This year, England play their opening game in a major international tournament at Wembley stadium. It has only happened twice before – in 1966 and 1996, the two most evocative years in English footballing history. Croatia come to Wembley having been World Cup finalists, having ended England’s dreams last time. So I find it discombobulating that England are said to be clear favourites for this game. Even in England’s most successful tournaments, the tradition has been to start with an edgy, nervous draw.
Yet this familiar pre-match cocktail of excitement and anxiety comes – this time – with a very unusual question: how many England fans will boo their own fans before the kick-off? In the pre-tournament friendlies at Middlesbrough, some supporters booed while others applauded as the players ‘took a knee’ as an anti-racism gesture.
The young players see there is more to do to challenge racism – in both sport and society. Gareth Southgate has set out why this is how they have chosen to make their point. The prime minister has echoed The Sun newspaper’s call that this is “a time for cheers and not boos”. Labour leader Keir Starmer is more direct in his criticism that real fans would not boo their own team.
Perhaps tellingly, both politicians shifted to a stronger public line soon after YouGov published attitudes evidence showing that most fans support the England team taking a knee, by 54 per cent to 39 per cent.
Football fans across Europe tend to support players taking the knee before matches
— YouGov (@YouGov) June 10, 2021
Ethnic minority supporters were much more strongly in favour – by an eight to one margin – and were also much more likely to think that the symbolic act makes an important difference to anti-racism. Narrower support for taking a knee among white people reflects a big split between generations – with those under 40 strongly in favour, and the over 55s more sceptical. The England squad has an average age of 25, so the players’ stance reflects that of their generation – that taking a knee is a simple gesture against racism.
The vocal critics have been sure they represent the fans’ views. The actor Laurence Fox hopes that Croatia will win five-nil. He told me, in a Twitter exchange, that he did not agree that cheering for England’s opponents was a “fringe” view. Yet “Anybody but England” is a very unpopular populism from the London Mayoral candidate who lost his deposit with 2 per cent of the vote.
Despite the controversy, support for footballers taking a knee appears to have grown over time. There was an equal split – 37 per cent to 37 per cent – over footballers taking a knee when this was first polled in July 2020, while supporters favoured the gesture by 49 per cent to 41 per cent in a YouGov poll last Autumn. However, this gesture does split opinion more than other anti-racism messages. Earlier research for British Future found wider support – by 76 per cent to 4 per cent – for the England players and fans speaking out against racism. “There is no room for racism and discrimination in football” is approved by 80 per cent to 1 per cent.
So there is a reasonable argument that more unifying messages might be found – though a concern that taking a knee can divide is clearly incompatible with fans booing their own players.
We need you.
All of us. All of you. pic.twitter.com/VtQ1quXpvg
— England (@England) June 12, 2021
Just as it would be wrong to call all of the critics racist, it is naïve to think that none of those booing have racist motives. Government minister Gillian Keegan defended those who boo by stating that “there is nobody who doesn’t want to end racism”.
If everybody is against racism, there would be no need for any form of anti-racism. But the England team might wonder why they still get so much racist abuse on social media if everybody is against racism today.
The racist fringe in our society is shrinking over time – with a big shift across generations against prejudice. But we should not be in denial that racism exists. Around one in ten people will still endorse overtly racist statements – such as that you have to be white to be truly English, though there is now a common sense consensus that being English extends across ethnic groups.
Football did more than any other sphere in our society to change minds about that argument, thanks to the pioneering 1980s generation of Viv Anderson and Cyrille Regis. Marcus Rashford’s generation now want to make their own contribution to challenging the racism that still remains. We have no better symbol of inclusive pride and patriotism in today’s England than our national football team.
That is something we should cheer, not boo, as the game begins.
Sunder Katwala is director of British Future, whose new report “Beyond a 90 minute nation” can be read at www.britishfuture.org