Playing For England: Football and national identity

A recent masterpiece of visual satire by the brilliant Cold War Steve

Football tournaments make me feel anxious. As a brown child growing up in the UK, the sight of our national flags has always been frightening. For me, and so many people who grew up in my era, English flags signify the far right: the people screaming at us in the street to ‘Go Home’. And even as an adult living in the multi-cultural city of Brighton, whenever I see places with lots of prominent nationalistic flags I am still scared. It’s something I often have to explain to white friends when they insist we should go somewhere with lots of flags proudly displayed everywhere.

What we are seeing with the men’s England football team this summer is a reclaiming of English identity. It might sound fanciful that one team and a few weeks of football can do this, but they are showing us what we could be. How we can be brought back together with a national identity that is inclusive.

There are Punjabi football fans dancing in the streets of Wolverhampton. In Enoch Powell’s constituency. The very place where he made his ‘Rivers of blood’ speech. Gurinder Chadha has shared a bhangra version of Baddiel & Skinner’s ‘Three Lions’ hit. MP Zarah Sultana proudly shared a tweet showing her dancing at the England victory against Denmark.  It’s feels okay and safe to say we’re supporting this England team.

Deep woke

Spare a thought, then, for MP Lee Anderson, who is loudly refusing to watch the team play. Why? Because the team take the knee before each game to support anti-racism. And Home Secretary Priti Patel, who initially said people should boo when the team takes the knee as it’s ‘gesture politics’. Yet once the the team was winning their way to an historic final, she proudly gestured her support:

Even Boris Johnson has had a similar turnaround. He initially refused to condemn the fans booing the team for taking the knee. Since then, he has shared photos of himself in an England shirt (albeit hastily pulled over his work suit) and standing on a giant England flag in Downing Street.

It hasn’t been a complete turnaround in support, though. The young England team has recently been branded as ‘Deep Woke’ by the vocal anti-anti-racists, who evidently fear and loathe the values and causes the team supports, such as standing up for oppressed minorities and feeding underprivileged children. But this phrase is not the insult they intend it to be. Woke means “alert to injustice”. Gareth Southgate – from Crawley for Sussex fans! – leads a team that proudly supports anti-racism. They respectfully take the knee before each match. They wear rainbow armbands to show their support for LGBTQ+ rights. This is what their critics mean by ‘Deep Woke’. So it’s hardly a pejorative?

Cold War Steve image showing the PM with pants on fire while England squad kneel at flag festooned 10 Downing Street
Perfect satirical image by Cold War Steve showing 10 Downing Street festooned with flags and the England squad kneeling while the PM’s pants catch fire

Southgate talks about the divisions in our society. About the racial undertones of Brexit which made him feel uncomfortable. Before the tournament, he published a rousing article ‘Dear England’. He talked about never believing football players should just stick to football.

“It’s their 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”

– England manager Gareth Southgate

Englishness and belonging

Star players like Raheem Sterling have encountered horrific racism. A qualifying match in Bulgaria in 2019 had to be stopped. Sterling and team-mate Marcus Rashford have often been booed during matches. And both have been vocal about social media abuse and unfair treatment by the media. Raheem Sterling has bravely spoken out about some of the unfair treatment:

The wonderful fact is that this team really does represent what it is to be English today. They represent Englishness and belonging. The charity International Rescue Committee shared an image about the team showing that 8 out the 11 players have at least one parent or grandparent born overseas.

They inspire those of us from immigrant backgrounds to embrace being English and to be proud to support the team. Sport does have a way of doing that. And it is especially needed for a country that has been so divided in recent years.

In many ways, it feels like a lifetime ago that we proudly celebrated ‘Super Saturday’ in the 2012 Olympics and cheered Mo Farah with his flag draped around his shoulders. Yet Summer 2021 marks a time where we can feel this pride again through this inspirational team.

Photo of England national football manager Gareth Southgate watching a 2018 World Cup match between Croatia and England
England national football team manager Gareth Southgate at “Luzhniki” stadium, Moscow, watching England play Croatia in 2018. Photo by Vlad Dokshin

Voice and impact

These football players do so much more than play the game well. Many of them come from really tough beginnings, and they use their voices to make a real difference. Raheem Sterling’s It Was All A Dream piece about his childhood shows how tough life was for him. He has used his wealth to set up a foundation to help disadvantaged children.

Marcus Rashford also had a tough start to life, relying on free school meals. He used his impact and influence to push Boris Johnson and the government to provide food to children during the pandemic. He urged the government to put politics aside and do the right thing because “these children are the future of our country”.

Many in this team campaign for charities and for issues they believe in. Three young players have already earned MBEs for their incredible philanthropic efforts. The entire team has pledged to donate a chunk of their prize money from the Euro 2020 tournament to NHS charities. They motivate us in so many ways and show us a society of inclusion.

Gary Neville drew both admiration and criticism for his comment after England won the semi-final match against Denmark.

The standard of leadership in this country the last couple of years has been terrible, but Gareth Southgate has shown the nation how to do it, with honesty and decency”

– England football coach and TV commentator Gary Neville
Satirical image showing naked MPs running from 10 Downing Street which is covered in flags, watched by their wives and mistresses
Another powerful image by Cold War Steve highlighting the hypocrisy and sleaze at 10 Downing Street

And before today’s Euro 2020 final against Italy, Gareth Southgate has spoken movingly about what this admirable team means to him. He wants them to do positive things to help change and influence society. He sees them as a team of young men who show what inclusion is. What modern England is. And how we can be a nation that embraces difference, inclusion and tolerance. This is the English identity we can all get behind as we cheer on our fantastic football team tonight.

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