Sol Campbell in action for England during Euro 2008. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Sol Campbell is wrong - for most England fans, race is irrelevant

When it comes to choosing an England captain, fans are more likely to have a biased opinion based on club colours than skin colour.

The former England footballer Sol Campbell believes he was prevented from captaining his country more often because of the colour of his skin. He told the Sunday Times: “I don’t fit the FA’s image of an England captain. I’d done enough to be captain. I’ve asked myself many times why I wasn’t. I keep coming up with the same answer. It was the colour of my skin”. Campbell argues that both the FA and most England fans prefer the captain of the national side to be white. “I don’t think it will change because they don’t want it to, and probably the majority of fans don’t want it, either. It’s all right to have black captains and mixed-race in the under-18s and under-21s but not for the full side. There is a ceiling and although no one has ever said it, I believe it’s made of glass.”

Campbell’s views reflect the amount of prejudice and abuse that he has faced in his career. Though he is straight, the player faced significant amounts of homophobic abuse, which the game was much slower to crack down on than racist monkey chants. The arguments about who should have been England captain when in the late 1990s are inevitably subjective. But there is little evidence of an FA “glass ceiling”. After all, Campbell was himself selected to be captain of the full side, and at a younger age than any England captain, except Bobby Moore. Paul Ince and Rio Ferdinand were also England captains in this era, with little public discussion or controversy of this. The Sunday Times’s front-page story reported that he captained England on only that occasion, though Campbell captained England three times in his 70 appearances, as was corrected in the final editions. By chance, Sir Bobby Charlton was also captain three times in his 106 games, which shows that any England team will usually contain many potential leaders. Campbell’s experience probably had more to do with the choices of England managers than with an FA policy. He was asked to captain the side twice, when very young, by Glenn Hoddle in 1998. But Hoddle was forced to resign early the next year and his successors chose other players.

Whatever the merits of the choices that England managers, or the FA made, Campbell is on weakest ground in suggesting that most England fans would prefer a white captain to a black captain. This seems extremely unlikely. The vast majority of England fans see nothing remarkable in our multi-ethnic football team or its leadership. The question of whether you could be black and equally English was a publicly contested issue in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. When Viv Anderson first put on the England shirt as a full international in 1978, and Paul Ince first captained the team in 1993, it was worth marking the breaking of a glass ceiling. The racists were probably in a minority even in the 1980s. The problem was that a vocal National Front-associated group of extremists dominated the England travelling support, to the extent that they put everybody else off. When John Barnes scored that crazy, mazy goal in Brazil’s Maracanã stadium in 1984 to put England two-nil up, the NF contingent in the stadium chanted one-nil. But the nation watching at home knew the real score – and celebrated the goal.

By the time that Campbell or Ferdinand were leading England out, the idea of a non-white captain went unremarked – because it had become enough of a norm for us to barely notice. We don’t discriminate over the race of our sporting heroes. At the last Olympics, three-quarters of people rejected the notion that we should cheer more loudly for British-born Team GB athletes to those who had come to this country to wear our flag. At least that proportion would find the idea of a race bar on picking the England captain bizarre. This goes for Englishness outside the stadium too. Sometimes liberals wonder and worry about whether English remains a racially exclusive category, even though British identity is more inclusive. But this is an idea that most people in England reject. There is still a sizeable minority – of one in five - who say it is very (12 per cent) or fairly (10 per cent) important to be white to be English. But most say it does not matter at all, as YouGov polling for British Future has shown. France did have a rather tortuous and embarrassing debate about whether the Republic of equality and fraternity should have a policy to make sure there weren’t too many black players in the national team. Such a conversation would struggle to get off the ground in England today and would be laughed out of court in the post-match phone-ins. Most England fans will want the team, and the captain, chosen on merit. Football being a matter of opinion, of course fans will argue about who the best captain should be. When it comes to choosing an England captain, most of us are now rather more likely to have a biased opinion based on club colours – who plays for the teams we support, or that we love to loathe – than skin colour.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

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The NS Podcast #150: Englishness, X-men and Equality

The New Statesman podcast.

This week, Helen and Stephen try their best not to talk about the EU. Instead they turn to Boris Johnson’s media strategy, MP’s expenses, and Labour and the idea of Englishness. They go down-the-line to the Lobby with George Eaton. Then Henry Zeffman joins to discuss the politics of the new X-men movie. You also ask us: what does the future hold for the Women’s Equality Party? (Helen Lewis, Stephen Bush, George Eaton, Henry Zeffman)

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