England’s Football Team is Changing Because England is Changing

It isn’t just on the pitch that the squad are making moves.

by David Wearing

8 July 2021

Sven Simon/Reuters Connect

Something is changing around the England football team. On the pitch, an ability to control possession, to manage games, to perform under pressure – all of this is new. But there’s something else as well, something more profound. The fandom around the England team is changing – slowly, painfully, but tangibly – from a hostile environment for those of us whose faces didn’t previously fit, to something kinder, more inclusive and more welcoming.

Take one small but emblematic example. After England defeated Germany in the second round of the current European Championships, England fan Joe White tweeted: “Today was my first game at Wembley in full makeup and overtly queer (as opposed to just camp). Absolutely no issues from fans and some lovely chats. Despite being absolutely petrified pre-game, really proud of our fans”. This tweet was then quote-tweeted by senior England player Jordan Henderson, who wrote: “Hi Joe. Great to hear you enjoyed the game as you should. No one should be afraid to go and support their club or country because football is for everyone no matter what.”

Anyone who knows English football culture will understand the significance of a moment like this. When I was first attending football matches in the 1980s, someone like Joe arriving at the ground would have left the match not with a positive feeling but in an ambulance. For Joe to be able to bring their authentic self to an England match, let alone have their presence positively embraced and celebrated by an England player, would have been unthinkable until very recently. But something is changing.

The England team has been booed by a section of its own fans and lambasted by several Conservative politicians for taking a knee before each game in a show of anti-racist solidarity. Shaista Aziz writes of how the team’s refusal to back down in the face of this intimidation has created a space for her and her friends – hijab-wearing Muslim women – to share in the enjoyment of England’s run in the tournament. She is clear that the threat to people like her of verbal and physical abuse from England fans has not gone away. But she is also clear that something is changing, thanks in part to the leadership of the players and management.

It must be nice to never have to think about these questions. To take for granted that you belong within the England fandom if you want to be part of it. If you’re a straight white man, you have always been able to do exactly that. But for the rest of us – that is, for most English people – there has always been one form of exclusion or another to contend with, and some degree of ambiguity around our connection with the team. This is not a position that we chose or wanted. It is one that was imposed on us.

Despite growing up in a highly racist part of the country, and being told many times by many people that I and my family should ‘go back where you came from’, I supported England through World Cups and European Championships until the age of 14, when something finally snapped. When England faced Cameroon in the quarter-finals of the 1990 World Cup, the racist ‘jokes’ about the Cameroonian team among my cohort at school were so gross and so incessant that by the time the match started, I was desperate for England to lose (which they nearly did). I didn’t support England, or even watch much football, for several years after that. 

There are various ways in which this sort of thing gets explained away: as ‘banter’, as ignorance. But my school was a grammar school in the Kent suburbs, claiming to offer the best education available in the state system. And these same, supposedly highly educated boys voted the fascist British National Party into a comfortable second place behind the Conservatives in the school’s mock election two years later. This is but one example of the real societal problem: a highly toxic and deeply internalised sense of national identity that had long been operating at every level of the national culture.

Edward Said taught us that an identity needs an ‘Other’ to define itself against; that jingoism comes together with racism and xenophobia as a package deal. Modern English nationalism developed through centuries of colonialism, during which the ‘Others’ fell into two categories: England’s European rivals for global power, and those peoples of colour who were cast as inferior, and thus ripe for conquest, exploitation and enslavement. The way the English football fandom has related to its international opponents has traditionally been a straightforward reflection of this. Either jealous resentment, or sneering contempt.

Identities are not fixed or predetermined. They are made and they can be remade. When the England team came under fire for taking the knee this summer, one might have expected the standard corporate mentality to kick in, and for some diplomatic fudge to be found. In the event though, they fought back. The team’s manager, Gareth Southgate, penned an open letter in which he told those who had racially abused his players: “I have some bad news. You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that”. The England team was defining a new identity for itself, and within its ‘Other’ could be found a not-insignificant portion of its own fanbase.

Southgate clearly understands the socio-political context in which all this is playing out. He writes: “The awareness around inequality and the discussions on race have gone to a different level in the last 12 months alone […] I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”

“Introspection” is the key word here. For a new collective sense of self to emerge, we need to be clear-eyed and honest about what and who stands in its way. What Southgate advocates, behind ostensibly emollient language, is something quite challenging: for the country to create a new collective sense of itself by first taking a long, hard and honest look in the mirror. Like reaching the final of a major international tournament, this may be challenging, but it is achievable.

More to the point, it is already happening. The culture of English football is changing because the country is changing. Or rather, it is being changed. Women’s football is more respected, and women pundits and co-commentators appear regularly on the Euro2020 TV coverage, because of the cumulative effect of decades of grassroots feminist struggle in wider society. The England players and management, and a growing portion of their fans, are displaying a softer, kinder form of masculinity than their predecessors, again, because such values have been fought for over a long period of time, and society is changing as a result.

And the England team are defiantly anti-racist because their generation are increasingly and actively anti-racist. Because slowly, step-by-step, the anti-racist struggle is being won from the bottom up, and the establishment’s ‘war on woke’ (a war on minorities too cowardly to speak its name) is being lost.

These developments should encourage anyone who seeks any form of social justice, including on the economic front. Because – as I have previously argued – what is too often dismissed as a distracting ‘culture war’ is really a battle over the terms of social solidarity. It is a war to define who gets to be part of the collective ‘we’. There are many different struggles to expand that collective in a variety of ways. All of them are connected to and dependent upon each other.

David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.

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