There have always been two Englands. This morning I woke up with both weighing heavily on my mind. One, a young team, who epitomise the modern nation we should be proud of – and another, where the spectre of violence and racism should haunt us.
This is an England team who on their own footballing merit should be applauded. Last night was the first major tournament final we’ve competed in since 1966.
But these young men are so much more than that. Perhaps most famously, Marcus Rashford has used his position to advocate on behalf of young people living in poverty, and has forced the government to U-turn and feed these kids.
Others have raised money for our NHS and Grenfell, stood in solidarity with key workers, and used their positions to stand up for the LGBTQ+ community. All have taken the decision to take the knee at the start of fixtures to highlight the racism that persists in our country.
It is their success in promoting these progressive causes, often born from bitter personal experiences, that has led to the demonisation of these men by some of the most senior politicians in this country. The Tory government have repeatedly been shamed by the footballing community for their failures in supporting those from the same background that so many of the squad had grown up in.
In a bid to throw red meat to their base, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary said only a matter of weeks ago that England supporters were justified in booing players taking the knee. In doing so, they have undoubtedly emboldened a racist minority who bring shame to our country. Other childish imbeciles on the Tory benches have boycotted the tournament over the issue.
Make no mistake about it: for all their nationalistic rhetoric, these people hate this country. They claim to be patriotic but despise the diverse working-class communities that make up our portion of this island. There is no greater embodiment of England than the national team. It is perhaps a powerful, prominent example of what our country is (save for the fact the squad is obviously all male).
Politics and culture have always gone hand in hand. My own political awakening came during the tumultuous battles of the eighties, and the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85. As miners, we found support from communities across the globe. From France to Sweden and Vietnam, thousands of trade unionists campaigned for us.
We also drew the support from icons of global culture: Bruce Springsteen famously donated $20,000 to the Northumberland and Durham Miners Support Group in the aftermath of the dispute. Footballing legends lent their support too: Brian Clough was a strident supporter of miners and mining communities, arguing that ‘all right-minded working-class fans should contribute towards the miners’ fund’. Jack Charlton—himself a former miner—provided material support, famously lending pickets his car to travel the country. Both men were also founding supporters of the Anti-Nazi League in 1977.
In the past year and a half, our country has suffered collective despair, with so many losing loved ones and so many more feeling the crushing effects of government policies. The past few weeks have brought collective joy to so many, and though we were just unable to get over the line, this time should be remembered for bringing us together.
This has been undermined in the worst possible way by those who should have no place in our national sport. The vast majority of people in this country are appalled by the racism and violence that followed last night’s match. The vast majority will stand shoulder to shoulder with our squad in whatever they do to take on this abhorrent abuse.
To all those who have seized upon our failure in the ultimate lottery to tell young working-class black men to stick to football, I say this: if this England squad, whose social conscience has led them to promote LGBT+ rights, back key workers, and force the government to provide kids with free school meals choose to take their activism a step further, they have my full support.
Let me be clear, if these young men decide to withhold their labour from their clubs until something is done about the abhorrent racism that followed last night’s defeat, they will also have my full and active support.
It is time we finally exorcise the violence and racism of that other England that destroys football for so many. It is time for direct action and for football fans who were appalled at the scenes of last night to stand up beside a set of players who, over the past eighteen months, have refused to be silent in the face of injustice.