9 July 2021

Football tells the story of who we, the English, are today

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In this extract from the report 'Beyond a 90-minute nation' from British Future and the Centre for English Identity and Politics, Sunder Katwala looks at how football changed who we thought of as English – and how we need to celebrate English identity outside of the stadium, too.

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It was that glorious summer when Football Came Home that changed how I felt about England.

That the most confident expression of an inclusive English identity should come from football was a surprising development. During the trials and tribulations of the 1980s, football was more likely to be seen as central to the problem of how national identity could take violent and xenophobic forms.

So, a quarter of a century on, as the England team sets its sights on a Wembley final once again, it is important to understand the significant contributions that England’s football team has made in providing a positive vision of a modern, shared English identity – as well as to consider what needs to happen to extend that idea beyond sport and across society.

How football changed who we thought of as English

The imagined nation of millions is never more real than as a team of eleven named individuals”, wrote the historian Eric Hobsbawm. Football has done more than any other sphere of our national life to change who we now think of as English.

Nobody had told my 8-year-old self that there was any question of whether I could be English. As an avid reader of Shoot! Magazine, I would anxiously follow the saga of whether Kevin Keegan would be fit to go to Spain in 1982. But I understood that others found this a more complicated question by the time that I was a teenager. Being a football fan, with an Everton season ticket, introduced me to a scale of overt and public racism that my children’s generation will never witness. Yet it was largely football that was to introduce me to anti-racism too.

When Viv Anderson took the field for England against Czechoslovakia in 1978, he had become the first Black English international footballer. The game became the site of a fierce public argument about who could be English. Cyrille Regis has spoken powerfully of how, on being picked for England in 1982, he received a bullet in the post, warning him not to set foot on the Wembley turf. That same year when John Barnes dribbled through the Brazil defence in the Maracana to put England two-nil up, the National Front contingent in the away support chanted “one-nil” instead. This may have been one of the great modern England goals, but the NF argument was that “black goals don’t count.”

That pioneering generation of footballers had won the argument decisively by the time the 1990s began. When Paul Ince wore the armband to become England’s first black captain in 1993, there was no public controversy as to whether he was English. Many people would now be surprised to find out that, when John Barnes came on as a late substitute in the 1986 World Cup quarter-final against Argentina, he was the first black England player to play in the World Cup finals.

Football’s place in our national culture and identity remained rather more complex. Italia ’90 – Pavarotti’s Nessun Dorma, Gazza’s tears and penalties – had been a foundational moment in changing the status of modern football. But this was only a year after Hillsborough, and came while English club sides were banned from playing in European tournaments for the five years after the Heysel tragedy of 1985. Euro ’96 itself came just months after England’s friendly international in Dublin was abandoned the previous Autumn, with the far-right Combat-18 group playing a central role in that riot.

There could be a mixed, edgy atmosphere in the pubs around England matches. I would not have risked following the national team to an away game in the years before Euro ’96. But, at home, I took part in the ‘Raise the Flag’ initiative where 40 volunteers would get to Wembley six hours before kick-off to lay out the white and red cards for a giant St George’s Cross, and the flag of our opponents too. The challenge to racism in football culture involved many active efforts around both clubs and country, to foster the confident and inclusive sense of fan culture that broke through on the national stage as England hosted the Euros.

How Euro ’96 reshaped a modern footballing Englishness

The magic of Euro ‘96 was partly about the football. Terry Venables’ England team played with a confidence that would have been unimaginable when Graham Taylor’s team had failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup. The magnificent 4-1 victory over the Netherlands has a good claim to be the best English performance of modern times. The semi-final with Germany, ending in a penalty shoot-out defeat, was an epic occasion. Few England fans old enough to remember it will forget the atmosphere of that summer.

Euro ’96 changed many things off the pitch too. England thinks of itself as a country of evolutionary rather than revolutionary change. Yet the remaking of Football Englishness at Euro ’96 involved several shifts of identity off the pitch that echo the founding moments of modern states. England supporters changed which flag we flew in the stadium – and even adopted a new (unofficial) national anthem.

It had been Union Jacks that fluttered in the Wembley sunshine when England won the World Cup thirty summers before. Now the St George’s Flag dominates the Wembley skyline. It is not entirely clear why the flags changed that summer. Being tournament hosts – and the luck of the draw putting England and Scotland in the same group at a major tournament for the first time – had a lot to do with it.

Despite getting the flag right from 1996, English teams continue to officially use the anthem of the United Kingdom, even if playing Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. Yet the inclusive Englishness of 1996 was best captured by a new unofficial anthem, Three Lions, encapsulating the spirit with which England would host the tournament.

The song rewrote the narrative of England’s football history. A dominant charge against English football had often been that of arrogance: that the country that invented the game had never come to terms with losing to foreigners. Yet Three Lions disrupts and rejects this notion. A tournament single sung from the viewpoint not of the players, but the fans, could reveal a different truth. England no longer expects. (“All those oh-so-nears wear you down through the years”). Rather, supporting England involves a triumph of hope over experience. (“Thirty years of hurt never stopped me dreaming”). The nostalgia is not just for that one famous victory – “Jules Rimet still gleaming” – which took place before many fans were born, but about the experiences that we have shared since too.

So Three Lions is an anthem that captures what it is to be a nation: the shared moments we experience together, whether of victory or defeat, turn not just into personal memories but into shared stories, legends and myths about who we are, which underpin and inform our ambitions for the future. 25 years on, Three Lions could even be understood as an English anthem about how to be at ease with being a middling power.

After Euro ’96: race and identity in sport and beyond

In this century, the multi-ethnic nature of a modern England team has simply become an unremarkable norm. More than 100 black or mixed-race players, nearly a third of those capped for England since Viv Anderson, have worn the three lions. The foundational arguments have long been settled – on the pitch by the mid-1990s and, increasingly, off it too in the years since.

This reflects a big social shift – not least because half of ethnic minorities in England are English-born. Many of the first generation of Commonwealth migrants – like my father, from India – were proud to become British, but few felt that they were invited to become English too. Holding a British passport symbolised that this was the shared identity of citizenship. The unspoken assumption was that English, Scottish and Welsh identities belonged primarily to the native population.  But that has often felt different to their English-born children, who felt a birthright claim to both identities. This was one reason why Paul Ince and Ian Wright faced fewer challenges to their status as English than Cyrille Regis or John Barnes before them.

More broadly, Gareth Southgate has spoken of his desire that the England team “have the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves.”

“We’re a team with our diversity and our youth that represents modern England,” he said, ahead of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals in Russia. “In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us.”

England’s team is not entirely a microcosm of our multi-ethnic society: there have been very few Asian professional footballers yet. But the British Future research captures that fans of all ethnic backgrounds feel a sense of connection to the team. And the Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford generation, inheriting the progress of the past, has brought a new voice to issues of race and social action.

Racism still exists, in sport and in wider society. It is a small, shrinking minority that believes in an ethnically exclusive England. The problem of the 2020s is that this racist fringe is amplified by a social media presence, while the overt racism that was given a red card in the stadiums still gets a green light from the social media rules. “Black goals don’t count – no blacks in the England team” is the kind of indefensible racism that Twitter and Facebook rules currently permit, even as these platforms share anti-racism hashtags in an expression of solidarity. This spring saw a symbolic boycott by football players, clubs and other sports, protesting this failure to tackle racist abuse.

What next? Beyond a 90 minute nation

The power of sport matters. It may matter more in an increasingly individualistic and fragmented age. As they become scarcer, the handful of events that might bring fifteen million or more of us together at one time are even more valuable. Having a multi-ethnic team does not make a national identity that is inclusive, but it offers an idea about who we are now, that most people believe in. It is time for that idea to be projected outside of the stadium too.

We live today in a more consciously multi-national state, where most of us identify with more than one flag. Sporting fans have been used to this pluralism of identities for much longer: supporting our national football teams before cheering for Team GB at the Olympic Games.

Outside of sport, the politics of national identity have become more fraught, playing a central role in major political arguments – like those over Brexit, or the future of the United Kingdom – that can split our societies down the middle. This can undoubtedly make efforts to entrench civic and inclusive national identities more difficult. It should also make national symbols which bridge even the deepest political divides more valuable still. When the England, Scotland and Wales national teams play in Euro 2021 they will command support across political and referendum tribes – offering one reminder that those with opposing views on the biggest political questions need to find ways to disagree and live together.

England could learn from Scotland, once thought of as a ‘90-minute nation’. The Scotland of the 2020s is much less dependent on the vicissitudes of sporting success for its sense of status, both at home and abroad. In qualifying for Euro 2021, its team will not carry the burden of national identity that the Scottish teams of the 1970s and 1980s once did.

It is harder to find positive recognition of England outside of the sporting sphere. Our football team has told the story of who we, the English, are today, while other national voices and institutions have failed to speak for England. Our society has seen significant inter-generational progress on an inclusive Englishness – but that remains work in progress. A stronger effort to foster that civic and inclusive Englishness beyond the stadium is long overdue.

This piece is extracted from ‘Beyond a 90-minute nation: Why it’s time for an inclusive England outside of the stadium‘, by British Future and the Centre for English Identity and Politics. British Future and voices across faith and civic society are inviting everyone in England to show their support for an inclusive English identity by supporting the #EnglandTogether campaign.




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