By Aisha Sembhi
Admittedly, I have never been much of a football fan.
A couple of months ago, I struggled to understand the need to sit and stress for 90 minutes by watching 22 men kick a ball around. ‘It’s just a game…’, I’d say to my housemates, ‘…why are you so invested?’.
But the efforts of the men’s England squad during this tournament had introduced me to a world of endless possibility.
For these Euros, I fully indulged in the culture. I finally understood the appeal – a team to adore, the potential for celebration, and an opportunity to taste glory.
I belted Three Lions and Sweet Caroline at the top of my lungs. I wore an England shirt, screaming as we won against Germany, Ukraine, and Denmark. I became clued up on the history of the game, the strategy, the players and their strengths, the manager, the statistics, and everything in between. I looked forward to every match and the celebrations that followed. ‘It’s actually coming home!’ I thought.
And then there was the final.
Pelé once called it ‘the beautiful game’. After the fallout from last night’s match, which saw Italy prevail over England, it became clear to me, once more, that English football is not a ‘beautiful game’ for its non-white spectators.
This tournament was a perfect opportunity for England to come together and share in triumph. After a long year of Covid-19 restrictions and related cancellations, we finally had an outlet to channel our energy in a unified manner. But instead of celebrating England’s first final in 55 years, the spectating environments turned ugly almost immediately.
Throughout the tournament, I joked about how I could not watch any matches in pubs, ‘because if we lose, I’ll get hate-crimed!’. It was humorous until it became a reality for so many in the aftermath of a heartbreaking penalty shoot-out.
My heart was in my throat as Marcus Rashford, brought on for one crucial touch, missed his penalty. It sank as Jadon Sancho’s was saved and broke as Bukayo Saka’s decider was denied.
As soon as the game was over, I reached for my phone and opened Twitter; it seemed as though every other non-white English fan watching the match had the exact same concern. Three Black players missing three penalties in a row. I genuinely feared for the safety of my non-white friends who were watching in public spaces.
We must address the specific incompatibility between being a Person of Colour (POC) and being a football fan. The fact that we must warn POC to get home as fast as possible after a football match, paired with the almost immediate sharing of domestic violence hotlines on social media platforms, is terrifying. This should not be a normal response to anything, let alone what is ultimately just a game.
The way this country has treated its Black players is nauseating. When the squad win, they are counted as heroes as their white teammates are; when the squad loses, they become public enemies.
England fans need to ask themselves, with all sincerity, why there was such passionate opposition to symbolic acts of anti-racism – such as players taking the knee – throughout the tournament. We cry ‘men’s mental health’ every now and then, but it does not seem to apply to a Black nineteen-year-old with the weight of the world in his shoulders, missing his first-ever penalty at a senior level.
If this is how we treat the players who represent us, win or lose, the fans never deserved a trophy. The Black players deserve better. The Black fans deserve better.
If there was ever a reason to feel pride in being English, it comes down to the players who brought us so much joy throughout the tournament.
Raheem Sterling, the #BoyFromBrent and a first-generation immigrant who carried the England squad to the final.
Marcus Rashford, a working-class boy from Manchester who not only made it to the national team, but consistently uses his platform for the betterment of others.
Bukayo Saka, who stepped up to take the deciding penalty at the age of nineteen, whilst his more senior teammates watched on. We should be proud of such a young squad who gave us our first final, and a first real chance of international success, in decades.
Regardless, whether they are the best footballers in the world, or the worst to ever step foot on the pitch, no one deserves the abuse these players have received. Racism cannot continue to be an unquestioned aspect of sporting culture.
I am grateful to the 26 incredible English players for introducing a new group of people to the sport during this European tournament – myself included. It is my hope that this new fanbase is not driven away by the sudden and shocking exposure to the existing intolerance within the community.
Perhaps this is a plea to fans of the game: become active bystanders. When you see people booing the players taking the knee, or shouting slurs when a goal is amiss, or discounting the accomplishments of the Black players on the squad – speak up.
It can still be a beautiful game.
Image: lydia_shiningbrightly via Creative Commons