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12 March 2017

How English football came to reflect the diversity of the country

I could never have imagined,  when I was growing up, this huge change in the make-up of England and in football.

By Hunter Davies

When I was growing up in Carlisle in the Fifties, I never met any foreigners. Nor did I ever meet or know of any Catholics, Jews or black people. The only vaguely foreign people in our street were us – my parents, that is. They both came from Scotland, insisting on listening to the Scottish Home Service and reading the Sunday Post. Scots were tolerated: Carlisle is a border city. There had been Scots living there for centuries.

By the time I was 16 I had met or heard of every girl I was ever likely to go out with. You had to leave to meet anyone new, which few people ever did. My wife came from Carlisle and her folks had been there for ever, so we had so much in common, all our lives, able to use words and slang and references that our London-born children couldn’t understand. They were foreigners to us, in a way – middle class, with London accents, a country cottage and foreign holidays. They even liked mushrooms, which I pronounced “moosh rooms” when I first came to London.

My grandchildren have moved on to the next stage of foreignness. Our two daughters married men of African descent and our son married someone of Italian-Irish descent. It means that through the veins of my four granddaughters flows blood from Botswana, South Africa, Cameroon, France, Italy, Ireland, plus England and Scotland. How frightfully modern.

And how common it is generally – and in football. The game today really is a microcosm of racial mixtures. I’m not thinking of all the obviously foreign players, who’ll be on their way soon, but all those true, English-born natives who are here for good. The England team these days is full of foreign blood, just as it is in Germany, with all the sons of Turkish immigrants turning out proudly for the national side, in France with the North Africans, or Belgium, with its players with family from central Africa.

It is estimated that almost one-third of our professional footballers now are BME (“black and minority-ethnic”). Since 1978, when Viv Anderson first started for England, 79 other BME players have been capped for the country.

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In the England team today, it is fairly clear where the parents or grandparents of Sturridge, Sterling and Welbeck must have come from, but it is the ones with mixed-up blood I find myself lingering on, such as Kyle Walker, Jesse Lingard, Andros Townsend and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, wondering about their parents or their grandparents.

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Theo Walcott, we know, had a black Jamaican dad and a white English mother. Jermaine Jenas, by the look of him, has a similar background, and has been blessed with equally attractive, little-boy features.

I can look for ever at Dele Alli and wonder where his physique, his face, his mouth came from. Apparently his mum is white English and his father a Yoruba Nigerian.

Most fans, of course, don’t care. They are all our heroes, if they’re doing the business. The current adulation at White Hart Lane for Dele Alli has produced a very clumsy, crappy chant that goes: “We’ve got Dele Alli/I don’t think you understand/He only cost five mil/He’s better than O-zil.” Mesut Özil, the Arsenal player, is of course a third-generation Turkish German. The dig is not about his background but about being useless for all that money.

The hero of the hour, the man who is single-handedly saving Man United, is Zlatan Ibrahimović. Born in Sweden, plays for Sweden, but of course his name gives it away – mother a Croatian, father a Bosnian Muslim, both emigrants to Sweden.

Most crowds, however, still don’t reflect the ethnic mix of the local population, or the national population, for financial reasons. Costs a fortune to attend any Premiership game. But some day it will happen.

I could never have imagined, when I was growing up, this huge change in the make-up of England and in football. I now like to think, looking at my four grandchildren, that I am seeing a reflection of life today, everyday life today, and of the future.

This article appears in the 08 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The return of al-Qaeda