Before I get started this week I want to state that I am as deliriously excited as other England fans. My first memory of a major tournament was Mexico 86 – Gary Lineker scoring that hat trick against Poland with his bandaged hand and Diego Maradona dumping us out of the World Cup with his ‘hand of god’. Since then I’ve had the pain of Italia 90, heartache of Euro 96 and the despair of penalty shootouts (especially ’98 and ’04), Ronaldinho from the half way line and that Lampard ‘ghost goal’ in 2010. I am ecstactic the team have surpassed my wildest dreams and even if we don’t get over the line on Sunday I am grateful to them for making the ride go right the way to the end of the line. But what I value most about this team is their united stance against discrimination from taking the knee before matches to wearing a rainbow armband or laces during them.
However, before a ball was kicked in anger at this tournament, there was anger, a lot of it and it was all aimed at our England team for their stance on racism. Our own supporters, many of whom I guess were probably bellowing out Three Lions on Wednesday night, were booing our team for their stance (see a mind boggling conversation with James O’Brien below). There was criticism from MPs with Tory Lee Anderson going as far as saying he would boycott the matches because players were taking the knee, he must be regretting that statement now. As the tournament has progressed some England fans have continued to boo the knee as well as the opposition’s national anthem. But all of this against an increasingly euphoric backdrop of fever pitch excitement, celebration and choruses of ‘it’s coming home’.
Which leads me to my question. What is coming home? Is it a trophy or could it be much more than that? Football is also known as the beautiful game and one of the most precious things about it is that it is a universal language that succeeded where esperanto failed. Sir Mo Farah recalls a story about when he came to Britain at the age of 8 (for the record he did not need to claim asylum as his father was a UK born citizen) that he could not speak much English but he integrated into primary school and made friends through playing football. In contrast, there are quite significant pockets of our nation that have criticised the national team for their anti-racism stance. Our supporters have consistently booed other national anthems and there is yet another fine on its way to the FA for the fans boorish efforts in the Danish match (which also included focussing a laser on Kasper Schmeichel’s face before Harry Kane’s penalty). Our newspapers have harangued our Black footballers, especially Raheem Sterling, who is often the focus of their ire (and ironically the best England player in this tournament), and this discriminatory practice emboldens racists and fuels social media harassment of players.
On the eve of the Euros, manager Gareth Southgate wrote an eloquent letter to out nation and I wonder when the competition is over whether this team can continue and amplify the conversation about inclusion that they have started? In his letter, Southgate writes
“Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people. I have never believed that we should just stick to football.“
This role modelling extends beyond matters of racism. In addition to taking the knee, we saw Harry Kane don a rainbow captain’s armband in the match against Germany in recognition of Pride month and Jordan Henderson score his first England goal in the quarter final against Ukraine whilst wearing rainbow laces. This is not just a football story but one about inclusion, solidarity and allyship. It disturbs me to read articles criticising the brave and positive steps taken by this team and their exemplary manager. The claim by Financial Times, commentator Gideon Rachman that the letter was ‘suspiciously well written’ smacks of an elitist view that being a successful footballer and being able to string together a coherent piece of prose are incompatible skill sets. The team has not been hijacked, they are a group of young men who believe as a nation we can be better, as a society we can be more inclusive and that treating people with fairness, decency and respect should be fundamental pillars of our culture.
As a fan I will be willing them on with every fibre of my being, but in my eyes they are already winners. I hope their true victory lies in helping us to heal as a nation and encouraging more people to think, act and behave differently. The Italian national anthem is an absolute belter, in my mind probably the best of all anthems. Here’s hoping it is fully respected by those fans lucky enough to be in the stadium and that come the weekend we will all witness a new bit of football history and the start of a new social era. #ImNotTired