Euro 2020: The Best of England… and Then the Worst

Getty Images/Carl Recine

That’s it. We’ve had the best of times. Now we are left with the worst of times.

Most of England’s success this summer happened on the pitch. The national team reached a major tournament final for only the second time in their history. And with each win, more flags went up around the country, more pints were bought, sipped, and duly launched high into the air for the perfectly acceptable reason of no reason at all. TV viewing figures hiked with every victory. Slowly, the momentum was beginning to build across the nation, just as it was doing on the turf at Wembley, at St George’s Park, and on one thoroughly enjoyable trip to Rome.

Then came the fall of the house of England. And with it, the fall of the house of common decency and tolerance. Once the immediate heartache and heartbreak of three missed penalties had abated even slightly, the next twelve hours seemed depressingly preordained. As England’s excellent footballers and mature men rallied around the three who had missed their penalties, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, it became clear what would happen as a result of their misfortune.

They would be racially abused.

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It is a very small minority of England fans who hold and express racist views. But their voices puncture even the loudest attempts to drown them out. Their hypocrisy is frightening. These so-called supporters of England were rolling around, muddying their red and white shirts when Raheem Sterling scored all of England’s first three goals at the tournament. They were throwing their pints and felt pride in their national team when Bukayo Saka ran free to force a crucial Denmark own-goal in the semi-final.

And so surely they would talk of their pride in the nation once England had lost honourably in the final by taking the tournament’s best side all the way to a penalty shootout? No. Instead they directed racist messages, public and private, at Rashford and Sancho and Saka — young men playing elite football at the ages of 23, 21 and 19 respectively. It turns out their love for England’s Black players was conditional. It was contingent on those players performing. As soon as they were no longer seen to be contributing to England’s cause on the pitch, they were no longer English at all. What sorted of twisted ‘fandom’ is that?

Well, put simply, it isn’t fandom. In the words of England’s captain and leader-by-example Harry Kane, “If you abuse anyone on social media you’re not an England fan and we don’t want you.”

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But there are people who still think like this, who racially abuse footballers they have never even met. People who hide behind their anonymous social media accounts and criticise young sportspeople trying their best by degrading them for the colour of their skin. It happens because these people still exist. They walk past us every day, wait for the bus next to us, pick up the next newspaper after us, and post a tweet at the same time as us. But it also happens because Twitter and Instagram and Facebook — and all of the others that haven’t been named but shouldn’t need to be named in order to feel responsible and act accordingly for reasons beyond ‘good PR’ — are too slow to act. In countless cases, they simply don’t act.

But this England team act. They’ve been showing themselves to be forces for good in society, many of them for a whole lifetime. Yet there have been some who have booed the Three Lions when they have taken the knee in the fight against racial injustice. What are they booing for? England have repeatedly justified their decision — one which needs no justification. They take the knee not to support the Black Lives Matter movement, but to fight injustice. It isn’t “gesture politics,” as Home Secretary Priti Patel called it. It is to educate and to promote equality, as Tyrone Mings rightly said. It is to promote unpolitical, universal principles that every human on earth should buy into and protect: respect and tolerance of all individuals.

Away from the pitch, this is a group of young players who have made tangible impressions on the fabric of English society. Marcus Rashford has drawn on his own childhood experiences to become a one-man beacon of hope for children without enough food to eat. He is also actively working to improve literacy among English children.

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Raheem Sterling singlehandedly started a conversation about the tabloid media’s hypocritical reportage of white footballers compared to non-white footballers. Since then, his continued work to fight racism in sport has seem him named an MBE. Jordan Henderson — also an MBE — has helped to donate millions of pounds for the NHS, and has strived to make LGBT+ fans feel more comfortable attending football matches.

Whether it’s Harry Maguire setting up a food parcel network for the elderly in Sheffield during the worst of the pandemic, or 21-year-old Reece James using his “opportunity and power” to help feed London’s most vulnerable, England’s stars have consistently shown themselves to be grounded in a footballing sense, but also ambitiously altruistic away from the pitch. Their success on the pitch this summer was always going to become a political football (pardon the pun). It was bound to be used for political gain. But the truth is that these young man have produced generational football on the pitch, and still found time to tackle some of English society’s biggest problems off it. They have shown politicians up.

The 26 men who just took England further in 2021 than they’ve ever been at a European Championships before are drawn from every corner of the country. Their life experiences and backgrounds are markedly different to each other’s. But one thing unites them all. These are all ordinary people from ordinary backgrounds. They just so happen to be extraordinary at football… yes, even Rashford, Sancho and Saka who simply failed to convert from the spot at the most pressured moment of their entire lives. Football as an industry is the closest thing anywhere to a true meritocracy; it’s important to remember that.

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So there is clearly a striking and ugly imbalance here. On the one hand, there are the players. They have sacrificed countless hours of socialising, schooling and sleep in their unique and remarkable journeys in order to become the nation’s very best footballers. Oh, and all the while they coordinate meaningful change in society because, basically, they think that’s a worthwhile thing to pursue.

On the other hand, there are the minority of England ‘fans’ who are only fans of England’s Black players when they win. At the first sign of trouble, they are out — and out to abuse. Bukayo Saka, quite apart from being a terrific right-winger for Arsenal and England, is a human being. His name is Bukayo. His age is 19. His GCSEs include four A*-grades and three A-grades. He missed a penalty. He didn’t mean to miss the penalty. He will take a holiday, and then he will return to his club. He will remain an England player. He has shown he deserves to be an England player. His family love him. He deserves to be treated decently, if not with total admiration.

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And alongside this deplorable minority, there is a larger minority also not pulling their weight. A group also contributing to the ugly imbalance. They are of course the many thousands who turned Leicester Square into a scene from a faraway war. And the 5,000 ticketless thugs who kicked and punched and forced their way into Wembley Stadium and scared the stadium staff so much that they simply let them barge on through. And then there are the fans who fought outside the ground, who fought once they were in, and who continued their mindless violence after England had lost a football match. And the fans who turned up without a ticket just to enjoy a day of eternal drinking and rampant misogyny to any passing women. They were always going to smash their bottles and kick strangers and try to force their way in. There was no jeopardy for them, no threat of having to pay for their recklessness. For their abuse.

From that 30°C afternoon victory over Croatia at Wembley to the last-gasp win over Denmark in the semi-finals, this has been a summer of overdue catharsis. A summer of reuniting. But once England had made the final, it all got a bit heady and a bit out of hand.

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The complexities of Englishness and of English patriotism are forever being discussed and debated. But losing is a part of life. If national unity is strong enough only to endure moments of ease but not moments of adversity, was there ever unity in the first place?

To support England is a process of giving and taking. England’s players have given the nation a hell of a lot of joy over the past month. Many also continue to give back to society now that they are in the position to do so. The worst of England’s so-called supporters have been given more than enough footballing moments to cherish this summer — they’ve done their taking. Now they must learn to give. They must be civil and respectful. Crucially, they must show that their love for England is unconditional. If they cannot do that, they support very little in the way of principles.

They must decide whether they truly support England.

support (verb): to hold up.

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