Much has been made of the youth (and inexperience) of Gareth Southgate’s England squad that flies out to Russia tomorrow for the World Cup, writes Steve Ballinger. England has the the lowest combined average age and caps of any squad at the World Cup this year. Both on and off the pitch, the players seem a little less weighed-down by the burden of expectation than previous England sides: bonding over games of Fortnite, appearing more relaxed than robotic in interviews and even showing a little more flair and daring in the final third during the last two warm-up games.
What has passed without notice, however, is the ethnic make-up of the team. With 11 black or mixed heritage players out of 23, this is the most diverse squad ever to represent England at a World Cup. At the Euros in 2016, the final 23-man squad included nine non-white players. And just six BAME players made the ill-fated trip to Brazil back in 2014: of those, only Raheem Sterling and Danny Welbeck are returning four years later, showing just how much new blood there is in the side that kicks off against Tunisia next Monday night.
Most of us would, I think, be quite surprised if anyone had noticed the players’ ethnic backgrounds. Football has moved on from the 1970s, both at club level – where black players like Cyrille Regis were subjected to hateful racist chants – and in our national team too. Viv Anderson, England’s first black player, was racially abused by our own fans when he first broke through in 1978. Some idiots even refused to count goals scored by black players (including one of the best England goals of all time, scored by John Barnes). In 2018, Raheem Sterling may have got some recent grief for his tattoo and his time-keeping, but not for the colour of his skin.
It is mainly when English footballers have played in other countries, for club or country, that they have most encountered racism. That may be a concern at this tournament, with well-documented links between Russian football hooligans and far-right groups. Black players in the French team were recently abused when they played Russia in one of the stadiums to be used for the World Cup. Ashley Young revealed recently that the England players have talked about what they would do if they are subjected to racist chanting. One feels confident of where the sympathies of all England fans would lie, in the sad event that it were to happen.
That does not mean that racism and prejudice have gone away entirely in Britain, of course, including in football. Kick It Out, football’s anti-discrimination organisation, received more complaints in the 2016-17 season than ever before, with 469 reports of racist, sexist or other abuse. Reported hate crime has also risen in the last two years. A toxic minority continue to hold and express prejudiced views, including violently. British Future recently launched a new campaign, No Place for Prejudice, urging the decent majority in Britain to call out prejudice if they see it, including advice on what to do if you witness hate crime.
Some footballing milestones are still to be reached. The first British Asian player to break into the Premier League and to wear the Three Lions will still be a future breakthrough moment. Danny Batth of Wolverhampton Wanderers has come one step closer to that, becoming the first player of Indian origin to captain a side to the Premier League. And BAME representation in football management remains woefully low. It was good to see West Bromwich Albion reward Darren Moore with the permanent manager’s job after his valiant effort to keep them in the Premier League: if he gets them back up it would be impossible to deny him the chance of a decent run of games in the top tier.
But it would be unusual in the UK today to see a top-level team without any non-white players. So why bother highlighting the ethnic diversity of our team, if no-one cares about it any more? Interestingly, it’s precisely because no-one cares. The ethnic make-up of our team tells us something about the growing diversity of our nation, but its non-newsworthiness tells us a lot more about public attitudes to race and ethnicity.
Diversity is the ‘new normal’ on the football pitch, in the classroom and, increasingly, in our politics. New Home Secretary Sajid Javid will be judged on his policies, not his skin colour – in fact he’s third favourite with the bookies to be the next Tory leader. 80% of Britons say they would feel comfortable with a Prime Minister of a different ethnicity to their own and a non-white Prime Minister is probably just a matter of time.
Research for our recent report Many Rivers Crossed, marking 50 years since Enoch Powell’s infamous Rivers of blood speech, found that most people agree we are less prejudiced today than in the past. It also found that three-quarters of Britons would feel comfortable with their child marrying someone of a different ethnicity – and that as a nation we felt at ease, or actively positive, about Meghan Markle becoming the first mixed-race member of the Royal Family.
With a good run in Russia (which for me means the quarter-finals, maybe the semis if we’re lucky), the Three Lions could even bring the English together a bit more as a nation. According to a Survation poll for British Future, England’s football team feels equally-owned by people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds in the nation today. Three quarters of the general public (74%) and of ethnic minorities (74%) say that the England football team is a symbol of England that belongs to people of every race and ethnic background in England today. That compares to much lower scores for other symbols of England, like the St George’s flag, a St George’s Day party or ‘calling yourself English’, all of which score below 60%.
While some may have reservations about celebrating England and Englishness outside the stadium – worrying that they’re not allowed to, or that they haven’t been invited to join in – that changes when our sportsmen and women take to the field.
Like the England squad, England’s support includes people of all faiths and ethnic backgrounds, much like the country we are today. That squad will carry with it to Russia the hopes of a nation. There will be some highs, some lows and probably some penalties over the weeks to come – but we will cheer and weep together.