By Rosie Vacciana-Browne
For the first time in 55 years, England’s football team had made it to a major tournament final. The energy across the nation was electric. The England squad was young, diverse, and talented it felt like a true representation of the country. A team we could all get behind; until we lost.
For many people of colour, the George cross is a symbolism of hate. Extremist right-wing groups have long appropriated the flag, supposed to represent us all, to represent racism and white supremacy. From knee-high, we are made aware that areas and pubs flying the flag are not for us. That we should be on guard, hypervigilant, and ready to leave at any moment should we be confronted. I had believed that maybe, just maybe, that was all about to change with the Euro 2020s.
Raheem Sterling, who has spent most of his career at the mercy of the right-wing press and racist abuse, carried the England team throughout the start of the tournament scoring the first three goals and seeing us off to the quarter-finals. It seemed like the tides were changing; the country was proud of Sterling. Saka quickly became a fan favourite, labelled man of the match in his first appearance. People were getting behind an England team that had black players as its stars.
The unity was empowering, it was hopeful, it was joyous. For the first time, many people of colour embraced the George cross; we wrapped it around ourselves in pride. It didn’t represent racists. It represented Sterling, Saka, Kane, Maguire, Walker, Grealish, and the diverse face of the country. Many of the England teams players are first and second-generation migrants from Ireland, the Caribbean, and beyond. After the divisions of last year, it finally appeared that England could come together under the same flag and rejoice in its diversity. But the waters of racism doth run so deep through the heart of England, it took just one penalty shoot out for the poison to resurface.
It was 1-1 between Italy and England after extra time. The dreaded penalties were next. We were facing a team that had won 33 consecutive games. The odds were not in our favour, but that didn’t matter. For some England fans, the only thing they saw was the race of the three England players, Rashford, Sancho, and Saka, who missed their goals. Before anyone could react, people of colour up and down the country already knew the response. We’d been here before. For Black people in Britain, we are only as good as what we can offer. We aren’t individuals, we are commodities. The second the goals were missed it wasn’t England who had lost, it was the three black lads.
Social media became instantly ablaze with foul racist rhetoric and memes. The FA, England, the Prime Minister, the press, and many former players had to come to the defence of Rashford, Sancho, and Saka. In an attempt to educate and calm the vitriol spewing from the mouths of adults who were unable to process a football game. It shouldn’t be this way. But the stage has already been set for racists to flourish in England. One politician who ironically came forward to defend the team was Priti Patel. Patel has been at the forefront of strict anti-immigration legislation and persistently targeted black and brown people here in the UK. At the start of the games, she emboldened English hooligans who wanted to boo the players for taking the knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. It was those same hooligans she then condemned in her own “gesture politics”.
The events of the last 24-hrs have been heartbreaking for all across the country. But it has been earth-shattering for none more than minorities who have once again been reminded that we are not part of this team. Until England can dismantle racism from the heart of its institutions and ideologies, black people will always be one penalty miss away from racist abuse and degradation.
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