More than just a game – what we can learn from the Euros

On the eve of the England football teams appearance in its first major final since 1966. Dave Kellaway assesses the tournament and its effect on the country.

 

Johnson’s government believes its culture wars against movements like Black Lives Matter or those defending gay or trans rights can boost its electoral support, including with Labour voters. Consequently, Tory ministers like Pritti Patel have refused to condemn those ‘fans’ who have booed the English team when it took the knee just before kick-off in solidarity with anti-racist campaigns. Lee Anderson, a Tory MP went so far as launching a one-person boycott of all England’s games until they stopped doing it.  The local Labour Party showed some of the flair missing at the top of their party by organising an advertising van to tour the constituency with the slogan – ‘He’s staying home’.  As the England team has gone from strength to strength and reached the final while maintaining taking the knee in every match it seems the Tory offensive has floundered.  While there are still some racist fans booing when they make the symbolic protest it has diminished and a perception that the team represents tolerance, diversity and progressive attitudes have begun to take hold.

When the English manager, Gareth Southgate, writes a letter to England where he openly defends a new progressive, tolerant form of ‘Englishness’ the media can hardly avoid covering it. It is worth quoting some extracts just to realise how different it is from anything Alf Ramsey said in 1966. The World Cup-winning manager then called the Argentinean animals and refused to shake hands with them.

It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate. (…)

 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. (…)

It might not feel like it at times, but it’s true. The awareness around inequality and the discussions on race have gone to a different level in the last 12 months alone. 

I am confident that young kids of today will grow up baffled by old attitudes and ways of thinking.

(…) In a funny way, I see the same Englishness represented by the fans who protested against the Super League. We are independent thinkers. We speak out on the issues that matter to us and we are proud of that.

Gareth southgate

Southgate even references the fans’ protest against the ultra-corporate European Super League. Anti-racist campaigners have picked up a mood change. Shaista Aziz is an anti-racism campaigner and a member of the FA’s Refugee and Asylum Seekers Football Network. She wrote an article for the Guardian making these points.

The England team are taking a stand against bigotry, and people like my friends and me feel they’re playing for all of us. (…)

People of colour and marginalised people know we are a tiptoe away from racism and bigotry, which is why Gareth Southgate’s inclusive England team is winning so many hearts. By taking the knee, by standing against homophobia and bigotry, this team is playing for all of us.

shaista aziz

Some progress?

Campaigning against racism and homophobia can make breakthroughs that are reflected at institutional levels. Official European promotions and corporate advertising have talked a lot about respect for diversity and showing racism the red card.  Football is the number one sport in terms of participation and audience both here and internationally. It is often the easiest means of communication when people meet from different countries and cultures. As internationalists, we encourage people to communicate at every level across ethnicities and nations. Clubs are increasingly international in the major European leagues. A fan of Manchester City or Arsenal will be knowledgeable about many great players from different countries. This leads to a more open, less prejudiced response to other national teams in tournaments like the Euros. It is one of the few upsides to the corporate erosion of club links with local communities. We see this with the players too. In the tunnel before the game and afterwards you see the hugs. To the extent that the English player Mount had to self isolate after giving an embrace to a fellow Chelsea player who plays for Scotland.

Some of the major national teams such as France, Switzerland and England look completely different from the teams of 30 years ago. It is harder for the far right or fascists to define Englishness with whiteness when you look at the England team today. This reinforces the ideology of multiculturalism and diversity.  When France won the World Cup with their multi-racial team the leader of the racist Front National at the time, Jean Marie le Pen refused to accept it as a French team.

Does this mean all is sweetness and light? Of course not, look at the way the British press treated Euros’ star Raheem Sterling for a long time – he was seen as the well paid uppity black with a chip on his shoulder. The press ventilated the racist trope of young black men and violence because he had a rifle tattooed on his right leg. In fact, it was a reference to him opposing the violence that took his own father by ‘shooting goals’.  Even after a recent win in which Raheem scored the decisive first goal nearly all the front pages featured Harry Kane, a white player (though also from an Irish immigrant family). Benzema, the French striker of North African Arab heritage was left out of the squad for a long time because he had raised issues about the treatment of minority ethnic players. After Mbappe missed the vital penalty in the decisive shootout against Switzerland last week the mother of Rabiot a white French teammate, went on a tirade against him and Pogba (another black power). 

How should the Left respond?

Of course, the left needs to be careful how it presents this process. We do not defend migrants rights or open borders just because there are some great black footballers, athletes or others with great talents.  Even racists will sometimes say there are ‘good’ and ‘bad’ immigrants. We defend the ordinary, the average migrant that the Home Secretary wants to lock up in some awful offshore holding station or in a badly run detention centre. People can simultaneously be in favour of lots of black footballers in the England team but for ending free movement in Europe and cutting back on all immigration. It is a bit like club fans supporting their own black player but booing or racist catcalling black players from other clubs.

Nevertheless, it is both ultra-left and ignoring reality to see nothing positive or different about the impact of this England team. An article in this week’s Socialist Worker just sees the whole Euros being recuperated by Boris Johnson’s government.

It’s a diverse team, they say. Its players take the knee. We can all unite behind this progressive patriotism.

It’s plastic rubbish. There’s a reason why Boris Johnson looks more comfortable in front of a flag than Starmer or Jones.

National unity—no matter how twee and fluffy—unites us with those at the top and sets us against those from “outside”.

If football comes home, it’s going to Johnson’s house. Let’s not stand at the front door begging to be let in.

socialist worker article

The writer fails to see any change from previous teams, no shift in attitudes and no new political space. Like those on the left who supported Brexit and saw no point in defending the gain of free movement in Europe because it was not the full socialist solution of completely open borders. Everything or nothing is the order of the day here.   It assumes all people waving the English flag are ‘uniting’ with Johnson. True most racists will be enthusiastic flag wavers but not all flag wavers will be racists. Waving a flag at a football match is not the same as social democracy capitulating to the inter-imperialist First World War effort.  It is a bit like the contradiction of striking miners back in the 80s fighting police on picket lines with copies of the anti-worker Sun or Express in their back pockets. Things are a bit more contradictory than Socialist Worker suggests. Ideological cultural institutions do ultimately help to reproduce the capitalist order but they are also structured by class divisions and a contingent ideological conflict. As we saw with the furore over the European Superleague. Players like Rashford, the leader of the opposition who has forced the government into a U-turn on food poverty or Kane wearing a Gay Pride armband opens up space for socialists to talk to lots of people about these issues. It opens some doors nothing more, nothing less.

Against progressive patriotism

However, some on the left go a bit far and actually try hard to construct a rather artificial ‘progressive’ English patriotism.  Martin Fletcher in the New Statesman attempts to do this.  It is one thing for the left not to exaggerate the significance of the flag-waving, it is quite another for the left to actually start handing out the flags. We can celebrate diversity, anti-racism and support for LBGT rights without defining some national limits. It is even more ridiculous to do this if at the same time you deny the national realities of Scotland or Wales. Inevitably progressive patriotism will come into conflict with the reality of class exploitation and class struggle which breaks up any idea of national unity. Indeed a worker in England has more in common with a worker in France, India or China than his English boss. Nobody is suggesting we ignore the complex cultural realities of the society we live in. Our action as socialists needs to take that into account in how we speak and act.  Nevertheless, if we want to build an eco-socialism to replace this broken system you have to lock in internationalism from the start otherwise you go down the dead-end of building ‘socialism in one country’.  You cannot build some progressive English patriotism and then add in some internationalism later on.

One of the problems with the ubiquitous ‘It’s Coming Home’ anthem is that it reinforces the myth of English exceptionalism and the almost colonial ownership of a truly international game. Even historically it is not strictly accurate as there is evidence of an analogous ball game in China called cuju during the Han dynasty from 206 BC to 220 AD. The Ancient Greeks also played a game called episkyros. Although as the leading imperialist power in 1863 it was Britain that drew up the rules and founded football institutions Scotland played a key role in changing the tactics of the game, basically developing passing as we know it today. Just because Britain played a significant role historically in its institutionalisation does not mean it is a ‘home’ for football today.

So the left should not get wound up about Johnson gaining an electoral bounce from the football success. Even his vaccine bounce was shown to be fragile in the Amersham by-election. It is hard as an Eton Wall Gamer and a ‘rugger’ man for him to adopt a soccer fan persona.  Victory (a tempting fate I know) against Italy on Sunday will have a contradictory impact. Sure it will inspire some nationalists and racists but it will also be a victory for a team that has stood up for diversity and anti-racism. Bill Shankly, the legendary Liverpool manager, might once have said football was more important than life or death but like most managers, he was exaggerating. At the end of the day, it’s just a game and it is not entirely reducible to politics.

Here is our Euros list of heroes/heroines and villains:

Heroes/Heroines

Ronaldo – for dumping the Coca-Cola bottles in the press conference and wiping a billion off the company’s shares

Rashford – been a bit on the bench but still the leader of the opposition and ready to stop the Universal Credit cut

Harry Kane – for wearing the rainbow armband during pride month

Southgate – for defending team diversity and taking the knee as well as not being like all the previous England managers

Emma Hayes   – best analyst and the other women now on all the pundit’s panels

Mayor of Munich and other German clubs who put on rainbow colours to respond to Orban’s hatred

Joel Hughes of Caerleon, Newport who raised £36,000  to show the little German girl crying after the England victory that not everyone in the UK is horrible. The photo had been shared on social media with the most appalling racist comments.  

The anonymous gay rights protester with the flag who ran onto the pitch at the beginning of the Germany vs Hungary match.

Mark Perryman – the daddy of the left as regards Football, his deep entry work with the English fans is paying off.

Villains

UEFA for blocking the mayor of Munich lighting up the match stadium in rainbow colours and generally being reluctant to allow too much politics to disrupt the game

Lee Anderson, the Tory MP who is still boycotting the England games

The Times newspapers and most of the Tory press who opposed taking the knee

Priti Patel – I know she goes on all the villain lists but she refused to condemn English fans booing the team taking the knee

Laurence Fox – same as Patel

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Dave Kellaway is on the Editorial Board of Anti*Capitalist Resistance, a member of Socialist Resistance, and Hackney and Stoke Newington Labour Party, a contributor to International Viewpoint and Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres.


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