Be proud of our response to racist Bulgarian fans, but remember we've got our own issues

Widespread condemnation of racist chants shows how far the UK has come, but our focus on athletes risks obscuring wider issues.

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“Who put the ball in the racists' net? Raheem, Raheem, Raheem fucking Sterling,” sang England fans last night, long after their Bulgarian counterparts had deserted the stadium following Bulgaria’s six-nil defeat at home.

While the monkey chanting directed at England’s Raheem Sterling and debutant Tyrone Mings by some Bulgarians during the game was undeniably depressing, the reaction from England supporters has shown how we far we have come in a few decades. The first generation of black English players could not even be sure of the support of their own side.

The late great Cyrille Regis has told how his 1982 selection to play for England was marked by the receipt of a letter containing a bullet, which warned him never to step out to play for his country at Wembley. Two years later, after John Barnes mazily dribbled his way through the Brazilian defence to score England’s second goal of the match, the National Front supporters chanted the wrong score – “we only won one-nil” – performing the racist principle that “black goals don’t count”.

Yet last night was a real nail in the coffin for the old National Front, and their heirs and successors: the now-defunct BNP, the thugs of Britain First and the trendier efforts to make racism fashionable again, ethno-nationalist groups like Generation Identity. 

Today, the argument about ethnicity and Englishness has been mostly won: 90 per cent of the population do not think you need to be white to be English – up from 80 per cent seven years ago. Our home-grown fascists are now jealous of their Bulgarian counterparts – or looking up time-share opportunities on the Bulgarian coast in the hope of taking part in a time-warp back to the 1970s and 1980s. 

And much of this is down to our footballers, cricketers and athletes – who have done more than any politician or Quango to change our perception of who we, both the British and the English, are. 

It was an important symbolic moment when Paul Ince captained England’s football team in 1993, although then manager Graham Taylor later suggested that he had come under pressure from within the FA to not pick too many black players at once. During the 1998 world cup, Ince was immortalised in the Three Lions remix for his bloodied shirt in the crucial qualifying game in Italy “And now I see Ince ready for war/Gazza good as before/Shearer certain to score/And Psycho screaming”.

But that didn’t just happen by chance. It was football that introduced me to both overt public racism and anti-racism. As an 11-year-old season ticket holder in the family enclosure at Everton's Goodison Park, it was not until Liverpool signed John Barnes in 1987 that I became aware of the pride that some Everton supporters had taken in having an all-white team. Later, I was wary about going to watch England live – and would certainly have been put off from travelling to away games, so dominant was the xenophobic contingent singing “if it wasn’t for the English, you’d be Krauts” across the continent.

Those prejudices have not entirely gone away, but there have been concerted efforts from fans to change the culture, triumphing in the “Football’s Coming Home” spirit with which England hosted the European Championship in the summer of 1996. Around that time, I frequently volunteered in the "Raise the Flag" initiative, coordinated by Philosophy Football, which saw white and red cards used by supporters in the stands to make a giant St George’s Flag designed to send a message that said: yes to national pride and an inclusive patriotism, but no to racism. Part of this very English initiative involved putting out cards at the other end for opposing supporters to raise their own flag too, including a short explanation of this gesture in, say, Swedish too.

And pick a tabloid newspaper this morning, more than 20 years on, and the near-identical coverage in the Mirror and the Sun, the Guardian and the Telegraph, the Mail, Express and the Star shows the breadth of the consensus on anti-racism norms – at least when it comes to the overt racism of monkey chants and Nazi salutes.

We intuitively think of it as natural that younger people – who grew up in ethnically diverse classrooms – will have more liberal attitudes across the board. Yet there is strong evidence that the inter-generational shift in attitudes against racism is deeper and stronger in the UK than in most other European countries. 

In some countries, the opposite is even true. The French National Front and the Italian populist right have done well with younger voters than Ukip did. In this week’s Polish General Election, the far right won a fifth of first-time votes, and did much worse among older voters.

We should ask how the progress that we in the UK have made across the generations can be emulated across the continent. But we should not be complacent. The sheer breadth of Brtitons’ consensus of condemnation for racist Bulgarian fans makes some nervous.

There is a risk that a too confident, too celebratory approach stressing that Bulgaria needs to catch up with the progress we have made on racism suggests "job done". There remains racism in England, within sport, yes, but especially beyond it.

The strange thing about the British public debate on racism is that it seems that we only talk about racism in football. Sport is the sphere in which we have had the conversation about race – where we have seen our public norms shift, hence the outcry against last night’s chants. Sport is also a metaphor for equal opportunity – there is a level-playing field on the football pitch, where the diverse young England team competes with the best talent from around the globe. 

But it is much harder to make the case for race equality and equal opportunity once the lens is widened to the dug-out, the press box and the boardroom. 

Few parts of our society have done more to project and champion an anti-racist consensus than football. But we need a debate about structural change and equal opportunity, too – and that cannot always be so centred on sport. To start some of the broader conversations we need about race, it may be time to take our eye off the ball.

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