweet to Patel, Tyrone Mings – another black England player - said, “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens”.
Mings is, of course, on the right side of history here. Neither the violence nor racism occurred in a vacuum. While Patel might have ‘stoked the fire’ on this occasion, in the past decade or so, her government has overseen austerity measures that have increased poverty levels, vilified Muslims as ‘suspect communities’, dehumanised refugees and asylum seekers, normalised xenophobia through the lens of Brexit, deported some from the Windrush generation, disregarded rising tensions between loyalists and republicans in Northern Ireland, and weaponised the white working classes.
The result is a socio-political landscape that affords permission to hate: simultaneously legitimising hateful views while emboldening those willing to act upon them. Whether booing taking the knee or racially abusing black players, those doing so are a reflection of today’s England as much as they are today’s Britain, given the social, political and economic dominance England continues to assert over the other home nations. Deeply divided and ever more polarised along racial, class and political lines the nation and society both provide a seedbed for hate and extremism to fester.
For some fans and politicians alike, England is far removed from Southgate’s vision. Preferring to look backwards rather than forwards, the ‘glories’ of the past - of Empire, of two World Wars – are what made their country ‘great’. Whether in the culture war on ‘Woke’ or booing the taking of the knee, those doing so see themselves as defenders of England’s halcyon past. England fans continuing to sing “10 German Bombers” and “No Surrender to the IRA” at every England match has a logic to it: both songs providing reference points for their identity as also a bulwark against who and what England and the English are today. On the contrary, Southgate’s England is one where Rashford, Sancho and Saka can all belong.
While the levels of England fan violence and racism came as a surprise to some, in many ways it might have been expected. Irrespective of the diversity of players on the pitch, someone had to take the blame. Given the deeply embedded racism among some England fans, three black players failing to score their penalties afforded the haters an opportunity that was too good to miss. The failure of the England football team was not due to the faults of the white players and neither was the failure of England as a nation and society the fault of its white population. The problem was not with ‘us’ but with ‘them’.
Because of these recent events, racism and violence will continue to be associated with the England football team as much as it is the nation. The tension between what England is thought to be and how England is imagined as it was will continue to abate, past glories continuing to mask contemporary realities. Despite the England football team’s best efforts, things will not change without far-reaching social and political change. Given the lack of appetite for either, all that will be ‘coming home’ in the foreseeable future will be that which has always come home.