In 2018, I wrote an essay about England’s men’s football team and their performances at the 2018 World Cup in which they reached the semi-finals and lost to Croatia on penalties. Among my usual long-winded, drawn out set of wholly unrelated digressions, I wrote at length – for a change – about the statistics of the penalty, the psychological phenomena of “action bias“, Jordan Pickford’s resemblance to Thomas Turgoose and, particularly, about how the England set up impressed me enormously.
In 2018, England didn’t lose on penalties because they lost before it got to that point. However, in they were knocked out of the World Cup in 1990, 1998, and 2006 on penalties; and out of the European Championship in 1996, 2004, 2012 and last Sunday night in 2021 on penalties.
Generally, the headlines and all the talk in the media following these losses has focused on penalties, unsurprisingly. However, although the European Championship is still the big story all over the British media, it’s not, for a change, due to penalties, although the penalty shootout was certainly a flashpoint.
But, rewind to the group stage of the tournament, penalties weren’t an issue, and another story dominated the media.
In a relatively straightforward group, England made a better start than they often make, but the focus wasn’t just on the result. Immediately prior to the kick off, England’s team took the knee. And a significant portion of the crowd booed them for it.
Part 1 – Timeline.
Rewind slightly further than that, and the relationship between English football, the fans of English football, and The British Government starts to become clearer. My comments are in blue.
June 5th – Gareth Southgate confirms England players will take the knee.
“I think we have got a situation where some people seem to think it’s a political stand that they don’t agree with. That’s not the reason the players are doing it. We’re supporting each other.”
In short, black members of Southgate’s England team had experienced racial abuse and all the players wanted to show unity and support for them, to hopefully stop the racist element in the stands from being racist. At this point, Southgate knew full well that there would be opposition to this unified stance.
June 7th – Downing Street refuses to condemn fans who boo.
“(The Prime Minister (Boris Johnson)) fully respects the right of those who choose to peacefully protest and make their feelings known”
Spokesperson for The Prime Minister, in response to being questioned on whether The Prime Minister condemns those England supporters who boo the players taking the knee.
In short, The Prime Minister, under the guise of one who defends freedom of speech, was quite prepared to announce that those who wished to protest against anti-racism had every right to do so.
June 8th – Gareth Southgate writes ‘Dear England’ letter to fans.
Selected quote, “
“...we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people…I have never believed that we should just stick to football.…”
June 10th – Conservative Education Minister calls the knee ‘divisive’ on BBC Question Time.
“It’s not my judgment to say whether they should take the knee or not. They’re perfectly free to do what they want. If you want to say, do I think it’s symbolism more than action? Of course it is … but we’ve seen it’s creating division.“
In short, this is the Conservative party, party line: everybody can say what they want, but the English football team – many of whom have experienced racist abuse – were at fault for creating division by promoting unity.
June 12th – England booed at opening match
The FA made a statement following the England team being booed while taking the knee.
“They are doing this as a mechanism of peacefully protesting against discrimination, injustice and inequality. This is personally important to the players and the values the team collectively represents… English football has made it very clear that it does not view this as being aligned to a political organisation or ideology.“
June 14th – Priti Patel interviewed on British Television.
“I just don’t support people taking part in that type of, you know, “gesture politics”
Do you think England fans are right to boo (England football players who take the knee)?
“That’s a choice for them, quite frankly.”
Would you be booing if you were in the stands?
“I’ve not gone to a football match to even contemplate that.”
- There was clearly a Conservative party line about taking the knee – it was just gesturing – which she had no truck with – and therefore meaningless; and that the government was choosing to ignore Southgate and the FA’s explicit statements relating to the knee not being part of any political organisation – Marxism, basically – and had no issue with people booing it.
- Priti Patel had no interest in football.
June 18th -England play Scotland. Both sides take the knee. Cheering drowns out booing.
June 22nd – England beat Czech Republic and top their group.
England, despite knowing that it’s the hope that kills you, begin to believe that maybe they can win…
June 29th – England beat Germany.
Gary Lineker’s old truism, “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Germans always win,” suddenly becomes false. Belief intensifies as England progress to the semi-finals – equalling their best ever performance in the European Championships.
July 3rd – England beat Denmark in the semi-finals.
At this point, Priti Patel, who had expressed her disdain for both gesture politics and football a mere two weeks previously, suddenly performed a volte face by Tweeting this:
Boris Johnson went a step further, and attended the game, also wearing an England football shirt.
Both were immediately mocked for it, and cries of hypocrisy rang out across England, perhaps unsurprisingly.
July 11th – European Cup Final.
England, perhaps less surprisingly, lose to Italy on penalties.
As I said in the introduction to this essay, in previous years, lamenting over penalties and finding scapegoats would have been the media focus, but events that immediately followed England’s loss changed all of that.
However, not everyone saw it like that. “Comedian” Andrew Lawrence Tweeted, “All I’m saying is, the white guys scored.” Later, when that Tweet went down badly, he added, “Equality, diversity, s*** penalties.” Then, “I can see that this has offended a lot of people, and I’m sorry that black guys are bad at penalties.“
Natalie Elphicke, Conservative Mp for Dover, sent a message on a private (conservative) WhatsApp group, which was leaked, “They lost. Would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics?”
July 12th – The Aftermath
Andrew Lawrence and Natalie Elphicke undoubtedly considered their statements to be apposite and incisive when they made them, however, during the course of July 12th, it became rapidly apparent that they had sorely misjudged the mood of the majority of England’s population. Andrew Lawrence was dropped by his agent, and Natalie Elphicke put out a statement, “I regret messaging privately a rash reaction about Marcus Rashford’s missed penalty and apologise to him for any suggestion that he is not fully focused on his football.“
The racist abuse on Marcus Rashford’s defaced mural in Manchester was first covered with bin bags, before messages of support were plastered over the bin bags.
Social media accounts swiftly filled up with messages from the public condemning the racist abuse and threats and offering their support for the players who had been racially abused.
In addition to the public, Priti Patel tweeted, “I am disgusted that England players who have given so much for our country this summer have been subject to vile racist abuse on social media.“
Conservative party member Baroness Sayeeda Warsi broke ranks and replied to Patel’s tweet shortly afterwards thus, “Priti -we as govt, as Conservatives need to think about our role in feeding this culture in our country If we “whistle” & the”dog” reacts we cant be shocked if it barks &bites It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations.”
Former England footballer Gary Neville was interviewed and made no bones in his response, “I’m just reading your breaking news and it says “PM condemns racist abuse of England players”… the prime minister said it was okay for the population of this country to boo those players who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism.“
Tyrone Mings, another black England footballer replied to Patel’s tweet, and his response was devastating. “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.“
Boris Johnson stated that those hurling racist abuse should, “crawl back under the rock from which you emerged” and many commentators pondered if he would be joining them, and whether he’d decorated the underside of his rock as opulently as he’d decorated his quarters at 10 Downing St.
Then, he was asked on LBC Radio if he knew the name of the player who scored a hat trick in England’s 1966 World Cup final. He offered, “Bobby Moore“, who didn’t score at all, but who was captain of that team.
July 13th – The Sun correctly judges the mood of the nation.
The Sun “news”paper, not generally known for its balanced approach towards people of colour – especially, but not exclusively, Raheem Sterling, most people’s payer of the tournament, who has been on the receiving end of The Sun’s bile for a very long time, for heinous crimes such as buying his mother a house – printed its front page.
July 14th – Prime Minister’s Questions
Kier Starmer, “Can he (Boris Johnson) tell the house, does he now regret failing to condemn those who booed England players for standing up to racism? Yes, or no?“
Boris Johnson, “We made it absolutely clear that no-one should boo the England team.“
Part 2 – Analysis
I’ve never quoted The Sun previously. It’s a dreadful rag, written by dreadful people, spouting dreadful bile, and largely aimed at dreadful people. However, what I will say in its favour – if such a thing is good – is that it’s generally been quite good at “reading the room”. Which is to say, The Sun tells its audience what it wants to hear. It’s a populist rag, that aims to make money by adopting simplistic, lowest common denominator explanations for complicated things. Usually by blaming the poorest members of British society for things that the richest members are actually guilty of.
It’s a right wing “news”paper, however, casting my mind back to 1997, following years of supporting first Margaret Thatcher’s, then John Major’s Conservative government, with not so much as a bad word for either of them, it printed this front page.
Did The Sun have a sudden change of heart? Did The Sun experience a raid to Damascus experience in which they realised the error of their right-wing ways and decide to back the Labour Party instead?
Well, possibly. Maybe it did. On the other hand, Blair’s popularity at the time that this cover was printed had risen rapidly without the assistance of The Sun, and like the adaptable capitalists they always have been, they performed a 180 degree turn, and backed Blair.
For a bit. When Blair’s popularity waned – as the only reasonable quote Enoch Powell ever made, goes, all political careers end in failure predicted – The Sun went back to supporting the Conservative party.
But it illustrates the point – The Sun, for all its faults – and its mainly, if not entirely comprised of faults – it gauges the mood of the nation when it has to.
Which is more than you could say for the Conservative party of 2021.
As Baroness Warsi pointed out to Priti Patel – this Conservative government got itself elected by pandering to division – especially between Englishness – of a particular, ugly variety, – and everyone else.
The Englishness that the Conservative party promoted didn’t bear much resemblance to even John Major’s vision of ” …the country of long shadows on county [cricket] grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers, and—as George Orwell said—old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist.”
The England that Boris Johnson’s party evokes in many of its supporters is, above all else, white. As in not black. Hence the outpouring of racist bile directed by so many “fans” of football.
But not all.
The ones spouting their hatred of Rashford, Saka and Sancho might have been quick off the blocks, but it swiftly became apparent that they were far from the most vocal, and far from the majority too.
Even Plymouth Conservative MP, Johnny Mercer, most commonly known for, like Priti Patel, breaching the ministerial code, and for complaining that he’d “had a tough week” following Marcus Rashford’s successful campaign to make sure that Britain’s poorest children were actually fed, given that he’d voted against feeding them, joined the group of Conservatives who were slowly beginning to realise that they’d backed the wrong horse in the racism debate. In response to Tyrone Ming’s articulate and succinct reply to Patel’s back-pedalling hypocrisy, he tweeted:
“The painful truth is that this guy is completely right. Very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into. Do I fight it or stay silent? Modern Conservatism was always so much more to me. We must not lose our way.“
Meanwhile, however, other Conservative supporters continued to hang onto the dead horse named “Taking the knee is Marxist”.
Tim Montgomerie, a conservative commentator, went on BBC Politics, where he attempted to explain to Dianne Abbott – the victim of almost half the abuse directed at women MPs on Twitter during the 2017 election campaign – what racism was.
On July 14th, Melanie Phillips – a journalist noted for being quoted at length by Norwegian terrorist and right-wing extremist who committed the 2011 Norway attacks Anders Breivik – went on BBC Politics to state that, “...To take the knee,, in support of BLM, is a racist, anti white statement & that’s why it should be condemned.“
Part 3 – Summary so far.
Boris Johnson’s Conservative party ran a successful election campaign based on “Get Brexit Done”, which was a result of Nigel Farage’s UKIP party gaining so many votes that David Cameron felt he needed to offer a referendum on it, or face losing a general election.
While not everyone who voted for Brexit is racist, but it’s probably fair to say that everyone who was racist did vote for it.
Blaming foreigners for everything became fairly acceptable, and Johnson’s Conservative party have a majority of 80 seats in the House of Commons.
The right wing press have focused their bile on people of colour, and not just footballers. Notably, Meghan Markle has been criticised for doing exactly the same things – holding her baby bump – that Kate Middleton was fawned over for.
However, in previous years, where it’s been more than acceptable to mock or pour scorn on England’s footballers for failing to win tournaments in the past – often on penalties – this year has been markedly different.
The lads, to slip into taboloidese, done good. The boys done us proud, innit?
The Conservative party began the Euros tournament not giving England a prayer, and they were wrong about that. The Conservative party began the Euros by refusing to alienate what they thought were their voters by suggesting that booing an anti-racist gesture was absolutely fine by them.
Midway through the tournament, when it became apparent that this England team were not only pretty good at football, but also a lovely group of human beings who campaigned to feed the poorest English children when the government voted not to, who brought books into the lives of the poorest English children, who gave their shirts to ecstatic little girls in the crowds, who stood up for gay people on social media – people Boris Johnson had described as “Tank-topped bum boys“, and who comported themselves with quiet, polite dignity, the Conservative party decided that, actually, they’d always been into football, and “Hooray for England”, and where’s that bandwagon?
However, in losing the final of the European championships, the England team inadvertently won something much more important: they won the hearts and minds of the population of England who sympathised because of the racist abuse that the Conservative party so clearly sought to protect.
Ironically, had the England team won, the racist abuse would not have occurred. The Conservative party would have been able to claim the victory in Europe as their own, and that would have been a crying shame.
It’s a dreadful, dreadful thing that the racist abuse levelled at Rashford, Sancho and Saka happened, but because it did, it meant that finally, it, and the Conservative party’s overt acceptance of such attitudes among swathes of their support are being brought into the light, and thank God, condemned by the majority of English people.
Yesterday, the news emerged that the England team will not be attending a celebratory event at 10 Downing Street. I don’t know whether this is because the government is too frightened that the team just wouldn’t turn up, due to Johnson, Patel, et al’s lack of support and hypocrisy, or whether it’s because they were invited, but politely declined, or for some other reason. But whatever the reason is, I’m delighted.
This group of eminently decent, articulate and pleasant young men are far, far too good to have such an odious section of the population inflicted on their backs in order to vicariously benefit from their toils.
The song, Three Lions, begins and ends with the refrain, “It’s coming home.” With any luck, the events of the past four days will not be forgotten and, while “it” might not be a football trophy, “it” has become something far better, and far more important than that: dignity for all.
Sometimes we learn more from losing than we ever would from a victory, and this is one of those times.
England, I salute you.