Three lions

Photo credit: Reuben Dangoor (Instagram)

The sad reality is that as Marcus Rashford lined his penalty up, I was thinking not only about the European title, but the potential racial backlash that might occur if he missed. My fears were somewhat eased when Italy’s second penalty taker, Belotti, missed. Rashford missed. I was concerned, but all was even.

Football has never been just a game and never been only confined to the ninety minutes on the pitch. The meaning of football cannot be understood without understanding the social and political world around it. And football is connected to the nation’s soul – all at the same time revealing, expressing and shaping it, lifting it up and pulling it down. 

The England team made their way through the Euros in this context. It’s a context that included unequal media treatment to black players, such as Raheem Sterling, and years of tumult on questions of identity, race and belonging, more recently brought to the surface through events such as Brexit, the Home Office’s hostile environment, Black Lives Matter, and the Windrush scandal. And we had the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister not merely failing to defend, but excusing the behaviour of England “fans” who booed the multi-racial England teammates as they together took the knee against racism.

As Sancho stepped up, my anxiety rose again. Two black players missing would be too much of an opportunity for the overt racists and keyboard warriors. My heart sank as Donnarumma made the save.

Of course I was feeling gutted at the prospect of not tasting the England victory that was in our grasp. But my fear of that loss began to be overtaken by my concern for the socio-political storm Rashford, Sancho and other people of African heritage would be subject to through the racist backlash that would follow an England loss. That shift in emphasis wasn’t my choice. It was a natural fear.

Then Pickford saved. Hope! Saka steps up. Sadly my gut reaction was to wish it wasn’t him, as the stakes were so high. Remember, it’s not just the European Championship at stake. It’s the consequences of the potential backlash if three black players miss penalties following two white players scoring. Donnarumma saves and I know what’s coming next.

This is a learning moment, should we choose to take it, should we choose to hear it. The insight is just how precarious “belonging” is for people of African and Asian heritage. It can always be questioned. Sometimes the questions are overt and sometimes subtle. But we all know they are there. It makes my own belonging feel “qualified”. 

That doesn’t translate into a loss of patriotism amongst our communities. We can see that in the dedication the boys have put in to getting England to the final. But it can produce a sadness. It sends a message that there is an element of belonging in England that must be earned, maintained and then validated by people whose belonging is an unquestionable birthright.

This last point is experienced through the positive interventions of people like Gareth Southgate, Gary Neville, and Alan Shearer. They are allies and their condemnation of the overt racism is absolutely welcome. But the sad reality is it is also needed because the cover they provide carries a power that cannot be matched by people such as Ian Wright or John Barnes, simply because the white players enjoy an unquestionable birthright.   

We must be careful that the effort to comfort the victims and condemn racism does not turn into a dismissal of the potency of the voices of the racists. A “sticks and stones” level argument isn’t good enough. We have to ask honestly, as a nation, to what extent the backlash we are witnessing is the expression of a hateful culture held by a few mindless individuals, or to what extent its origins are to be found in somewhere deeper in our national soul.

At its worst, retail politics and journalism play to a market it believes is out there. On Monday, England player Tyrone Mings tweeted:

Former Conservative cabinet minister Baroness Sayeeda Warsi said:

Let not rush to move beyond the tension and discomfort at the price of learning something more profound about ouselves.