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14 June 2021updated 20 Aug 2021 9:48am

England’s players have won the nation over – on and off the pitch

After initially refusing to condemn the booing of players, this government appears to have realised that this is a team you cross at your peril.

By Jonathan Liew

First came the boos. This much, at least, could have been predicted. Ever since the England men’s football team and their coach Gareth Southgate announced that they would be kneeling before every game at this summer’s European Championships as a protest against racial injustice, an angry backlash had taken hold among large sections of the country. Right-wing commentators and politicians gleefully fanned the controversy, advancing various nonsensical theories as to why this peaceful and apparently unobtrusive gesture of solidarity was so objectionable.

One Conservative MP, Lee Anderson, said that he would be boycotting England’s games in disgust. Another, Brendan Clarke-Smith, claimed that by taking the knee – a form of protest most closely associated with Colin Kaepernick, who first employed it in the NFL in 2016 as a means of highlighting police brutality against black Americans – England were also intent on “crushing capitalism, defunding the police, destroying the nuclear family and attacking Israel”.

Perhaps this is all true. Who knows? Perhaps Mason Mount really is a committed Marxist devoted to eternal class struggle and the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Maybe there really is nothing the captain Harry Kane despises more than a family with two heterosexual parents and two children. But as England made their modest protest shortly before their first game of the tournament, against Croatia, kicked off on 13 June, they were certainly keeping the more radical elements of their manifesto under wraps.

Nonetheless, many of the criticisms seem to have resonated with parts of England’s fanbase, which unlike many of the country’s major club sides is drawn less from its big cities and more from its small and medium-sized towns. You only had to scan the names on the array of red-and-white flags draped around the stadium – Stourbridge, Runcorn, Redditch, Crowle – to understand the profound divide between this diverse, largely metropolitan team and its provincial, overwhelmingly white supporters.

And so, just seconds before England’s first home game at a major men’s tournament since 1996, Wembley Stadium shook to the sound of fans barracking their own team. At which point, something rather uplifting occurred. Applause broke out: a little at first, and then a little louder. Then some shouting and cheering. By the time the game began, the jeers had been almost entirely swallowed up in a wave of affection and appreciation. Finally, English football’s silent majority had spoken.

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In a sense, this too was hardly surprising. The idea of the English footballing public as a homogeneous rump of unreconstructed racists may be a convenient narrative for both sides of the political divide. But the truth is a little more complex. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, when far-right activism was rife among England’s travelling support and every major tournament felt like a riot in waiting, England always attracted a broader social and political base than the particular demographic shown throwing bottles on the evening news.

During major tournaments, of course, the England hardcore is supplemented by a casual viewing audience of millions. And here, support for the players’ stance is far more widespread than you might think. According to a recent IpsosMori poll, 40 per cent of the public believe taking the knee will have a positive impact on the fight against racism in football (against 19 per cent who think it will have a negative impact). When asked how they felt about England fans booing the gesture, by contrast, the most common responses were “uncomfortable”, “ashamed”, “embarrassed”, “angry” and “sad”.

Something curious seems to have happened in recent years. We like our footballers now. Or at least, we like these footballers: courageous, principled young men who for all their wealth and fame are far more engaged with the world and their communities than many of their predecessors. Last year, at the height of the pandemic, Kane paid to sponsor the shirts of Leyton Orient, his struggling local team (and promptly gave the advertising space away to various charities), while vice-captain Jordan Henderson led a campaign by Premier League footballers to give up a portion of their salaries to the NHS.

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Tyrone Mings spends most of his Christmases handing out food and clothing to the homeless. Raheem Sterling was recently awarded an MBE for his work campaigning against racial inequality. And that’s before we even mention Marcus Rashford, who, since forcing the government into multiple U-turns over the provision of free school meals to children, has turned his attention to literacy, launching a book club for disadvantaged children.

Little by little, this is a group of players that has won us over – off the pitch and on: England began their delayed Euro 2020 campaign with a confident 1-0 victory over the 2018 World Cup finalists, with Sterling scoring the winner. Whether they can win the tournament remains a matter of conjecture: beyond their other two group games against Scotland and the Czech Republic, a tricky last-16 game against France, Germany or Portugal probably lies in wait. Fatigue, a lack of preparation and a slightly creaky defence could all count against them.

But for now, Southgate’s team have the wind at their backs. The phoney battles have been dispensed with and the football – that great illusion of national unity – is under way. It was telling that after initially refusing to condemn the booing of players for taking the knee, the Prime Minister was forced to backtrack, later calling it “totally wrong”. Belatedly, this government appears to have realised that this is a team you cross at your peril. 

This piece appears in the forthcoming issue of the New Statesman magazine, subscribe here.

This article appears in the 16 Jun 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Cold Web