From Marcus Rashford campaigning for free school meals to Lewis Hamilton talking about his radical awakening, we are witnessing a moment in which sports stars are being proudly political. Most recently, the England football team have ‘taken the knee’ before matches at the Euros 2020 in response to the horrendous racist abuse Black players receive – an act that has incited condemnation and admiration from different quarters.
The English left has always had a conflicted relationship with football, however – and particularly with the national team. Some see any support of the team as a validation of a nation state, whereas others believe supporting the team is a form of ‘progressive patriotism’. As such, every time the country plays at an international level, there is a lot of navel-gazing about the political merits of supporting or not supporting ‘England’.
The England men’s team have made this question immediate and pressing, and the left seems to lack clarity on how to show solidarity with the team without crossing the line into rabid nationalism. This begs the question: is it possible for the left to provide a socialist alternative to usual rightwing framings of support for ‘England’ which currently defines the cultural and political tensions surrounding ‘the beautiful game’?
On the morning of the Euro 2020 final, I watched a YouTube video of Elaine Brown, the first woman leader of the Black Panther Party, giving an opening speech at the launch of fashion label Pyer Moss’ 21/22 Haute Couture collection. Initially surprised by this, my first thoughts were that it was a contradiction for Brown to be giving a speech that preached the politics of collectivism and anti-capitalism at an event within an industry that is extremely individualistic and exploitative.
On reflection, however, I realised that the Black Panthers always used such tactics to reach the masses. The Panthers had a clear purpose, discipline, and a strategy that enabled them to recognise and use political opportunities as they arose. They purposefully brought radical and revolutionary politics into the most unlikely of spaces, and this is how they were able to build the movement to the scale that it became. By engaging with popular culture, whether it was music, art or sport, the Panthers’ message eventually reached the global stage when African-American Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos defiantly raised their fists in a show of Black Power at the 1968 Olympics. This act of protest is now commonly referred to as a critical moment in the history of anti-racist movements in the twentieth century.
There are clear parallels between the England team taking the knee and the raising of fists in 1968. However, the left’s inability to take advantage of the opportunity the current moment presents has resulted in the kind of unproductive discourse that epitomises its general confusion, disorganisation and lack of common purpose. What’s more, while the left is bickering, the right is able to frame and dictate the conversation.
To use a football analogy, the left never manages to dominate the game. Instead, it can only hope the right loses possession of the ball. Even if the left wins the ball, it remains lost in a battle with its own contradictions, and spends the rest of the match passing it around its own half of the pitch.
Some of the positions taken by parts of the left regarding the Euros reached the realms of absurdity and political incoherence. Let’s be clear: the heart of white supremacy still beats with pride right across Europe. In a tournament where the majority of participating teams are from European countries with colonial histories (France, Belgium, Portugal, Germany, England, Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, and yes, Italy), or from countries currently oppressing the rights of minorities, choosing to support England’s opponents as a form of protest against colonialism or nationalism (or simply to be contrarian) is a pointless endeavour. It demonstrates an engagement with anti-colonial politics that appears to be more about baiting fellow comrades on social media than prompting serious conversations about colonial legacies or reparations.
In short, undermining millions of people’s enjoyment of sport only makes leftists seem like killjoys. No one wants to join a movement that comes across as negative and, frankly, petty. With the supportive responses we’ve seen from the public towards the three Black players who missed penalties in the Euro 2020 final, the left should be taking lessons from the Black Panthers and seizing the opportunity presented by a growing understanding of racism in Britain and recognition of the need for collective action to solve it.
What the left needs to do now is to highlight how the right has encouraged and enabled the racism that Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho are now facing. We need to support players such as Tyrone Mings for having the courage to speak out against Tory hypocrisy. We need to find ways to engage with people who are not yet politically where we want them to be. Some have already begun this work in south Manchester where the community came together organically after a mural of Rashford was vandalised.
Beyond the stereotypes of sunburnt racist white men with beer bellies and questionable tattoos, football’s actual fanbase is a reflection of wider society. It includes people across race, class and gender divides. It includes fans who organise together in their local communities to set up mutual aid groups and food banks. It includes those who have formed Saturday football clubs for anarchists and leftwingers, and for queer women who just want to have a kickabout. In the face of violent racism, we must nurture an alternative culture around football that is not based on male violence, racism and xenophobia.
If you scratch below the surface, there’s a real demand for this. The Premier League will be starting soon, and after recent protests against the formation of a so-called ‘Super League’, fans are frustrated at their clubs being treated like toys by billionaire oligarchs. The left and leftwing football fans are well placed to help support the fight for fans having at least a 50% share in their clubs, similar to the German model.
The fight for change has always been on multiple fronts – and sometimes the spark that inspires a mass movement can come from the most unlikely of places. Football in and of itself isn’t the problem, and whether you love it or loathe it, it isn’t going anywhere anytime soon – and neither is the England national team. Rather than being in denial about this fact, the left must ensure it has a say in how the events of Euro 2020 continue to play out. This will require a bit more radical imagination, and a little less performative cynicism.
Chardine Taylor-Stone is a Black feminist, trade unionist and socialist. Her book on the neoliberalisation of Black feminism – Sold Out: How Black Feminism Lost Its Soul – will be published in 2022 by Cassava Republic.