Football and Racism - How the Euros Highlighted Britain's Proximity to Racism.
In the beginning…
I used to be a big football fan. I chose a team at the age of 7, Tottenham Hotspur, and have followed them ever since. I was keen not to be a 'glory hunter' so wouldn't choose Manchester United or Chelsea. And given the fact I grew up in Suffolk, I didn't have a slew of local choices, Ipswich Town being the closest team who, even at the age of 7, I somehow knew to avoid. In the end, my best mate liked Spurs, and they sounded like an underdog. Over the subsequent years I would get all the paraphernalia - I'm talking curtains, bed sheets, lampshades… you name it. I began to learn historical players, collect the calendars, and wear the kit. As a teenager I would play football every lunch time come rain or shine and I think my team choice was written into permanence when I watched Spurs play Manchester City in the Worthington be Cup Semi Final and we went in at half time 3-0, and Man City had a man sent off. Spurs then went on to lose 4-3 and I thought 'This is the team for me', unpredictable, entertaining and quite often bad. I liked it.
As an adult in my twenties I would play it, talk about, watch it, listen to it on the radio, go to matches, take part in multiple fantasy football leagues, bet on it, and of course drink to it. I didn't go to many matches. My parents being completely uninterested in football never took me and I always thought that English ticket prices were extortionate. As a teen I went to watch Bury Town FC quite a bit. I recall the ticket prices were a much more reasonable £3. Now this, I think, was and is rather typical. I wasn't a complete fanatic. I didn't live and breathe it. I never really looked up to any footballer. I saw the flaws in it. I disliked the swathes of money footballers got and how many of them behaved on and off the pitch, but I liked the social aspect of it, the drama, the pride and the passion. It brought unity, I thought. But, it turns out, I thought wrong. And my enjoyment of it has pretty much gone. Probably forever.
I'm writing this three days after the England men's team lost in the final of Euro 2020 (note how that's how it's always put: "England lost in the final". Not: "England made it to the first European final EVER, aren't they great?"). As I'm sure you might have witnessed or experienced, there were a lot of people upset about this.
I for one hoped that winning the cup would in some way bring a bit of cohesion; a ubiquitous celebration of a shared national spirit. It would be really great for the players who, as the Guardian put it, were actually a bunch of nice guys. It might also prevent some of the inevitable behaviour that follows an England loss. But, of course, we lost. And, alas, there was division, there was violence, and there was vile racism.
Knowing what I know now, I simply cannot enjoy a sport where a loss generates, time after time after time, such bigotry, hatred, and intolerance. As I'm you are aware, the three players who missed the decisive penalties happened to be black. Sancho, Saka and Rashford received waves of subsequent racist messages on their social media feeds, featuring all the usual, abominable, and unintelligent slurs so often loved by the most racist of racists. The deplorable behaviour from these so-called fans tainted what should have been a memorable night, regardless of the outcome but, as is the way with some England fans, the memories created will be negative and shameful. That being said, this out-and-out, obvious racism should not distract entirely from the bigger issue.
What is worse?
The fans who went to social media to attack the black players, telling them to "Go back home" etc. are exactly the people I don't want in my country. They call themselves patriotic but, when married with such ignorance and intolerance, it's really just fascism with an England shirt. They direct their hatred towards black players because they can then justify their anti-immigration stances as soon as immigration doesn't make them happy.
They actively seek out this confirmation-bias: they presume black people are at fault and will use all evidence at hand to support their views, ignoring anything that contradicts it. Never mind that the three players who received a torrent of abuse helped to get England to the final in the first place. This brazen display of animosity is the kind of racism that captures headlines, rightly so. But this tangible, easily-recognisable kind of racism is not the only problem. Indeed, the disproportionate attention it gets, compared to the pernicious and pervasive nature of systemic racism that continually maintains racial imbalances and inequality in our society, shows just how accessible it is. But I would like to now talk about that other kind. Yes, football does breed a type of dangerous nationalism that suits racist philosophies so well, but this week has highlighted some other problems often forgotten, and conveniently omitted.
The other kind of racism
Soon after the disgusting, predictable and embarrassing acts of the out-and-out racists were disseminated by the news, politicians were quick to denounce the wrongdoers. Home Secretary, Priti Patel proclaimed that she was 'disgusted' that the England players had been subject to vile and racist abuse. Interestingly, before the tournament, she defended the right of those who booed the English players for 'taking the knee' to raise awareness for racial inequality. Tyrone Mings, another black English player (who didn't actually take part in the Euros) put it brilliantly:
"You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens."
Boris Johnson also weighed in, tweeting:
“This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.”
On Instagram, I've seen this sort of vacuous comment be rightly branded as performative allyship. It's performative because to take such a stance now, after doing appallingly little to challenge racism in and out of football, stinks of hypocrisy. As deputy Labour Leader, Angela Raynor, put it, in reference to Johnson and Patel, they are
"Arsonists complaining about a fire they poured petrol on".
Racism is embedded in our society. To call out such flagrant racism this week was basically unavoidable for high-profile politicians. To call it out is utterly unremarkable. What would be more meaningful would be to teach black British history in schools, to improve drop-out rates of PoC in our universities, to challenge biases by all our state services, to improve access to health, legal aid, and welfare of all people, to improve meaningful diversity and encourage actual inclusion. Don't just call out the racists who shout the n-word when they are in a strop over the football. Change the system.
It is also worth bringing up another distressing association with football. Domestic abuse increases by 38% when England loses a football match. Masculine egos of superiority come under threat and they take it out on their partners. This was what did it for me - I fell out of love of football at the last world cup when I learned about the domestic abuse associated with it. I couldn't quite believe how pathetic and insecure these so-called 'men' were. They may be hard enough to punch their wives but their intelligence, their morality, and any other virtue; as impotent, and as puny, as their pathetic existences. As @justice_forblacklives puts it:
"It's impossible for us to ignore that the intersection of white nationalism, toxic masculinity, and football is a dangerous one".
Football is racist
I would almost go so far to say that international football is racist. It's hard to argue otherwise. The whole idea of national superiority is sown from centuries of empire. The pressure we put on our black and brown footballers to perform shows how individuals still unfairly represent whole communities. There has also been occasion after occasion, too many to mention, of racist abuse at football games directed at black players. And the stats don't lie: There was a 53% increase in reported racial abuse in the professional game between this season and last. Nothing seems to be getting better. And we can't let this drop.
What can you do?
First and foremost, there is a petition. Quite impressively it's already got over one million signatures but the more, the better. Sign it and force parliament to take note: https://www.change.org/p/football-association-and-oliver-dowden-sec-of-state-dcms-pm-boris-johnson-ban-racists-for-life-from-all-football-matches-in-england?redirect=false
Secondly if you are at a football match and witness any hate speech of any sort, report it. 22% of fans of Kick it Out's annual study said that they wouldn't, which speaks volumes. Don't leave it unchallenged.
Thirdly, be an antiracist. Challenge all forms of racism - not just the obvious ones that make headlines. This problem is bigger than bigoted-racist-fascist-football scum. As Gary Neville said in an interview with Sky Sports "dealing with racism starts at the very top" Highlighting one of the prime minister's past comments, "He said Muslim women look like letterboxes… Should we not be highlighting this more often?"
Or as @rajniewrites states:
"It is not just about racism in football. It's about how this highlights that racism is entrenched in every single aspect of our society... It's about how they have decided that black players represent all black men... It's about the lack of belonging people of colour have to face on a daily basis dependent on our achievements. It's about inequality."
I have previously written my thoughts on how and why racism in football exists in another blog post: Racism in Football. The Facts Some Fans want to Ignore. In short, we need a cultural shift. We need a government that takes an antiracist stance. We need policies to change. And we need people to highlight and confront all forms of racism. Banning racists from football games is a start but it is not a solution. Racism is systemic. Inequality starts from birth. And unless we all recognise that and take it seriously, football, and every other aspect our society will keep on letting the dickheads in.