Winners, on and off the pitch
Published by The i paper (5th July, 2021)
One by one, the institutions that bind our country stumbled. We saw our collective faith in the banks, BBC, church, newspapers, police, politicians and Royal Family challenged, while populism and technology tore divisions in society. So it is strange how the one force alongside the health service that can still unite us is football, a money-drenched sport ripped from its traditional roots in local communities and riddled with corruption at top levels. Yet the national team retains that mystical power to bring shared joy in a spirit of togetherness – and this is why the English team matters for a nation uncertain about its role in the union and the world.
For this is a team that represents the real England, not the England of myths and nostalgia, the England shaped by loss of empire and triumph in a war that ended before most citizens were born. Our national sport, once stained by hooliganism and soiled by xenophobia, has become the most confident expression of a new national identity that is patriotic, progressive and proudly inclusive. The team takes the knee before games to the dismay of some sad reactionaries, yet these players stand in sharp contrast to all those culture warriors, politicians and rabble-rousers who seek to sow division and hate.
The manager exudes quiet authority, a dignified figure who understands sporting success can soothe deep wounds in a divided country. Gareth Southgate has said “everyone has a different idea of what it actually means to be English”, explaining how his own identity and sense of service were forged by his grandfather who served in the Second World War. Yet he has also spoken about remembering a game in which England hammered Luxembourg, significant since Luther Blissett became the first black player to score a hat-trick for his country. As he says, racists are on the losing side: “It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”
Southgate is a sensitive man who shows real leadership, in sharp contrast to all those preening politicians who think only of themselves as they play their tribal games, regardless of the consequences to their country. Meanwhile, players such as Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford seem as confident about their roles off the pitch as they are on the field of dreams, fighting for equality and social justice. Indeed, it is striking to see the fluency of even teenagers such as Bukayo Saka in post-match interviews. “I don’t remember any of us speaking with such clarity,” reflected former defender Rio Ferdinand.
This is an England team that embodies the diversity that should be such a source of pride in our country that has changed so much – and largely for the better – over the course of my lifetime of almost six decades. It shares this in common with the NHS, another institution both cherished and reliant on migrant staff. That group of young men in white shirts displaying skill and unity on the football pitch show how migration has shaped our nation, their performances underlining how new arrivals enrich and strengthen a place. They are far from alone: all 24 European nations in this tournament had players from migrant backgrounds, reflecting a rapidly changing continent.
So when you look at the latest generation of English lions playing with such spirit and pride, bear in mind that most are the children of families who moved here in search of better lives, the sort of people nationalists claim are invading our country and undermining our way of life. Seven of the starting line-up in the first game had at least one immigrant grandparent. Sterling was born in Jamaica, Saka’s parents moved from Nigeria in search of work, midfielder Kalvin Phillips is mixed-race with parents from Ireland and the Caribbean, and striker Harry Kane is the son of a migrant from Galway, who wears a rainbow armband as captain.
Football is a game exported around the world by British migrants – a point driven home by the Migration Museum, which I visited at the weekend in its temporary home of a shopping centre in Lewisham, south London. It explores how movement of people shapes people and societies. One wall was filled with notes about visitors’ tales of migration, each one a human drama in a couple of lines: the pastry chef from Switzerland, the refugee from Shanghai, the student from Syria, the man who found love from South Africa. “I am English, just like generations before me,” wrote a child of parents from Afghanistan andp Brazil.
Yet as excitement grows that this impressive England team might just end half a century of footballing hurt, we see another ugly attempt to scapegoat such people by politicians attempting to cover up their own failures. Priti Patel, the misanthropic child of migrants who backs fans booing the team when they take the knee against racism, wants to jail or deport those entering illegally rather than put them in a hotel while their asylum claim is processed. This is pure dog-whistle politics, just as when she lashes out at “do-gooders” and “lefty lawyers” rather than tackling her own department’s pathetic ineptitude that leads to so many legal setbacks.
Patel is also talking to Denmark about their plans to dump people fleeing war and torture in Rwanda, a murderous east African dictatorship responsible for conflicts that sparked misery for millions. Denmark is, of course, the nation facing England in this week’s semi-final. It is a country that displayed remarkable solidarity to protect its Jews against the Nazis but now passes laws to strip refugees of cash and forces Syrians back to their shattered country. So who are the real patriots – the politicians sowing division by scapegoating migrants and refugees or the footballers uniting under their flags in a showcase of inclusion? As Southgate says, we know who will win in the end.