I really wanted to write something about the recurring issue of British racism and English football while following this year’s Euros championship. However, I decided to stay away from the keyboard and focus on the positive instead. After all, having already witnessed England’s semi miraculous World Cup 2018 campaign, we were again watching a national team that was playing well enough to provide a reason to dare to dream. Positive enough I’d say.
We could feel legitimate pride in an England team full of players whose energy, persistence and skillsmanship was genuinely deserving of a place in the Final. From my personal point of view too, I was elated to discover that Raheem Sterling grew up 15 minutes from where I did, on a street I’ve known since childhood. He and Bukayo Saka also attended the same schools as some of my relatives and my own husband. Had England won, my family and I would have felt football literally had come home!
And for the saddest of reasons… A torrent of thoughts flooded my brain after the heartache of seeing those three amazing players miss their penalties. There was so much to process about the awful aftermath: from the depressing predictability of the abuse…to the weight of expectation on young shoulders…to the tormenting of players for no other sin than their ‘wrong’ colour…to the psyche of racist fans…to the fallout from Tyrone Mings’ blasting of Priti Patel…to BoJo’s hypocritical refusal to condemn racially-motivated booing of the knee whilst simultaneously ‘praising’ England players. As a writer and British Asian with a lived experience of racism (does that even need stating anymore!), I have so much to say about British racism. But where does one even start?
1 It’s not ‘just’ racism in football, it’s the wider problem of ‘everyday’ racism in Britain.
The disease of British racism is NOT just confined to the mortifying memory of 1980s football stands… Ask any non-white British citizen if they have experienced some form of racially-motivated mistreatment – totally unconnected to football – at some point in their lives and almost everyone can confirm they have.
It’s the pernicious ‘garden variety’ racism that goes unreported. It’s the muttered slur about smelling funny while you queue for a drink at the pub. Hostile looks while visiting a public bathroom. A passenger changing seats on public transport if you sit beside them. Losing out on a promotion at work (or not even getting the interview). The clear shift in demeanour when that person you spoke to on the phone meets you in face to face…and the consequent closing of an invisible door between you. It’sthe 50 shades of bullying at school, some of it obvious, most of it cleverly hidden in front of teachers; there again, teachers themselves…
There’s the reality of what first and second generation immigrants went through just trying to build a life, get work, run businesses and raise a family in the UK. There’s the rise in violence towards Asians following the 9/11 attacks as mentioned in my Manchester article; We have a UK police force with its own George Floyd skeletons (many of which don’t make the headlines). Remember Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the exposure of institutional racism? And can we ever forget a little thing called Brexit, the 21st century referendum supposedly about liberation from European shackles but actually a barometer of nationalist sentiment that blew the lid open on British xenophobia?
2) The different treatment of black and white players is…exactly that…black and white.
How often is a white footballer’s skin colour an issue? Numerous white football players, including of course England’s own manager, have been involved in infamous incidents of missed goals in major tournaments. But even though Gareth Southgate was mercilessly hounded for blowing his Euros 96 penalty and the demigod David Beckham was vilified after his petulent kick that ended England’s World Cup 98 campaign (to name just two), not once was their skin colour a factor for England’s football fans.
Evidently footballing sins are more easily forgiven when you’re not black. And let’s note the significantly different treatment of black and white footballers in the trainee academies, clubs and management which merits an entire article of its own.
3) For many indigenous white Britons, you can’t support the England football team if you aren’t white.
The day before the England Italy final, my sister shared a beautiful photo of our parents beaming with delight in their #itscominghome t-shirts in support of the England football team. Like millions of Asians, West Indians, Africans, Chinese and people of countless different ethnicities who moved to the UK and acquired British citizenship or were born and raised in the UK, my parents have held onto their cultural heritage whilst also embracing numerous aspects of British culture.
Having lived in the UK for over 55 years, building and running a business, then working in different jobs (and raising four educated children by the way), they are not just proud Punjabis. They are also proud Brits.
Yet do you how I felt as I looked at this photo? I felt my heart sink, knowing that there are countless Britons who would not be moved by such a fine example of multicultural Britain; who instead feel anger that Asians, West Indians, Africans etc ‘dare’ to support England.
4) An alarming number of white England supporters believe you cannot play for England’s national team if you are black.
The awful abuse suffered by the three unfortunate players who missed those penalties in the Euros Final – and the experiences of many black players before them like John Barnes, Ian Wright, Emile Heskey and countless others – is just one clear indicator of the deep-seated hostility that has always existed towards non-white players.
5) Downplaying racism as the behaviour of a minority is a tedious, lazy and pathetic excuse when the minority is this big.
The stain of racism in British society is getting larger, more engrained and difficult to remove. When the Director of MI5 warns that neo-naziism and right wing extremism has risen to such a level that it is now a significant threat to national security, you know the minority is frighteningly large.
6) Ironically, it is both a sign of society’s progress and a sad indictment on where we are at, that it wasn’t just black people who predicted the barrage of racist abuse in store for those three players.
Maybe because racism has always been swept under the carpet or made light of by denialists, many indigenous Britons are often simply oblivious to the abuse and intolerance that black people suffer in general, let alone the plight of many black footballers. Yes in 2021, the denialism is still shockingly rife (even with all the awareness about white privilege, Black Lives Matter and institutional racism).
Nevertheless, it is a reassuring sign of progress that much of the footballing establishment publicly acknowledged that they could literally predict the treatment those black players would be subjected to. And not just the footballing establishment.
7) Apparently, you can expect black players to push the limits of their endurance to bring football home to England…but deny black players the right to view England as their home.
How can a section of England fans genuinely believe it’s acceptable to boo an act of solidarity that symbolises the fight against racism. And then expect the team they’re booing to go out and score goals for them?!
The contradictory double standard would be comical if wasn’t so utterly depressing and inhumane.
How can a Prime Minister refuse to condemn the Neanderthal booing of footballers who represent the very country he governs? Honestly, how does a head of government wish his national team good luck in bringing football home while refusing to defend it in the face of such hostility?!
8) The worst element of English football fans will unleash their venom whether England wins or loses.
Throughout the Euros tournament, England players gave us a reason to feel proud: of how they played, how they conducted themselves with dignity and how they kept their composure under a level of pressure most of us couldn’t imagine.
At the other end of the spectrum, England supporters attacked the opposing team’s fans and anyone unlucky enough to be nearby.
A nation collectively shakes its head (well not the racists and denialists!) and moves on. But the issue of British racism is never-ending and it doesn’t stop with a single tournament.
Unless, security is ramped up to the correct level, this may not be the last time thugs storm a stadium, terrorising ticket-holders inside. Unless there is real enforced action by clubs and on-the-day ground officials, this won’t be the last time certain white supporters boo the opposing team’s national anthem or attack its supporters. Unless there is a massive educational and societal shift, child bullies like these ones will grow up to become the kind of people who send racially-abusive messages to the Sanchos, Rashfords and Sakas of this world.
The behaviour of racists, British or not, is incomprehensible. It’s harrowing. It’s barbaric.
And it goes way beyond a 48-hour news cycle.