Football shows how much our national identity has changed

·5-min read
England team members take the knee in solidarity for Black Lives Matter ahead of their game against Germany at Euro 2020 (The FA via Getty Images)
England team members take the knee in solidarity for Black Lives Matter ahead of their game against Germany at Euro 2020 (The FA via Getty Images)

I’m still on a high after England’s win against Germany. I had to drive to a show straight away after the match and had my own little private party in the car listening to the continued excitement on BBC Radio 5 Live. I drove around the Chiswick roundabout and stopped at the lights, ready to take the A406.

I sat, beaming, enjoying the extensive honks of the other cars beeping in jubilation. It took a van driver to wind down his window and shout at me to make me realise I had been sat at a green light and the honks were “What are you DOING?” honks.

My spirits undampened, I switched to Radio 4 to calm me down, gentling humming Baddiel and Skinner’s “Three Lions” to myself. I am not a massive football fan. It’s fair to say as long as there’s someone next to me to explain “that was offside”, I don’t feel a need to examine and understand the rule for myself.

My son plays football, he’s a defender. His coach told me recently that he is going to get some “people” to come and watch him as he reckons my boy has the ability to play at academy level. I nodded politely and said “that’s so lovely”. I am proud of my boy, of course, but I might as well have been told that my son is ready to compete in the national origami championships. It’s thrilling, but I have no real clue what’s going on.

That all said, give me an international football tournament and I hurtle forward and throw myself wholeheartedly into the drama. Especially now that I can support England without anyone saying “but you’re not from here”.

In a pub, in 1996, watching the heart-stopping, then heartbreaking, penalty shootout at the Euros, I felt much more like an outsider looking in. Like a sympathetic Switzerland fan who had found herself in a pub full of devastated England supporters. I was only 23 in 1996 and still locked firmly in an identity crisis only youth brings.

When I was younger, I had long curly black hair (my curls are limper these days) dark Pixar eyes (now more hooded and wise with age) and I’d always get shouted out by drunk fans when England was playing Portugal or Spain because they thought I was Portuguese or Spanish. It’s cumbersome when you are minding your own business, trying to support your national team.

During the 1990 Fifa World Cup in Italy, my brother and I found ourselves in Germany and we excitedly went into a “British Pub” to watch England play. There is a scene in An American Werewolf in London where two American backpackers enter a pub called The Slaughtered Lamb. The entire pub turns silent and stares at them. A regular misses the dartboard and glares at them with menace. The scene is often referenced to describe a place that doesn’t welcome strangers. Well, let me tell you, two brown teenagers skipping into a British Pub in Dusseldorf in 1990 made The Slaughtered Lamb seem like it was run by Mrs Doyle – and out my brother and I trooped.

It was hard for dilettante football fans like me to support England in matches back then because it just took one or two eyebrows to be raised or just one drunk to screech “F*ck off you’re Spanish” to make me feel I can’t be a part of the party.

But things have changed. For a start, I’m older so young men tend to leave me alone as they’ve no interest in charming me into bed with drunken, slightly aggressive banter. Also, there are more players who are second or third-generation immigrants in the England squad.

In Raheem Sterling's case, he’s a first-generation immigrant like me. He was born in Jamaica, playing his heart out for England, much like I do when I’m on tour (did I mention my tour tickets are for sale?). Bukayo Saka is a native of my homeland of Ealing, west London. I know not everyone understands why, but this visibility makes a difference. As does taking the knee. I’m just trying to imagine what it would have felt like for 23-year-old me from 1996 if, still full of internalised racism, I was transported to 2021 and watched the team take the knee before the match. I may have turned to a friendly skinhead next to me in the pub and asked “Why are they doing that?” and he would have patiently explained “it’s to support the Black Lives Matter movement, it’s an anti-racism thing” and my 1990s mind would have been blown.

I no longer feel self-conscious jumping for joy when England scores. On Twitter, Labour MP for Tottenham David Lammy posted a picture of himself and “No one’s telling me I’m not English today” I heard that so deeply after a lifetime of people telling me I’m not either.

Now though, I am well and truly part of the party. I just pray England never plays Iran in the World Cup. That would be like watching my mum and dad wrestle. That is something no one should ever see.

Read More

I hate myself for watching Love Island – but I can’t not

For football journalists, Friday’s England match against Scotland was depressingly familiar

The England-Scotland game was the best advert for the union you’ll ever see

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting