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.



  1. I really don't know what to say. I had never thought of any sport being political until I read this post. And yes, I can see it. But still don't support sport. I do (wholeheartedly) support inclusion, and inclusive attitudes. Consider me wandering off thinking hard. Which is never a bad thing. Thank you.

  2. Hi ACIL - as always spot on with your post ... why on earth some people feel they need to wreck a successful store ... regardless of the owners - particularly as England had beaten Sweden. This week will be interesting regarding politeness ... but if only we could all be human - thoughtful, kind and caring to others - enough from me - cheers Hilary

  3. Even at this distance there is widespread support for England. It is shame to hear about the bad behaviour, especially after a victory. I love the idea of the final being between England and Belgium.

  4. It is such a shame that people atr no longer taught good sportsmanship. Winning feels good but you don't make the opponent feel bad. And if you did your best but lose you can take pride that it was a good effort. Destroying things is not appropriate in either case.

  5. Keep going England, we love you. I shout and cheer in the safety of my own home... loudly. I don't go out any more and sometimes I am glad about that. Even in my quiet area there are stabbings and murders which makes me feel sad that I have lived long enough to witness it all. Perhaps the threat of another world war would cure current attitudes.

  6. Oh yes, sport is political (cricket in India springs to mind). I’m not a football fan, but the unlikeliness of this has drawn me in.

    But I can’t help wondering if our shambolic government is hoping we’ll win in the hope that general euphoria will mask their incompetence.

  7. Sports, like the internet, brings out the worst in some people, especially the usually young and rowdy minority.

    Having said that, I have a vague recollection of hearing at least some of England's last world cup win on the radio.

  8. Unfortunately, "politics" enters into many areas of life. *sigh*

    I've never been much of a sports fan and when it comes to college football (American football), I sometimes cringe at the money involved (being one who prefers academics to athletics). That said, I'll sometimes watch major sporting events, often pulling for the underdog.

  9. Yes, it is political. It's also corrupt and there is the big white elephant of doping.

    Fans (hooligans) can be another matter nasty aspect. The Irish, however, fans are refreshingly normal and funny and, well have a look:

  10. Yes, we do keep cheering.

  11. Good to hear England has a real team. Germany only had overpaid, arrogant people bought from other countries, no wonder they were no team. Yet, they´re still in ads on TV - as you say, it´s political, not sportive in the first place.
    Good luck for England - but why is it called football, not soccer?

  12. People being idiots over a sport, giving them an excuse to be a bunch of destroying nuts, is pathetic. Some really need to wake up. Not everyone can win.

  13. Yes, this English team has a self belief, which was missing from the previous teams (maybe exclude the 1990 team). They will be playing Croatia in a few hours time, and i wish them all the best.
    As for the fans, what i have seen of them in the videos, they seem a pretty well-behaved lot. :)

  14. The only international sporting events I follow are the Olympic games, so I can't say anything very intelligent about how the World Cup is going beyond what I've read about it in the newspaper. However, I'd be happy to do a big ol' fist pump in support of merry olde England winning it all.

    As far as the politics, though, you're right. One of the things I've always loved about the Olympics is the "we are the world" kind of attitude and a feeling of unity I believed was there. And watching Team U.S.A march into the opening ceremony filled me with pride because there was no "one look" that identified us as a nation. The members come from all ethnic backgrounds, and this diverse group was joined together as one. If only that sentiment prevailed beyond the game field.

  15. I'm not much of a sports fan and by this time you've no doubt know what happened with Croatia, but I do appreciate your observations about the political side of football. You paint a disturbing picture of rowdy fans and I truly hope things don't back to the way they used to be.

  16. I'm sorry to say, it's certainly taken a big turn to political over here.

  17. I am not a sports fan but it certainly stirs up the passion in a lot of people. Such team spirit!!! I remember that from professional hockey games I went to years ago with my (then) hockey obsessed husband. I'm only sorry when the fans get out of control and start wrecking things!!! We have had our share of that in Canada too. :-(

    Wishing you a happy, safe and memorable summer!

  18. I'm a little late to this post, so know the result of Wednesday's match v Croatia!
    I'm not a football fan, but was sorry we lost 2-1.
    I'm sure the team and Gareth Southgate will get a fantastic welcome when they come home ... but of course have to play Belgium in the 3rd and 4th place play offs!

    ...meanwhile it's Wimbledon!

    All the best Jan

  19. I'm not a football fan either, but have to admit to being somewhat drawn to the game this year.
    So, when England lost, I found myself actually feeling the disappointment!
    It is a pity some of the fans have to become over excited and wreck things though.
    That is not only disgracing themselves...but the country's reputation too...:/

    Many thanks for another brilliant post! :))

  20. Good and meaningful post. Many pass it off as "mob tendency" And mob tendencies happen when people collectively think in a negative way. A sad situation in many parts of the world.
    Like you rightly put it ......... above all, there was human, that language that unites us all, regardless where come from.

  21. I linked to your blog in my post today - hope you don't mind. :)



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