FOOTBALL, ENGLISH PATRIOTISM AND THE LEFT

by Callum Luckett

Perhaps Marcus Rashford was trying to be too precise. Whilst Frank Lampard, my dad and thousands of others criticised Rashford’s stuttering steps in the build-up to his penalty, he successfully sent Gianluigi Donnarumma the wrong way. Had his effort been just a few inches to the right it would have been hailed as a brilliant penalty. But elite sport is a game of inches.

To illustrate this point, it’s worth returning to the last major final in which Italy contested a penalty shootout (and also won), at the 2006 World Cup. In the seventh minute of normal time, France’s captain and talisman, the legendary Zinedine Zidane, stepped up to the spot, in a game the world already knew would be his last. He was facing one of the best goalkeepers of all time in Gianluigi Buffon, but with the weight of destiny on his shoulders he surely had to score…

And so he did, coolly chipping it over the diving Buffon, Panenka style. It is often regarded as one of the greatest penalties of all time – but there was a bit of luck involved. As the penalty floats loftily towards the goal, the usually effortlessly cool and graceful Zizou, wheeling away ready to celebrate, stutters slightly, uncertain for an instant, before it dips just enough to clip the crossbar and bounce down over the line. He still has to put two arms up to claim it’s in. 

And it was. “With a sense of the inevitable, the captain’s swansong is marked in style,” the FIFA commentator declares. From then on, it seemed inevitable that Zidane would lead France to victory once again. 15 years and two days later, England fans would have been forgiven for thinking football was indeed coming home after Luke Shaw rifled in his first international goal within the opening two minutes, the ball kissing the post as it went in.

But it was not to be for either England or France. Destiny had other ideas.

elite sport is a game of inches.

Zidane’s headbutt on Marco Materazzi has gone down as one of the most iconic final bows in sporting history, and the image of Zizou making the lonely walk off the pitch past the Jules Rimet trophy is no doubt etched in millions of minds. With their captain’s sending off, France’s hopes of winning the game in extra time were all but vanquished. The clash was ultimately decided by another penalty which hit the bar, taken by David Trezeguet. Unlike Zidane, Trezeguet blasted his penalty, and though the ball bounced down off the upright once again, it didn’t cross the line.

“A mocking echo of [Zidane’s] Panenka” was how The Guardian’s Barney Ronay later described it. “The BIGGEST SIX INCHES in French football HISTORY,” a FIFA commentator reputedly said at the time.

And though Marcus Rashford has since admitted that he “went into that final with a lack of confidence” after a “difficult season” and that “something didn’t feel quite right” as he stepped up to the spot, had the penalty been a few inches to the right, it could have all been so different. Then again, England may have lost anyhow.

*

Painful though sporting defeats may be, at the end of the day football is indeed just a game. But it gives rise to very real consequences off the pitch. Footballers of more marginalised backgrounds are subject to a sickening culture of racist abuse, and the fact that England’s defeat in this case happened to be finalised by three young Black players missing penalties opened up the inevitable, sadly predictable but still horrifying and particularly vitriolic response.

Within seconds, the torrent of racist abuse began, as men, women and children reached for their phones and laptops to spew vile hatred. In the same instant that England’s dreams of footballing glory were shattered, the dream of a progressive, inclusive, comradely England, which this “unbreakable brotherhood” of men had embodied, was rubbished. As monkey emojis, bananas and death threats befouled social media, the very notion of “progressive patriotism” seemed a sick joke. Football didn’t come home that night, but the truth did, with renewed and gruesome force: our society is a profoundly racist one.

Of course, this is not news by any means, and goes far beyond football. But we cannot ignore the unpleasant aspects of English football fan culture. Danish, Italian and even fellow English fans who were abused, spat at and assaulted will be under no such illusions about the unsavoury side of English masculinity that too many fans represent. Many women, people of colour and LGBTQ people have long been wary when they notice a roving band of football fans approaching.

But none of this can be pinned on the players themselves, who were lauded by comedian and podcaster Milo Edwards as a positive vision of what “English masculinity … could be like” and, dare I say, sometimes is like. In an excellent piece for Politico, ‘On racism and football, it’s England vs. their fans,’ Jude Wanga makes the important distinction between these two linked, but disparate groups, describing hooliganism as “the gangrenous leg of English football” in a nation which “has an unhealthy relationship with alcohol and is in denial about bigotry.”


“We learn more about the society when we lose, far more than we learn when we win,” tweeted Chelsea and England’s twenty-one year-old right back, Reece James. Whilst it was inspiring to see eleven players defy much of their own fanbase, the government and the right-wing press by taking the knee before each match, had Southgate’s men triumphed on Sunday, England would be no less racist. A progressive conception of national identity cannot be dependent on something so tenuous and unsustainable as sporting success. The football writer (and journalist, novelist and poet), Musa Okwonga captured Sunday night’s events devastatingly: 

“Hate is a strong word. But the racist[s] relying on black English footballers to bring them glory as if they were their servants, then turning on them as soon as they fell short of their dreams, have my deepest contempt.”

Delivering heroic sporting performances and funding transformative social projects were not enough to spare Rashford, Sancho and Saka the bile they were subjected to. The fact that England’s young lions excelled on and off the pitch wasn’t enough for their racist detractors – nothing they do ever can be. There is no hypothetical racist who, in an alternative future where England won the Euros, hesitates before sending a monkey emoji to Raheem Sterling, thinking to himself, “I’ll lay off the lad, actually, since he helped bring it home.” It is also illustrative that, prior to Euro 2020, Marcus Rashford has received an enormous upsurge in abuse since helping to provide millions of meals for impoverished children – many of them the “white working class” kids whom racists often cynically claim to care so dearly for. 

*

Okwonga, who in the last two years has written a novel called Striking Out with Arsenal legend Ian Wright and a biographical book for young readers about Raheem Sterling, wrote an illuminating 2019 article on the phenomenon of racist online abuse, which has sadly only worsened since. He quotes the sociologist Ben Carrington, who describes online abuse as “a form of social sanctioning”. 

Simply appearing on the pitch is enough for players to receive an escalation in abuse.

Simply appearing on the pitch is enough for players to receive an escalation in abuse. As Watford captain Troy Deeney commented, damningly, “By going out to provide for my family, I put them in danger of online abuse.” A study by Brandwatch, which Okwonga cites, reveals that in November 2019, a month in which their respective teams fought a top-of-the-table clash, abuse directed at Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling and Liverpool’s Virgil van Dijk spiked a staggering 27,000%. And although missed penalties are, unsurprisingly, cited as a common factor for an uptick in abuse, overall the study found “no strong link between the quality of the performances delivered by a black player and the level of racist hatred they later received.” However, Carrington clarifies that online abuse functions as “a formal disciplining of black footballers, and it also sends a warning to the other black public figures that if you want to speak out on certain issues around racism and politics, then there’s a cost.”

This explains just why it is that Rashford should receive such hatred for the unambiguously good and (one would think) uncontroversial act of helping to feed hungry children. It was enough that he dared to step out of the space in which he is (barely) permitted to excel, the football pitch, and into the political arena. He received similar treatment that outspoken Black sportspeople across Europe, America and beyond have received for many decades, albeit intensified by social media. As this thread from Sunder Katwala illustrates, social media companies are still woefully inadequate at dealing with racism aired on their platforms.

The same grim fate befell Tyrone Mings, who brilliantly called out Home Secretary Priti Patel’s hypocrisy after she condemned those who had subjected England’s players to “vile racist abuse on social media”:


It is important to remember that racists are not just a baying ‘mob’ of ‘ordinary’ people; amongst the thousands of replies and quote tweets, scores of ‘blue tick’ accounts queued up to chide Mings and remind him of his place. But popular sentiment was broadly against them on this one. Whilst they may have appeased Telegraph columnists, Patel and Johnson badly misjudged the national mood, with even Tory MPs such as Johnny Mercer and Steve Baker (hardly liberals!) criticising their party for its stance. Chardine Taylor-Stone is correct in saying that, following Mings’ lead, “What the left needs to do now is to highlight how the right has encouraged and enabled the racism that Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho are now facing.”

“We’ve got your back!” was The Sun’s galling headline on Tuesday, accompanied by pictures of Rashford, Sancho and Saka – as if they hadn’t recently published a column calling the act of taking the knee “virtue-signalling baloney” and a “grotesque woke pantomime”; as if they hadn’t published the infamous headline “Obscene Raheem”, attacking the “England failure” for “insulting fans” by buying his mother a house. But what’s new? These people have no shame.

*

Inspiring as the likes of Rashford, Sterling and Mings are, after over a decade of Tory rule in which British politics has shifted only further right, that a progressive vision of Englishness should seemingly depend so heavily on young sportsmen for its articulation hints at its fundamental weakness. The New Socialist editor, Tom Gann, is entirely correct to “worry about a kind of seemingly benign soft patriotic left liberalism that implicitly demands a few Black footballers take on the task of redefining national identity.” “There is a gap,” Gann warns, “between [acknowledging] these players did something pretty cultural-politically special & expecting that of them.” The fact that Rashford and Mings have been more effective opponents of the government than Keir Starmer is a damning indictment of Starmer’s leadership and the present direction of the Labour Party.

In Nations and Nationalism since 1780, Eric Hobsbawm wrote that, “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people,” and that sport had been co-opted by governments as a vehicle to “make national symbols part of the life of every individual”. Hobsbawm was reflecting on the upsurge in nationalism in interwar Europe, which bore witness to two particularly noteworthy England vs. Germany matches. The first, in December 1935, just weeks after the passing of the Nuremberg laws, was held, of all places, at North London’s White Hart Lane – home to Tottenham Hotspur, the team with  the biggest Jewish following in the country. According to a fascinating piece originally written for The Squall, the match was preceded by letters of complaint, threats of a mass walk-out and, on the day of the game, an anti-Nazi parade, which saw violent scuffles and arrests. The match went ahead with little drama on the whole, resulting in a 3-0 victory for England. A number of “veteran Communist demonstrators” were charged the next day, including “Ernie Wooley, a 24-year-old Shoreditch turner […] charged with maliciously and wilfully doing damage (to the amount of 3/6) by cutting the lanyard which held up the Nazi flag over the East Stand.” Wooley walked away free.

The next England-Germany encounter, in Berlin in 1938, saw the England football team notoriously follow orders (allegedly stemming from the British Ambassador in Berlin) to perform the Nazi salute before the match. Whether the British Government, or UEFA for that matter, would admit it or not, football has always been political. Needless to say, the fascist salute draws such a striking contrast as a political symbol with the taking of the knee that our current national football teams (men’s and women’s) engage in – a symbol of love, justice and solidarity.

Many leftists lined up to express solidarity with England’s Black players on the one hand and denounce patriotism on the other.

I couldn’t help but have a quick look at Twitter on the Monday morning after the final. Journalist Sabrina Huck’s tweet, “Having slight whiplash this morning from the speed at which the discourse swung from ‘we are all progressive patriots now’ to ‘England, still the most racist in Europe’,” seemed to sum up the discourse. Many leftists lined up to express solidarity with England’s Black players on the one hand and denounce patriotism on the other.

It is not for me to judge anyone’s choice to support the men’s national football team or not, especially when complex feelings surrounding identity come into play. Even for professional sportspeople, the question of national allegiance can be a thorny one. Declan Rice, a rock at the base of England’s midfield, won three caps for Ireland in 2018 before England swooped in, whilst Jack Grealish also represented Ireland in junior football. However, it was painful to read (admittedly as yet unconfirmed) reports that Callum Hudson-Odoi, the youngest player to represent England in a competitive international, had decided to switch international allegiance to Ghana, citing racism as a factor. Ghana is a wonderful footballing nation and obviously Hudson-Odoi has every right to choose to play for them, but the idea that racism might dissuade players of colour from wanting to represent England felt depressingly plausible.

Gareth Southgate has been hailed by many on the liberal-left as an inspiring example of progressive leadership, but it’s worth remembering that Southgate does bear the title of ‘The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire’, and in his ‘Dear England’ letter for The Players’ Tribune, extolled ‘the idea of representing “Queen and country”’, writing, “I’ve always had an affinity for the military. […]My belief is that everyone has that pride. And that includes the players.” But like Kenan Malik, from whose insightful piece on football and English national identity I have lifted the passages from Hobsbawm I cite in this article, “I am tribal about sport, not about the nation.” And that’s OK, right?


For Hobsbawm, nationalist projects of the interwar years “filled the void left by failure, impotence and the apparent inability of other ideologies, political projects and programmes to realise men’s hopes.” As Malik shrewdly adds, “No separate legislature, no sense of Englishness, will assuage the feeling of abandonment and loss of control that pervades much of politics in England. That requires a different kind of political project.” I daren’t try and map out what such a political project might look like here, in what still feels like the long wake of the defeat of Corbynism – but it certainly involves millions of football fans!

Those fans who stormed stadiums in London, Leeds, Liverpool and beyond, in protest at corporate plans for elite English sides to join a breakaway European Super League, were excellent exponents of direct action. The left should continue to throw its weight behind fans organising in support of the 50+1 model of majority fan ownership seen in Germany. And football fans have a vital role to play in combating racism both within their sport and in wider society. The love shown by the local community in Withington, Manchester, and those who came from farther afield, at the Rashford mural, is a magnificent example of this. 

Before the Euros final, football writer Jessy Parker-Humphreys wisely cautioned of the dangers of sneering at those fans who support England outside of the “euphoria” of a “successful tournament” when many liberal middle class people merely temporarily deem patriotism “palatable”:

“It becomes apparent how woefully fragile such a position is when England loses, and all of the fanfare and support immediately falls away. Footballers are once again spoilt and overpaid; their fans are once again racist hooligans; and the middle classes fade away, waiting for the next sporting event they can co-opt for their liberal ends.”

Only following football during major tournaments is perfectly acceptable, and even many diehard football fans fail to muster much enthusiasm for international football outside of such tournaments, but Parker-Humphreys is right to criticise “the kind of patriotism that decides to raise tens of thousands of pounds for a crying German girl” but fails to oppose Hostile Environment policies and support anti-racist movements within the UK. Many on Left Twitter spoke out against the “revolting classism” present in the statements of many middle-class condemnations of football fans; notably, those subsequently arrested for racist social media abuse include a Savills estate agent.


In the effort to fight racist hooliganism, there’s no need to condemn football fans outright and treat them as one homogeneous mass. In reality, as Stone writes, “Football’s actual fanbase … includes those who have formed Saturday football clubs for anarchists and leftwingers, and for queer women who just want to have a kickabout.” The left should continue to support initiatives like Fans Supporting Foodbanks, which exist as a shining contrast to groups like the far-right Football Lads Alliance. We must recognise the opportunity in Malik’s observation that, due to the “thinness of Englishness,” football stands as England’s “primary symbol”, with polling suggesting that “the England football team far outranks anything else as an image of an inclusive Englishness.”

For those of us who proudly got behind this multi-racial working class team, whose members have defended the NHS, fed hungry children, denounced racism and spoken in favour of LGBTQ rights, it is now time to redouble our efforts opposing a hard-right government who, along with their reactionary cheerleaders in the media, stand instead for a hollow patriotism, steeped in nationalism, exceptionalism and imperial nostalgia.

It is hard to gauge just how powerful sport can be as a vehicle for social progress, but as a football fan, there was something incredibly beautiful about the vision Bukayo Saka presented in his first heartfelt statement after returning to social media:

“This is what football should be about. Passion, people of all races, genders, religions and backgrounds coming together with one shared joy of the rollercoaster of football.”

Football didn’t ‘come home’ this time. But, even though they may not actually be Marxist revolutionaries, to be able to proudly support a men’s national team who fight for justice and equality feels like a bigger sporting victory than any I could have envisaged growing up.

Featured image CC BY 2.0 Dunk


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