After rubbing shoulders with complete strangers in a south London pub for 120 minutes, then having to endure an ultimately heartbreaking penalty shoot-out, I paused for a few minutes trying to take it all in.
One friend walked over, half-drunk, yet bitterly sobered by what we had just witnessed (after believing that it may actually come home) and pointed out something that seemed to be on the minds of many young black people like us: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, three young black footballers, had missed their penalties.
My friend then gave me a particular look, and I knew what he meant.
“EDL Twitter is going to have a field day,” I half-jokingly, half-gloomily replied, still trying to process the end of England’s Euro dream.
We both knew what was coming.
After the defeat, we could have gone into full Match of the Day mode and analysed the penalties themselves (for what it’s worth, I always hate the last-second-decision shots) or the prior two hours of play. But instead, our on-the-whistle reaction was the anticipation of an ugly, yet unsurprising, wave of racial abuse.
The long 2020/21 football season was tarred by what felt like endless reports of racist incidents – mostly perpetrated by online trolls, but also in person (a 2020 YouGov/Kick It Out poll found that 39 per cent of fans had witnessed or heard an act of discrimination within the last 12 months).
Players from both the top clubs including Manchester United and Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal; and players from the bottom of the English football pyramid – where abuse is less likely to be reported – have been subjected to countless instances of racist abuse.
This is nothing new.
When players took a knee, they were subjected to boos from sections of the stands; apparently not because dissenters are against the message that black lives matter, but because of the supposed “Marxist” agenda of the Black Lives Matter organisation – despite the fact that the FA, individual leagues and the players themselves have said their protest is not about supporting any particular political group.
In advance of the Euros, as England players continued taking the knee, the government took a stand of its own – by saying fans have a “right” to boo.
Gareth Southgate’s men were, and always have been, forthright in their desire to be the change they want to see. In his open letter to England fans at the outset of the tournament, Southgate wrote proudly of what he sees as his and his team’s “duty” to speak about matters of equality and not “just stick to football”.
Southgate and his players – through Rashford’s work on food poverty and on encouraging kids to read; Harry Kane proudly sporting the rainbow armband; and Jordan Henderson raising money for the NHS, among many other examples – are not agents of “deep woke”, as one Tory strategist appears to believe, but instead, as New Statesman editor Jason Cowley writes, are embracing a new, inclusive form of patriotism and nationalism.
While I was behind this new message and wanted to buy into it, I couldn’t – at least not fully. I wasn’t sure what to look for as tangible evidence of this shift Southgate and his team were aiming to inspire.
That was, until Sunday evening at the pub with my friends. I saw it manifest throughout the evening when, for once, a new chant accompanied the endless “Engerrlannddd” and “It’s coming home” refrains that had so far soundtracked the night.
“BLM, BLM, BLM,” out of nowhere, suddenly echoed from all corners of the pub.
I’m not much into hyperbole. I was fully aware (even in my slightly inebriated state) that this fleeting chant in a south London pub was not the end of racism, and that everyone would be singing “Kumbaya” around the campfire next.
But it was my first tangible first-hand experience of the change this team is trying to create.
The Euros final was the first time my mates and I – a mix of Afro-Caribbean, South American and eastern European south London lads – all went to watch an England game together, in a packed pub, full of your typical England fan pub-goers.
That obviously is not by chance, and I know we were not the only ones. For many England-born or England-raised minorities, the pub, on the surface, is not the most attractive place to watch an England game – and that’s if the toxification of “Englishness”, and what it means to be English, hasn’t put you off supporting the national team altogether.
For a number of historic and contemporary societal reasons, it seems minority groups can feel alienated when going to the pub for a football match. This is amplified whenever England is playing in a major tournament, with the scars of the hooliganism of yesteryear still running deep for many people.
Despite its problems, I have always cared deeply for my country and backed its national team. Yet I am aware, and saddened, that others I know from mixed backgrounds feel ambivalent about all things England.
Today, that is changing. Southgate and his team’s championing of an inclusive national pride has led many within minority groups to open up about their own relationship with England and the concept of “Englishness”. About how its signifiers – such as the St George’s flag – had played a role in an identity crisis, but are now symbols of pride, all because of what this England team stands for.
The players and Southgate could have taken the easy way out. They could have submitted to pressure and not taken the knee, and instead lent their faces to the umpteenth formal anti-racism campaign that would again go unnoticed. But they didn’t, and that’s what led to my friends and me singing and drinking in the same pub as the likes of a “Tel”, who probably followed England around Italy during Italia ‘90.
This feeling of inclusivity made what followed even harder to bear. The torrent of racist abuse following the shoot-out came from some of the “fans” who likely celebrated Rashford’s composed finish against Spain in the Nations League, Saka’s goal against Austria in the penultimate Euro warm-up match, and Sancho’s spectacular 16-goal and 20-assist season, which has earned him an £80m move to Manchester United.
It is a small number of people who abuse the players, but it is nonetheless a constant problem. We cannot afford to become desensitised to it. Eventually, it will take its toll on the players, and the fans who share the same characteristics as those being abused.
Football has tried a number of things, including formal anti-racism campaigns, social media blackouts and taking the knee, but the message never seems to get through. I don’t know how the FA, Fifa, Uefa or society at large should tackle this. But what I do know is that this continuing abuse could return us to the ugly days, with the demons of old manifesting in online spaces and ruining the work of Southgate and his team.
What does such abuse say to England’s next Rashford, for example? That we will be behind you until you make a mistake? That attitude could not only kill the hope of current fans from minority backgrounds, but also disillusion the next generation of stars.
If we follow the example this England team is setting, however, the bile displayed online and in some sections of society will not win. They have helped us imagine a time when, faced with a future unfortunate defeat, all England fans can embrace the tradition of cursing woeful tactical decisions or a dodgy referee, instead of worrying about someone similar to yourself becoming a scapegoat.
Let us hope the spirit of this inclusive England national team, which I experienced in one south London pub with my mates, is felt across the country during next summer’s World Cup. Who knows? We might just go that one step further next time – I’d say cheers to that.