In the wake of racist attacks on England players in the EURO 2020 final, Neal Curtis explains how the vindication of those players was a much more important victory than winning the game
Commenting on how committed he was to playing and coaching football, the famous Liverpool manager Bill Shankly told a reporter “Somebody said [to me] that football’s a matter of life and death to you. I said, listen, it’s more important than that”.
In saying this, Shankly was acknowledging that his love for the game had a detrimental impact on his family, which he regretted, but this famous quote stems from his genuinely held belief that the game transcended the concerns or interests of individuals and encapsulates a philosophy of life rooted in collective pursuits. In another interview he noted that football embodies his belief that “everyone should help each other” and that Liverpool showed that ‘by playing collectively everyone receives individual honours’.
During the course of EURO 2020, delayed a year because of the pandemic, the potentially transcendent nature of sport was in clear view as England’s successful path to the final carried the nation’s hopes and dreams. The appeals to patriotism and a sense of national worth also pointed to the collective aspect of football that Shankly spoke about. The problem, however, was that two very different definitions of the collective and of the nation were being evoked.
This was evident in relation to the players’ decision to take the knee before games as a protest about racism in the sport and wider race-based social injustice, and the counter decision from a significant section of England fans to boo that action. When the government was asked to respond, Boris Johnson, via a spokesperson, failed to condemn the booing, with the spokesperson saying he preferred “action” to “gestures”. Here, he cited the Commission on Racial and Ethnic Disparities that has been roundly criticised for being blinkered, biased and established simply to confirm the views of the current government that the UK is not structurally racist.
Speaking to the new right wing news channel, GB News, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, repeated the sentiment of her boss: “I just don’t support people participating in that type of […] gesture politics.” She went on to describe booing as a choice. Tory MP and Leader of the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg was another that did not criticise the booing, remarking instead that the fans were booing the Black Lives Matter movement which is “not sympathetic to the United Kingdom as a nation”.
Amid all of this, Johnson was very careful to ensure he used the team’s success for his own nationalist agenda. In light of the nationalist turn that defined the Brexit referendum, Johnson was almost falling over himself to make capital from the growing patriotic fervour that regularly resembled vulgar jingoism.
On the day the UK government announced 32,548 new cases of Covid-19, Johnson was photographed in an England shirt with the name BORIS written across the back above the no 10. This he wore over a shirt and tie, giving the sense that he was a little boy playing dress up, but this is no game. He was also repeatedly shown holding England flags, and decorated downing street in flag-of-St-George bunting, making it look like a village fair from Midsomer Murders, especially the first 13 seasons when the producer Brian True-May refused to include any non-white actors (even as extras) in the show.
This particular issue became a ‘scandal’ back in 2011 when the producer explained his decision to exclude non-white actors was based on his belief there was no place for ethnic minorities in a programme that represented the “last bastion of Englishness”. Here, we return 10 years later to the action of taking a knee, which was not only an action taken as a protest against racism but also a positive attempt to represent an England and an Englishness that is inclusive and diverse. It is a vision of a progressive England.
As I have already noted, this took place in a post-Brexit Britain in which Brexit was largely an English project, and where the success of the referendum was rooted in racist and xenophobic language, and where the migrant and the foreigner were held up as the cause of every ailment in a country seemingly stuck in 1940, a time when Britain still ruled the waves and a whitewashed Winston Churchill supposedly epitomised its greatness.
It is no secret, of course, that Johnson suffers from the delusion that he represents the return of Churchill, at least in spirit. To some extent this is true. Like Churchill, who was happy to declare he hated Indians (“a beastly people with a beastly religion”), Johnson is also a racist. He infamously referred to black people as “picanninies” with “watermelon smiles”, and after he likened Mulsim women to “bank robbers” and “letter boxes” in 2018, Islamophibic incidents in the UK increased by 325 percent.
So, in the midst of Johnson’s political opportunism and as an English football fan, I was deeply torn about desiring English success. It was clear how a win would result in a massive propaganda coup for him and his nationalist project (which I have already noted is primarily English in that Britain for him is first and foremost England), and this prospect genuinely soured the thought of an England win. However, the protest from the players meant I could, along with many other England fans, support the progressive and inclusive vision of England they projected.
In some regard, the loss to Italy in the final threatened to make this all rather academic, and yet the sadly predictable racism directed at the players who missed the penalties only proved the legitimacy and validity of the players’ protest. In the wake of the racial hostility directed at them on various social media platforms, Johnson and his government rallied to save face and roundly condemned it. This desperate effort was largely hollow and was reported as a government backpedal. It was also criticised by the players themselves, with centre-back, Tyrone Mings, responding to Patel on Twitter by saying “you don’t get to stoke the fire […] then pretend to be disgusted”.
For me, then, the vindication of the players was the success I sought. So, when friends and colleagues looked at me with a sad face and said they were sorry for me I told them not to worry because while England lost the game, the England team won a much more important victory. As I write this, there is some uncertainty over whether the lack of a reception for the players is because one was never planned or because Johnson knows that if he invites them they will in all likelihood turn him down. Consequently, in the struggle over what it means to be English and how we define patriotism, I’m happy with the result.