By Jim – London FLAF [Leeds & England fan]
For many on the left, supporting the England football side hasn’t been easy. Particularly in the years when following England away was associated with football violence and the far-right. I haven’t always found it easy either, having been born in a different country. The year I attended my first England game was 1995, the same year the press claimed that the neo-Nazi gang Combat 18 started the riot among England fans at Landsowne Road in Dublin. My school had been offered tickets for a game against Switzerland and a load of kids from my class went. [Editor’s Note: It was subsequently established that C18 played a relatively minor role, if any, in the Dublin riot. There was enough of a generally anti-Irish element among England’s hooligans to cause the mayhem without the impetus of MI5’s Nazi Honeypot].
The following year, Euro ‘96 was hosted in England. “Football’s Coming Home” was sung everywhere, at games, in playgrounds and homes. Adapted to a chant, this gave us a way to express our support for the side without expressing nationalistic or jingoistic sentiments.
I only managed to get tickets for one game, but having been in the third row at the end Gazza scored his goal against Scotland is a memory I’ll treasure for the rest of my life. The rest of the matches I watched with school friends. Even though we supported different clubs, supporting England gave us a way of watching football where we could all share in the highs and lows of the same team. I still talk to those friends about England, 25 years on.
When I first got involved in the left in the early ’00s there was a pressure not to support the England team, to adopt the ‘Anyone But England (ABE)’ position which comes so easily to our Irish, Scottish and Welsh friends and comrades. But I was lucky enough to meet some anarchists through anti-fascism who supported England in football, partly out of not wanting to totally concede that cultural space to the right, but also because we had all grown up supporting the team and because watching international football together is an enjoyable experience [especially when we’re winning].
Around that time, British National Party (BNP) youth leader Mark Collett appeared in a documentary with Russell Brand, appropriately called “Naziboy”, which was filmed during the 2002 World Cup. In one scene, Brand accompanies Collett to a pub to watch the England vs Argentina group game. Collett is filmed knocking back pints of Carling, going on racist and homophobic diatribes before the game, then watching the match closely, celebrating Beckham’s penalty and then closely clutching his skinhead friend when England won.
Back then the British far right were still closely associated with supporting England. But since then, things have been changing. The BNP rose, fell and is now irrelevant. The EDL went through the same processes, introducing an estimated 35,000 people to far-right street politics and plenty of anti-fascists to the chant “You’re Not English Anymore”. But as all this was happening, the ability of the far right to organise at football was gradually fading away.
Campaigns to drive fascists out of football, like Leeds Fans United Against Racism and Fascism, which were set up in the 80s found some success in the 90s. Those grassroots campaigns coincided with the launch of the Premier League in 1992, the release of Fever Pitch that year, which contributed to opening up of the game to the middle-classes, and the launch of ‘Let’s Kick Racism Out of Football’ the following year, which was supported and funded by the game’s governing bodies. Racism was becoming unacceptable at football.
None of those developments have ended racism at football. It might be less common in stadiums, although anybody who goes to games regularly will be able to tell you of occasions they’ve heard racist abuse, but social media has made it happen 24/7. Racist fans don’t even need to go to matches to abuse players, they can just open an app and tweet their abuse directly onto the phones of the players they’re trying to harass. But this technological shift has happened after decades of struggle against racism in football.
These past struggles have empowered players to stand up for themselves, but one of the main reasons has simply been a refusal to accept racist treatment. There was a racist attack on Raheem Sterling outside his training ground in December 2017, the following year he started to speak out, criticising the media for the role they play in stoking racism. This appears to have been the start of the England team publicly opposing racism. By the time of the October 2019 away game in Bulgaria, the team were openly saying they might walk off the pitch if they suffered racist abuse. During the game, they very nearly did and the travelling fans chanted “You racist bastards, you know what you are” at the Bulgarian fans.
George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis in May 2020, which sparked the latest wave of the global Black Lives Matter (BLM) anti-racism movement, many of the black players in the England side expressed their support for the movement. Leeds United’s Kalvin Phillips wrote an opinion piece for the club’s website encouraging fans to support BLM, other players used their social media accounts and media profiles to throw their backing behind BLM. But a lot of this happened while football was suspended because of the pandemic.
When football returned, with games being held in empty stadiums, nearly every level of English football saw players take the knee in solidarity with the BLM movement. This continued through the pandemic and when England’s players met ahead of their September 2020 game against Iceland, they decided they would take the knee, as they had been doing in their domestic games, and continue expressing this solidarity in empty grounds.
At the start of December fans were allowed back into some stadiums. This gave racist fans at a handful of clubs the opportunity to boo players taking the knee. At a time when culture wars are being pushed by the ruling class and dividing working class communities, this should come as little surprise. It also gave some of the ruling class politicians who are keenly trying to push culture war narratives an opportunity to portray a minority of racist football fans as being broadly representative of working class concerns about anti-racism.
When England played two friendlies ahead of the Euros in Middlesbrough, this was the first time they had played in front of a crowd since the start of the pandemic and the first opportunity for any England fans to register their opposition to players taking the knee. Inevitably a minority of fans booed when the players took the knee and this was keenly reported on by the media, looking for a controversial story ahead of the Euros. Ahead of Euro ‘96 it was the England players and the dentist’s chair, today it’s players being ‘woke’.
The right-wing of the Tories and Farage hubristically decided to attack the England team for taking the knee, accusing them of endorsing a Marxist organisation. These were rugby types who thought England would get knocked out early in the tournament and when this happened they could claim it was because the players alienated the fans by taking the knee. A political gamble made by people who aren’t football people and underestimated the team.
Tory MP Lee Anderson hasn’t watched any of the England games this tournament because the players are taking the knee. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel both publicly defended the minority of racist fans who were booing the players anti-racist gesture, putting themselves at odds with the team and the majority of the country.
Former BNP youth leader Mark Collett – who was filmed supporting England in World Cup 2002 – and leads a new fascist party called Patriotic Alternative, now actively wants England to lose. Collett has said on a number of livestreams recently that he no longer supports the England team because half of them aren’t white and he instead wanted “Russia or Hungary or the Czech Republic” to win the Euros which he claimed would be “absolutely fantastic”.
A lot of British racists don’t feel they can support the current England team. Which is great, these people need to be alienated from football grounds.
It’s going to be funny watching Marcus Rashford and the rest of the “woke babies” saunter into Downing Street for the inevitable post-tournament reception, however the final goes, their performances in this tournament have done enough that all the politicians who criticised the team for their passion for social justice ahead of the tournament will now be desperate to try and bask in the collective glory the players have earnt for themselves.
When the England and German players took the knee ahead of their memorable round-of-16 clash last week, England captain Harry Kane was wearing a rainbow flag armband in solidarity with the LGBT community ahead of Pride Month. This was because the German captain Manuel Neuer had been wearing such an armband all tournament and been investigated by UEFA. After the game Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson tweeted his support and has since worn rainbow laces. These might just be gestures but coming from such prominent players they speak volumes and show how much society is changing.
There’s one thing which has become clear to every England fan who has ever opposed racism, opposed homophobia and fought for a better world. This England side belongs to us.