Today
Thu 29 July 2021

Ahead of England’s Euro 2020 final against Italy, Adrian Goldberg offers a personal appreciation of a different kind of national team

Billy Bragg’s folk punk classic ‘A New England’ hasn’t yet assumed the popularity among fans of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ or ‘Sweet Caroline’, but as a theme tune (or at least a song title) for Gareth Southgate’s Euro finalists, it’s altogether more apt.

After years when following the national side was an embarrassment, here is a squad we can celebrate – not only for its achievements on the field, but for what it represents off it too.

Southgate himself sets the tone. As a manager, he is considered – understated, even – but his polite and well-tailored demeanour masks a steely resolve demonstrated when he refused to back down over players taking the knee before kick-off in the face of hostility by some supporters.

The Home Secretary backed the boo boys and condemned what she described as “gesture politics”, but after a friendly against Romania on the eve of the Euros, the England boss stood firm, insisting that “we are totally united on it” and “we are totally committed to supporting each other. We feel more than ever determined to take the knee during this tournament”.

His solidarity with the team’s black players has been amply repaid, with Bukayo Saka (the son of Nigerian immigrants) creating the crucial equaliser in the semi-final against Denmark, and Raheem Sterling (who was born in Jamaica) emerging as the team’s essential component.  

They are among 10 players of colour in the 26 man squad and, while England has had many black internationals before, dating back to the early 1980s, this manager has gone further than any of his predecessors would have dared – or even contemplated – in acknowledging the structural racism that they have had to overcome.

This has led to accusations from the political right that he is “deep woke”, but in truth he is simply in tune with the young men he has selected and who represent a radical departure from the likes of Paul Gascoigne, David Beckham and other stars of the 80s and 1990s.

In recent years, it has emerged that both “Becks” and “Gazza” had their phones hacked, but at the time they and other England players were expected to humbly acquiesce to regular tabloid intrusions for fear of ‘rocking the boat’ – even as the same sensation-seeking newspapers that helped to build their reputations savagely knocked them down.

Not any more. Sterling railed against the press after being racially abused by Chelsea supporters in 2018. He wrote on Instagram that newspapers’ coverage “helps fuel racism and aggressive behaviour. So for all the newspapers that don’t understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance”.

The Manchester City striker had been targeted by the Daily Mail after England’s Euro 2016 campaign ended in defeat by Iceland. He was described as a “flop”, there were references to his “bling”, and £180,000 weekly wage – all because he had bought a house for his mum. Rather than celebrating the player’s appreciation of family values, the Mail chose to sneer at his ‘vulgar’ taste.

The Sun had also been on Sterling’s case, turning a tattoo of a gun on his leg into front-page news.

Although editors now tread more lightly around him, it was noticeable the day after England beat Germany 2-0 that front-page splashes were dominated by Tottenham’s Harry Kane (who is white) rather than Sterling, who had scored the crucial first goal.

Another black England footballer, Marcus Rashford – a social equality campaigner – has openly challenged the Government over its free school meals provision during school holidays, and last Christmas forced the Prime Minister into a U-turn on the issue.

For those of us who grew up in an era when footballers were studiously apolitical (but obviously mostly voted Conservative) these are heady days – and must be eventually reflected in a transformation of the fan base too.

In the days when I followed England abroad – and I saw every game it played at Euro 88 in Germany and Italia 90 – the level of overt racism and even right-wing political organisation was shocking. Not every fan was racist, of course, but bigotry was ever present and violence never far away.

Aston Villa supporter Andrew Spence recently told the Byline Times Podcast about his experiences as a black football fan, saying “it’s only recently that I’ve felt comfortable wearing an England shirt and supporting the England team, because you see people that look like you… in the 80s it had a hard right-wing following that followed the England team abroad. It was very ‘British bulldog’”.

There are signs in the stands that this is starting to change – albeit more slowly than the composition of the team, which draws on players from a wide variety of backgrounds including Declan Rice (who previously played for Ireland at international level); and three players who have turned their back on English club football to earn their crust abroad.

What the flag shaggers make of it I can only guess, but I love the idea of supporting a national team that is multicultural, cosmopolitan and successful. That really is a new England. 

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