Sunday, 8 July 2018

The England football team has won hearts and minds. Can its fans do the same?

In 2012 the London Olympics united Britain in a unique moment of sports glory and showmanship. It was hailed at the time a watershed moment. Four years later, 52% of Britons voted to leave the European Union. Whilst the two events might not be related prima facie, there is, however, an element to take into account when drawing a line from Super Saturday to Brexit. Namely, multiculturalism - and its many benefits - was nothing but a mirage, an idea, that made us feel good about ourselves.

At the moment of writing England has not won the World Cup. They've yet to play Croatia and should they prevail, Gareth Southgate's team will face either France or Belgium in the final next Sunday, 15th July. However, a mainly young English team has captivated hearts and souls. Can England fans do the same?

I watched the England vs Sweden match in a bar in trendy Shoreditch, east London. The sort of establishment where a bit of nosh and a few drinks can set you back a few quid and make a big hole in your pocket, one that will last until payday. The atmosphere was friendly, the fans convivial. As the second goal went in, a couple standing behind me, hugged me. The security guard joined us, too. Yes, it was that kind of game. After the ref blew his whistle to signal England's victory, punters kept walking up to me and shouting (merrily) in my face: It's coming home! I smiled and repeated the (by now well-rehearsed) lines to them. For the first time in more than thirty years I, too, am getting behind the England team.

You see, I have always supported Brazil and Argentina. Let's skip this bit, though. Well, for the moment.

Why now? What is different about this England team? First of all, they have belief in themselves, an attribute that has often gone AWOL in previous squads. Secondly, Gareth Southgate is the dream manager every player would like to have. Supportive, driven and meticulous, he is all about football. No secret-lover distractions (Sven, I'm looking at you), or controversial comments on disabled people (please, don't hide, Glen). Also, the waistcoat helps. Thirdly, it is the team's ethnic make-up. 11 players out of 23 come from black or mixed-race backgrounds. This means that the young black kid from Tottenham or Brixton, can see themselves in Sterling or Alli (who scored the second goal against the Swedes). Speaking before the game, Southgate said: "We are a team that represents modern England and in England we've spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is... Of course, first and foremost I will be judged on football results. But we have a chance to affect other things that are even bigger." It is this attitude that has the likes of me, black, foreign and a non-native speaker, looking forward to celebrating England's World Cup success next Sunday.

And yet...

Ugly scenes unfolded in London last night. A group of fans invaded an IKEA shop and wreaked havoc inside. As I cycled away from east London yesterday, crowds of people blocked Shoreditch High Street and Bethnal Green Road chanting (you guessed it) It's coming home! I was left wondering whether they meant the trophy or the hooliganism from 70s and 80s British football. I felt exposed and vulnerable. A black guy on a bicycle at six o' clock in the evening. Why? I didn't feel the same way on Friday when I went to the same bar to see Brazil vs Belgium (I said, let's skip that bit, didn't I?). The few Belgians in the crowd came out after the game to enjoy the sort of sticky, summery night London has been treating us to for the last couple of weeks. To my left there was a group of Brazilians. They, too, joined the conversation. We spoke mostly in English, but there was also a bit of Portuguese and French. Above all, there was human, that language that unites us all, regardless where come from.

Do England fans speak human? Can they get behind their team and at the same time banish all that built-in aggression and reputation that has followed them for so long (not all fans, by the way. The majority are law-abiding and well-behaved)? Before the World Cup, all the talk was about the Russian supporters and the awful scenes of the Euros two years ago. Yet, word has it that the Russians have been better hosts than many had assumed them to be. Look at how gracious they were in defeat to Croatia last night.

Football is political. Anyone who tells you otherwise is living in la-la land. Maradona's hand of God was a riposte to Britain's invasion of the Falkland Islands. Every time France plays a former colony, the latter's players give just a tiny bit more and if they win, the celebrations are out of this world. There's nothing like putting one over a former master. Were England to beat Croatia and Belgium win over France, next Sunday will see a clash between Brexit-bound England vs often-labelled bureaucratic Brussels. Who said irony was dead?

Seen in this light, those England fans who set out to destroy and cause chaos, represent everything that many - born here or not - fear: a feeling of superiority. Should Gareth Southgate's team lift the trophy seven days from now, I will be one of those punching the air and shouting: It's coming home! But, please, don't call it a watershed moment. After all, in less than a year, we will be exiting the European Union.



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