Gareth Southgate, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Jordan Henderson… how can you not love the current England team? In addition to their soccer prowess, they have demonstrated moral leadership and social awareness, taking positions on poverty, racism, LGBT Rights Y multiculturalism. I will be delighted by each of them individually if they achieve their dreams on Sunday night.
But they are not playing as individuals, of course. They are part of a team and that team represents England. And here I have a problem.
Over the past few weeks, and over the next weekend, many words will be written about how this team has changed the nation – a brilliant model of inclusion so we can all feel warm. From now on, we will all love our fellow man, whatever their background.
Please don’t be fooled – over the decades I’ve heard this so many times on major sporting occasions, and each time it falls apart as soon as the celebrations and / or condolences end.
I remember it being said for the first time in the 1980s, when the mixed race decathlete Daley Thompson, a photogenic double gold medal winner, was said to be a shining example of how the races of Great Britain could come together. The 1998 World Cup winning French soccer team Les Bleus, with players from across Africa and the Caribbean, was featured as a bright light of integration. In four years, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s far-right National Front party reached the second presidential round for the first time.
In 2012, London had its Olympic moment: Jessica Ennis-Hill, Mo Farah. There was even a space at the opening ceremony to celebrate the Empire windrush. Oh, the words then about the wonderful and inclusive nation that we are.
What the commentators in all of these cases fail to recognize is that discrimination and inequality are so ingrained in our society that the buzz of a global sports tournament cannot hope to eliminate or even reduce them. The medals for Mo Farah did nothing to prevent Muslims from being vilified daily in our media; Jessica Ennis-Hill Gold did nothing to prevent blacks from being denied jobs, or stopped and searched on the street.
So what happened to that multicultural nation “at ease with itself” in 2012? Well, as we now know, while all that drunkenness was going on, in the real world, Britain’s hostile environment was denying Windrush newcomers their citizenship, benefits, health care, freedom and, for some, life itself. Within two years, Ukip had led the poll in the European elections, and David Cameron had promised the momentous Brexit referendum.
In the intervening years, Ukip not only transformed Britain’s relationship with Europe, but his influence went on to transform the Conservatives, which is now a party Nigel Farage could feel completely comfortable with. Crack down on immigration; cuts international aid; denies the existence of racism, despite the plethora of evidence on discrimination in employment, education and law enforcement. And instead, it fuels resentment among whites, especially among the working class, many of whom will literally give their lives for Boris Johnson, given their backing for his unfortunate record on the pandemic and tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths.
The government’s response when challenged for its many political failings is to invoke culture wars. It threatens the institutions that want to remove statues of brutal racists from their facilities. It has a sinister policy that treats Muslims who question British foreign policy as potential terrorist threats, but claims that the only threat to free speech comes from “awake” people. And, in many ways, the most glaring example deliberately misrepresents Black Lives Matter supporters as Marxists who want to take down the police. This is how he responded to the shocking images of George Floyd’s life slowly fading. Taking the knee was dismissed as “gesture policy“By the Home Secretary, and when fans began to boo en masse at the England players who adopted this silent protest, the ministers refused to condemn them.
Johnson is a successful politician, and there’s a reason he’s doing all of this: Because deep down in all he knows, appealing to people’s worst instincts will be good for him. If tolerance, justice, and reparation for past inequalities were the winners of the votes, it would align with those values. Instead, he gains new followers by playing the politics of English nationalism.
For many countries, nationalism is a story of the homeless who survive through thick and thin: they resist colonialism and existential threats to recover strongly. For England, the opposite is true: her nationalism praises invasion, domination, and repression. And even when faced with her unforgivable role in the darkest aspects of human history, such as three centuries of slavery, she tells herself a story of heroism and liberation by deciding to end the crime (less is it said that Britain made up for it? so much to the slave owners that it took more than 180 years to pay the debt: those who had been enslaved received nothing).
These feelings are already appearing on social media: we are out of Europe and now we dominate Europe. It scares me to think what will happen if England really win on Sunday. For decades, football has been the main corrective for England’s exaggerated opinion of itself: how can we be so good if we keep losing to the Germans (or those other great military enemies, Argentina)? Without that, the nationalist demons will be released; There will be little to stifle the feelings of supremacy and superiority that are so ingrained in the history of Britain.
The forward-thinking words of Southgate and the team will not be able to stop this. In fact, seeing Johnson’s embarrassing photo outside No. 10 standing on a giant St. George’s cross, and given his track record of claiming responsibility for anything positive (the world’s leading vaccine? No, it was a production German / Turkish), how long before this turns into a win for Boris, is it all part of the big Brexit dividend?
Gareth, Raheem, Marcus: I love what you are doing and what you represent. But England is just not ready for you.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism