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Despite England’s collective sense of heartbreak, we could and should have been able to spend this week celebrating a second place finish at the Euros – a result that just a month ago would have been regarded as an extraordinary success.
We should be busy pouring adulation upon an England team that exceeded expectations. We should be projecting their image and their remarkable backstories around the world, promoting their togetherness and their ethos as an expression of the best aspects of England and Englishness.
Instead, in a damp week, in a so-far largely dismal summer, as a third wave of a pandemic spreads invisibly among us, we are forced to defend our national team from an outpouring of hate. In doing so we have no choice but to confront the very worst aspects of English football, and the ugliest strains of English nationalism.
The toxic racism and swaggering hyper-nationalism that has for decades accrued around the English game has contaminated our national symbols, left millions feeling excluded from the national game, and damaged our reputation abroad. The rot has grown deeper in recent months, in part because our political leaders have allowed that poison to fester and – when they calculated that it was in their electoral interests – cynically refused to condemn it.
This tournament has been a tale of two Englands. In one of those Englands the national anthems of other nations are booed and fans from rival nations, some of them women and children, are abused in the stadiums and on the streets. In that nation, thugs throw bottles across Leicester Square and storm Wembley itself. In that England some “supporters” believe it is acceptable to boo our own young players, for deciding to support one another in the face of racist abuse ceaselessly directed at the black members of the squad.
Right now it is that England that is being written about in newspapers across Europe: the thuggery and the racism are the big stories, displacing the astonishing tale of England’s revival under Gareth Southgate. We should perhaps be relieved that Sunday’s violence took place in our own capital rather than in Rome, Paris or Berlin.
The alternative England, the one embodied by Southgate’s team itself, is a nation that seems to flicker in and out of existence. The last time it openly celebrated its existence was three years ago, during the World Cup, when the team reached the semi-finals. Before that, it was nine years ago when, in another London stadium, we watched the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics: a celebration of youth, creativity and diversity. Since that occasion we have had the “hostile environment”, Brexit, the Windrush scandal, and the ceaseless and calculated demonisation of Black Lives Matter and all things “woke”.
Southgate’s England – encapsulated in his Dear England letter before this year’s tournament began – is united, youthful and instinctively forward-thinking. It is diverse, and comfortable in its diversity. It has the potential, if we were able to fully embrace it, to reclaim and decontaminate national symbols. This England team aims to write its own history – in stark contrast to the cult of bitter, backwards-looking jingoism that exists among sections of its fanbase (the “10 German bombers”, “Two world wars, one World Cup” version of English identity).
From the start of Euro 2020, both of those Englands have been on display. In the capital of a nation still in denial about its imperial past, in a stadium originally built for an exhibition to celebrate the British empire, during a European tournament in which around a third of the players are people of colour – most able to trace their roots back to Europe’s lost empires – England fielded a team made up of young men whose ancestors come from Ireland, Jamaica, St Kitts, Trinidad and Tobago, and Nigeria. Their backstories speak of historical truths we have yet to process. Their togetherness and commitment to anti-racism is the voice of the generation they represent, encouraged and amplified by Southgate’s leadership.
Their talent and their stories invite us to reimagine what English patriotism could mean. But where there should have been support, there was booing; when there could have been political leadership, there was opportunism.
For Boris Johnson’s government, the booing of the England team in the buildup to the tournament was a moment freighted with potential. Guided by its culture war strategising, it became its equivalent of Donald Trump’s response to a murderous attack by white supremacists on demonstrators in Charlottesville, Virginia. Less crude and more calculating than Trump, Johnson and his advisers had no need to describe booing England fans as “very fine people”. Instead they spoke through silence; refusing to condemn them and dismissing the taking of the knee by England’s players as “gesture politics”. The message was clear.
During the tournament the thinktank British Future released the results of a survey that showed that one in 10 people regard Englishness as a racial identity. In their minds, black people can never truly be English. Not many decades ago many more than 10% of us held that view. Yet although outnumbered, that 10% are never silent.
While England were winning, their hate was largely exiled to the toxic margins of social media. But literally within minutes of the team’s first and only defeat, and given a free pass by the government to target their national team, those who believe blackness and Englishness are mutually exclusive unleashed their fury against the black players who missed penalties.
The ugly events since Sunday’s defeat have forced us to acknowledge just how deep the gulf between our Englands run. But the shame and shock that many people feel at the abuse directed against England’s black players will not halt the drumbeat of calculated provocation and wilful division that has helped bring us to this point. That campaign is sanctioned by politicians so shameless that last week they donned newly purchased England tops, to cheer on a team whose moral stance they had derided only last month.
Yet, despite the brutal clarity of this moment, what Southgate’s team have done remains astonishing. They have made an appeal to the best aspects of Englishness and done so against the direction of play, during an era in which politicians mobilise our worst instincts and darkest fears. Twenty-six young men and their remarkable manager have again reminded us that there is another path, another form of English patriotism, another way of being together and – if enough of us want it – another England.
David Olusoga is a historian and broadcaster