I watched a lot more football in the 2021 season, culminating with England’s cup run in the Euros. I discovered new heroes, but also that our society still has the same problems.
For many, the domestic game is linked to memories, home and family. My club, Aston Villa is very important to me. Since my first trip to Villa Park with my dad when I was seven, through working with the Aston Villa Disabled Supporters Association, the many visits to Villa Park or Wembley, the club is an important part of my life. It is also responsible for some bad times. The worst time of my life was in 2016, when Trump was elected, the results of the (advisory) Brexit referendum were announced and Aston Villa were relegated after spending the entire season playing very badly. It was also the year I lost so many heroes; David Bowie, Carrie Fisher and Gene Wilder.
Although we still have to live with the continuing idiocy of Brexit, Trump has gone (for now), Aston Villa’s fortunes have improved over the last five years. Seeing them get promoted from the Championship at Wembley in 2019 is the closest I’ve seen them to winning anything.
I’ve never quite felt the same about the National game. Its links with nationalism and racism, narrative of ‘epic failure’ stoked by the tabloid media and its present unhealthy obsession with gambling leave me completely disinterested and frankly embarrassed. I remember the heady days of 1996, when we were told ‘football is coming home’. The tabloids fueled tremendous xenophobia in the build-up to the final. Losing that final to West Germany brought a wave of violence. Football did come home, but it was drunk, lost its key, woke everyone up and was arrested for assault.
With nearly all Premiership football available to watch on TV during lockdown, I took the opportunity to watch the games with my six-year-old son. Despite the constant barrage of questions, it was great. We were playing exciting football again and we had Jack Grealish! The grounds were eerily empty, but this was the Summer was different in another way. Before each kick-off, the players of both teams would touch the ground with a knee, pause, and slowly rise to their feet in a gesture of solidarity with black victims of racial inequality and police brutality around the world. This response to the Black Lives Matter protests were inspired by the much earlier protest of American Football player Colin Kaepernick, who knelt during the American national anthem before a game in 2016. This was almost four years before George Floyd was murdered by police that ignited tensions around the world. Donald Trump and his Republican allies railed against this throughout the 2017 season. At the end of that season, Kaepernick was released by his club and never played professionally again.
One of our players, Tyrone Mings, named alongside Greta Thunberg as one of Europe’s young “visionary leaders” by Forbes magazine, led the campaign in the Premier League. It very wisely kept away from the emotive National Anthem. He was also part of a young England team which had qualified impressively for the Euros. Also in that team was Marcus Rashford MBE who had repeatedly embarrassed the Government by providing funds to tackle child poverty when it would not. Not only were they playing exciting football, this team were standing up for victims of discrimination on difficult ground, I strongly identified with them and wanted to show my support.
Sadly, England supporters booed this gesture at the first opportunity and sensing an opportunity to jump on the bandwagon, politicians on the right took the opportunity to pledge their support for the team, but also openly criticise the taking the knee as a political gesture that they felt had no part in the game. Some used a demonstrably false conspiracy theory to condemn the Black Lives Matter as a shadowy, political moneymaking operation. To me, this was institutional racism. In response, the players, manager and ex-professionals had to explain that Black Lives Matter does not mean only Black Lives Matter, it means all lives matter, but black lives are especially endangered now and need everyone’s support.
Back to the football. It was with some trepidation that I watched the semi-final in Rome. Tensions on both sides had grown. But something was different. The England fans in the stadium that night weren’t the usual England supporters who boo other national anthems and stand wrapped in the English flag, beer can in hand, wild-eyed with anger. Covid restrictions had kept them at home. There were families here instead. Despite the constant jingoism from the commentators, the match was refreshing and hopeful to watch.
Although the final was held at Wembley, England supporters still disgraced themselves by forcing their way in through an entrance reserved for disabled fans. When England lost, three young black players missing penalties, the same politicians that had spoken out against taking the knee, looked to occupy the moral high ground once again and spoke out to condemn the racial abuse that those players received online after the game. These politicians were quite rightly shutdown by the players for being hypocrites.
I wanted to understand why our society is still so divided over racism, and how this had this contributed to Brexit. In Empireland, Sathnam Sanghera describes how British exceptionalism has shaped how we see the world and our place in it. Most English people abroad are good, hard-working people going somewhere sunny to temporarily escape from their every-day lives, Sanghera uses statistics to show that the stereotype of the English as refusing to learn the language or take any part in the culture of the country they are visiting or living or staying in, drinking too much alcohol or have a bad reaction to foreign food – is actually true. Many accept the heady nationalist myth of what it is to be ‘English on holiday’. England supporters add a twist to this behavior and are regularly chased through foreign town centres by police or clash violently with other supporters. He explains how this myth of British exceptionalism enabled the rise of populist politics and was used to turn Europe into the enemy and justify Brexit.
In Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World, Otto English reminds us that human behavior and and History are complex and nuanced, and gives a global perspective. He explains that every nation believes it is exceptional and better than others, putting itself at the centre of the map. The British brand of exceptionalism is particularly nasty because Britain has not been successfully invaded by a foreign army since 1688 We have never had to look carefully at ourselves after defeat, as most of our European neighbours have. After all, we were on the victorious side in both World Wars, reinforcing the idea of the plucky British as stoic, proud survivors in the face of great hardship. He shows how much of the history we understand as being ‘true’ has been perverted to serve the needs of privileged, [abled] white men. When these core beliefs are challenged, it creates cultural dissonance. Confirmation bias, the twisting of the facts (Fake History) provides comfort and support and makes it go away.
Confirmation bias explains how the Government could produce a report into race inequality in March 2020 that suggested institutional racism does not exist, fueling the clash between nationalism and black lives matter that played out over the summer. Our elites did not want to be reminded that this country has a racism problem. But it isn’t just racism this happens with. Facing down problems such as Poverty, Mysogeny, Homophobia and Ableism also create dissonance. It also explains the chronic under-reporting of the murder of Sabina Nessa or the the Government’s pathetic promise to make streets safer for women following the murder of Sarah Everard by a policeman. Unsafe streets aren’t murdering women, predatory men are. That is not something that much of the general public, media or politicians want to address either.
At last, England has a football team with principles who gave everything for their country. They lit up my Summer and I am very proud of them. Sadly, our media, some of their supporters and many of our politicians showed just what a small, dark and frightening place this country really can be.