One of my fondest memories from growing up was watching the London Derby in 2009 — the football/soccer game was against Chelsea FC, one of our bitter rivals. My brother and I were seated high up on the nosebleed seats, along with one of our “cousins” — you know those family friends you’re so close to, you might as well be related? Back then, we were one of the few people of color in the audience and we stood out, but it didn’t register at the time. Next to my brother was a German fella who had flown out to come and watch his first ever derby game. I remember vividly when the mighty Tottenham Hotspur scored against our arch-rivals, that moment of euphoria! Grabbing onto anyone in your surrounding area and just jumping for joy! When I turned to my brother, I saw him and our new German friend hugging and jumping together, as if they had been friends for decades. That memory has always stayed with me, encapsulating the flavor and texture of what football means to me — something that can unify complete strangers as they meet one another over shared love for the sport.
England’s national team has made it to the finale of the Euros, and plays Italy today in a bid to win our first major trophy since 1966. Amidst the excitement England has experienced in the lead-up to this final game (do *not* DM me about Kane’s penalty!), there has also been a rising discourse about whether or not people of color should support the team. Many of my closest friends have said they feel unable to support the team of a country that has fought so hard to make them feel unwelcome.
I left England a few years ago to go to the US, and while I was watching the rise of right-wing politics in the United States first-hand, I also understood that things were changing at home. From Brexit to Boris Johnson, the social and political climate was growing increasingly hostile against specific groups of people, including Muslims, Jews, and POC. Racism has always been there, a legacy of Europe’s colonial and slave-trade past, but it was resurging with vehemence and violence, and the assault on people of color slowly turned into a battle that is waged 24/7. When I returned to England, I literally felt the change. There was a different tension in the air that had me looking over my shoulder, trying to figure out where my sense of unease was coming from.
Those who haven’t faced prejudice, racism, or bigotry can never truly understand how devaluing and othering it feels when faced with hatred. As a British-born Bengali-Muslim, that notion of feeling othered has always been prevalent, but more so understood during my adult years (ah, the naivety of yonder years). Immigrants are constantly told that they don’t represent British values or the notion of being English, etc. News outlets such as the Murdoch-owned The Sun and even so-called “trustworthy” news agencies such as the BBC have in one way, shape or form managed to subjugate immigrants so they cannot feel like this place is home. We are constantly told we need to “integrate” and “add value” to British society — as if having a job, paying taxes, or contributing some of the country’s most popular food dishes would ever be enough. No, the request is to change our dress, change our religion, change our skin color. What they mean, simply put, is “please disappear (but leave the curry behind…)”.
So while the England national team is doing well at the Euro football tournament, I can understand wholeheartedly why a lot of people don’t want to support England in this tournament and generally. I understand why they feel conflicted when they try to cheer on England, how those feelings come mixed with the heavy weight and trauma of living in a society that repeatedly tries to discount and discard their existence. Personally, whilst I understand these notions and I empathize, I want to argue that we should be doing the opposite. Instead of rejecting the England national team, we should be embracing them. Instead of tempering our joy at getting so far, we should shout it from the rooftops — loudly and visibly.
Someone might call me a coconut or whatever derogatory word they can think of to forswear my Britishness, but my power comes from reclaiming my identity. As with all of you, identity has many different sides. One of the biggest is being British/English. This is my place of birth, one of my homes, and my DNA is embedded in this land. Me singing “Three Lions” (it’s coming home!) while watching England play sublime football comes from my fond memories of the 1996 Euro tournament, and I am claiming the song as a football fan and a Brit. The extremist right and pro-Brexiters may sing the song, too, but it does not belong to them and I will not allow them to take it from me. The irony of the right-wingers appropriating this song is that one of the songwriters and performers, David Baddiel, is a British Jew and immigrant to the UK. What is arguably the most iconic British song this year is also, at least in part, brought to you by an immigrant.
Three Lions means something else to me, too. Ian Broudie, another of the songwriters and performers, said the song was never about England or nationalism, it was about a shared obsession with football. In an interview to the Guardian he said, “In my mind, the line: “It’s coming home…” is more about being a football fan, which for 90% of the time, is losing. Most of being a football fan is disappointment…I love that it’s become a song about so many things. I don’t think it was ever just about England.” Like Broudie, I believe that football has ever been just about England, either.
Whilst I don’t always agree with Gareth Southgate when it comes to footballing matters — what I can most definitely get behind is his character. Southgate has shown us all what real leadership looks like, embedding it into the fabric of our society to inspire and unite all. On a human level Southgate understands what it means to create unity in an entire nation, regardless of skin colours, sexual orientation or other factors that are used as false excuses to cause division. Furthermore, when I see young kids speaking in adulation of their heroes on the England football team — from Raheem Sterling (who has been vocal against racism and faced many prejudices himself) to Marcus Rashford (who campaigned successfully for children to have basic rights such as access to food) — I find it hard to not support good role models. They’re teaching all of England’s kids that these are the values we should stand for as a society.
The captain of England is my beloved Harry Kane. I’ve watched him play for several years, and on the pitch he is a model example of hard work, humility and leadership. Off the pitch he has been vocal in his support for Black Lives Matter and hit out at critics who tell footballers to not get involved in politics. This England team has taken the knee in support of Black Lives Matter and against racism, despite opposition from racist fans and politicians. They’ve gone out of their way to express the reasons for why they do what they do, to tackle racism, hate and other forms of bigotry. This is the England that represents me. I couldn’t be more grateful that this current England team is representing the diversity and open-minded views any good society and democracy ought to.
The other day a video of young Muslim students in an Islamic seminary in Blackburn watching the England vs Denmark game went viral. They were watching Harry Kane’s crucial (and controversial) penalty on a tiny laptop screen, all huddled around together. When Kane scored, the room went wild. Watching these young Muslim kids celebrate an England goal was exactly the medicine that I needed to see. Tell me exactly how these kids are not British enough?
The day after the Euro Cup semi-final game victory, I saw a racist tweet that showed the front page of The Sun with a picture of bacon on white bread, in the form of the St. Georges flag. The tweet read: “Muslims are offended by this”. Yeah, you’re damn right! I’m offended by the wastage of food for poxy clickbait. It was hard to see the same old rhetoric, especially after I had just witnessed a group of young Muslims passionately celebrating their national team. If we respond to these racists by withdrawing from football, though, if we stop watching and stop participating — they will be succeeding in erasing us. We will always face groups of people who look to divide and exclude, to create fear amongst communities, and to hinder our progress as a society. We cannot let them win.
The video of these students reminded me of that defining derby game from my youth. In a moment of sheer joy and disbelief, we all celebrated together — regardless of who we were or how we knew each other. We shared in the overwhelming exuberance of our team scoring a goal. That, to me, is the value of football. Because of football, we see our emotions mirrored in others — whether in happiness or in sadness. We may spend hours in debate about our different beliefs and opinions about the best teams and players, the best tactics, and the best (or worst) calls, but we do it over a plate of chips at the fried chicken shop. We hug strangers at games. We all leap up in front of our tv’s and laptop screens at the exact same, precise moment, and then share that joy online.
It’s a constant battle, but I truly believe if we all highlight the proud immigrants and people of color that helped build this country and made it home for so many, if we publicly reclaim our British identities and support the people and teams that are truly representing us — then we can change things for the positive. We can push back against those who try to tell us we don’t belong, just as the English national team has already been doing on our behalf.
You may not support the English government and its policies, and we all have an obligation to reject the racists and racist rhetoric spewed by various politicians, media outlets, and other groups. But if England is your country, and English football is in your blood as much as it’s in mine — support them from your heart and do not let the scumbags taint your happiness. I, for sure, hope it’s “coming home”. It’s been too bloody long and as a Spurs fan I’ve endured enough as is. COME ON, ENGLAND!