England & Wales Culture, sport and tourism, Welfare and equalities

What did Euro 2020 tell us about our ongoing failure to tackle racism in society and what lessons can we learn from it?


Photo by Ellen Kerbey on Unsplash

Peter Smith, LGIU Commissioning Editor – England, explores historical and contemporary racism in football and how sport can be used to educate communities and the children in them to help us move forward.

So, on 11 July 2021, the England men’s football team finally got to the final of a major international tournament for the first time in 55 years. I am 56 years (and a half) so I don’t remember the 1966 World Cup but I do remember the 1970s, when my dad would take me to football games at St James Park and Elland Road and, from the security of the seated stands, I would witness the sheer hatred of opposing fans on the terraces screaming obscenities at each other, describing the cranial damage that they would seek to inflict on the occupants of the opposite terrace, once they left the stadium.

Thankfully, that historical hooliganism of English football is no more but it has been replaced by a new online ‘hooliganism’ that has a more global and political impact: see the social media responses to the penalty misses by the young Black English players; Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Buyaka Saka, and the booing that accompanied the ‘taking the knee’ (a US sporting import) by the England team, especially during the friendly matches that led up to the tournament proper.

Open racism was prevalent at football grounds in the 70s and 80s (bananas being thrown at John Barnes when he stepped up to take a corner, and the monkey chants for all black players of renown), but in the 90s there was a dawning recognition among football fans that their teams were being improved by the procurement of players of all hues from across the globe, the nation and from within their local communities. I recall the time in 1993 when Newcastle United bought the young Bristol City striker, Andrew Cole, for a then-record club fee (£1.75m – a mere pittance today, of course) and he was given the cherished No. 9 shirt – previously worn by Newcastle heroes such as Jackie Milburn, Hughie Gallagher and Malcolm MacDonald.

Andrew Cole was the first non-white player to wear the No. 9 shirt for Newcastle United and the surprise of the ‘hardcore’ fans was depressingly obvious in the conversations in Newcastle pubs when they suddenly realised that he was Black. When their new striker’s 12 goals in 12 games helped win the Division One title and take the club into the new Premier League, the chant that was immediately composed by the supporters, standing on the home terraces, was: “He’s black, he’s broon, and he’s playing for the toon, Andy Cole, Andy Cole”. I interpreted that chant to be an acceptance, by the supporters, of their own racial prejudice and a recognition that they had overcome it (at least in respect of their new No. 9) as a result of their new hero’s goal-scoring abilities.

Andy Cole moved to Manchester United in 1995, breaking another British transfer record, much to the chagrin of Newcastle fans, but those fans had no concerns about the colour of his skin anymore. What they cared about was the colour of his shirt – from black and white to red was not acceptable –  but the fans did not turn on the player they turned on their manager, the very white (and scouse) Kevin Keegan, who had to face hundreds of annoyed Newcastle fans outside the stadium on the day that the transfer was announced. In Newcastle, and other economically and politically isolated UK cities, tribalism was very local – Andy Cole, a Nottingham-born Black Englishman, had become an honorary geordie but Kevin Keegan was still a scouser.

So, what is the situation today? Boos by England fans at their team taking the knee was very prevalent during the friendly matches but it reduced significantly during the team’s progress in the Euros, largely engineered by Raheem Sterling’s brilliant performances and goal-scoring record throughout the England group games – saving the embarrassment of the (white) England hero, Harry Kane (who, let’s face it, played well below par in all three group games and would have probably been massacred on social media if he was Black). Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica but moved to England when he was five – an immigrant who has vastly improved the quality of the English football team, but, for some reason, has experienced ongoing criticism by the British tabloid press, which most social commentators recognise as motivated by underlying racist attitudes.

So, what lessons are to be learned from our experience of the racism that has followed the England team throughout the Euros and how does it relate to the broader social situation in the UK?

Of course, as always, education is key. In the 1990s, the racist Newcastle fans were educated, by demonstration, that a Black No.9 could score more goals for them than any other striker on the market. In the more recent past, I was proud to learn that when ‘Britain First’ arranged a rally in Newcastle, over a decade ago, that no more than 200 racist fascists arrived at Newcastle Central Station, to be faced with at least 2000 Newcastle residents shouting abuse and barring the proposed route of the march. In the interests of Community Safety, the Northumbria police were praised in holding back the home crowd and providing a cordon for Britain First to get straight back on their trains home, without significant injury.

I like to think, and I strongly suspect, that Andy Cole’s influence, on the geordie youth of some 15 years before, probably had a bearing on that outcome.

The ongoing concerns for local authorities, however, are that Prevent teams are dealing with an increase in far-right terrorism from younger age groups. The Guardian reported, on 15 July, that MI5 has revealed that the agency is investigating far-right terrorists as young as 13 years old: ‘a threat that had “grown and morphed quite substantially over the last five to ten years”’.

This clearly indicates a need for local authorities, education authorities, Prevent teams and police authorities to come together, with online social media regulators, to share intelligence and manage the manipulative information being fed to young people.

We used to think that racist attitudes in young people were engendered by bad parentage, but social media has taken on a new parental (or influential) role in the development of our young people, and we need to get to grips with it and address it.

Localism is a two-sided coin that is wrapped up with the concept of tribalism. It brings us together to celebrate, and act upon, our commitment to contribute to our local community and our nation. However, it can also create a rejection of social and cultural differences, as perceived within local communities – whether geographical or virtual – that has to be addressed by the education of our youth.

So how do we generate a positive coming together of communities, without it fostering negative attitudes to neighbouring communities? Can we do it through sporting activities? The answer is we have to do it through sporting activities (along with other community engagement activities, of course) because that is the arena within which our young people come together within our education system – both boys and girls – and those sporting arenas, whether it be school sports day or team sports between our neighbouring schools, are the playing fields on which we develop our understanding of social interaction and engagement.

That is the challenge that we have to face and address in the immediate future, and it stems from the socialisation we engender in the educational structures which we put in place for our children.


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