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Tue 22 June 2021

Shane Thomas explores how notions of race, Englishness and football could be weaponised by the Prime Minister during Euro 2020

Sport is as much a part of the country’s cultural production as theatre, music or cinema.

This will be seen in the upcoming Euro 2020 tournament, when those who don’t usually watch football freely venture their opinions on the England team’s performance. Similar is likely to occur during this summer’s Olympics, when viewers will be rapt despite not knowing the rules of all the sports. Domestic sport is for the initiated, but international competition converts atheists into believers.

This soft cultural power becomes more potent when it is your country that succeeds. So one can expect, in the event of England impressing at the Euros, that Boris Johnson will attempt to harness this power to bolster his Government’s popularity. He may be the Prime Minister for the whole of the UK, but England forms the core of his support, and so football is a useful tool for him with which to curry public favour.

Aligning with football fans neatly fits into an area of strength for Johnson. The feeling of England winning at its most popular sport, against a backdrop of summer sunshine, would set a celebratory tone that is perfect for a politician comfortable with cheerleading and making symbolic but empty gestures. Taking positive feelings about the England team and turning them into positive feelings about the nation would be an obvious move.

Back in 2012, the London Olympics – a sporting event Johnson also used for political capital – captured the nation’s hearts and minds. But the joy generated by the British athletes was also arguably used to obscure the impact of the austerity programme implemented by David Cameron’s Government.

Through no fault of their own, England’s footballers may now be used to bolster the Johnson Government’s image, particularly the team’s black players.

It would be a cynical, but not an unimaginable, move for Johnson to associate himself with an ascendant and racially diverse England team. A quip and a photograph with players like Jadon Sancho would contribute to making accusations of racism against the Prime Minister – regarding comments such as “piccaninnies with watermelon smiles” – or discussion of structural racism within Britain easy for him to dismiss.

But discussions of race and football go wider and deeper.

Players such as Raheem Sterling have been forced to run a tabloid gauntlet and endure racist abuse for years, both on and off the pitch.

Further afield, France’s 1998 World Cup victory was seen as an achievement of multiculturalism for the country, but its woeful showing in the 2010 tournament sparked a nationalist firestorm – with the players of black and Arab descent heavily blamed for the team’s losses. Spurious accusations of caring about money, showing national disloyalty, and not singing the national anthem were the verbal clubs used to beat them.

Politicians, including the Home Secretary, have been vocal about not agreeing with ‘taking a knee’ – the form of anti-racist protest adopted by Premier League footballers last season and the England team this summer.

Given their backgrounds, England footballers are some of the country’s most prominent working-class people. While the Conservative Party has, in recent years, made this group a core part of its constituency, it is of note that, when these footballers gesture towards anti-racism in an England shirt, it frames race – alongside class – as an English concern and shows that ‘working-class’ is not a synonym for ‘white and poor’.

In an unusual and emotive article, ‘Dear England‘, England manager Gareth Southgate discussed the cultural importance of football to the country, and observed: “I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”

In the ‘culture war’ waged by the Government – which seems to involve taking something people are passionate about and whipping this passion into fury – it is likely that the England team could be used to boost the symbolic significance of English exceptionalism in the days ahead; and then continue to be criticised as a moneyed, woke elite in the longer-term.

The England team has two ferocious battles awaiting them. Winning the Euros won’t be easy. But defining Englishness will be harder still.

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