There’s only one occasion in which I don’t want England to win; and that’s when they play Nigeria. I was 10 years old in 1994 when my dad took us to Wembley to watch the two teams play each other. As a Black family, we felt conspicuous sitting with England fans, and had to hide our disappointment when David Platt scored the winning goal.
As a football-obsessed immigrant child, I felt the struggle between supporting my heroes donning the jerseys of my adopted country versus those players from my birth country, who had names that sounded like mine; I felt the conflict of being at home in two worlds yet uncomfortable in both.
US writer Ekemini Uwan puts it well when she describes: “The psyche of the colonized mind; always at war with itself.” Perhaps my childhood love of football – which has since waned – was one way in which I could feel accepted by my new home, swapping Premier League sticker books in the playground with white boys to show that I too belonged.
Though football is a beautiful game, it’s also always been one whose ugly side exposes the rotting flesh of racism that lurks beneath.
Despite what our government says, structural racism does indeed exist and this form of racism is so embedded in our society that it can seem invisible. But all my life, it’s been on and around the football pitch where the more extreme, visible, blatant racism has been able to manifest itself: from banana skins to racist chants to monkey emojis on black players’ social media timelines from cowardly neanderthals who think they are big men.
Racism is a scourge on the sport, which will evade any attempts to Kick It Out, no matter how many initiatives or statements the Football Associations want to put out about it. It’s a scourge on the sport because it’s a scourge on our society as a whole.
Which is why – like many others – I am kicking myself for my naive optimism. I should have known better. Over the last few weeks, I have dared to think that those bad days might be behind us. I joined with other first and second-generation Black Brits who have gone through the trauma of the reckoning with racial injustice over the past 15 months, and supported Eng-er-land.
The St George’s flag started to symbolise a national pride that included us, rather than prompting the instinctive fear many of us feel when we see it. We were drawn to Gareth Southgate’s leadership and vision of a diverse, multiracial nation that stood up for values of social justice. We were proud of our boys taking the knee.
But after pouring my heart and soul into last night’s match, screaming the house down after Shaw’s early goal and feeling heartbroken at the result of the cruel penalty shoot-out, I woke up to the reminder that England is far from the post-racist society it claims to be.
It stirred up those same feelings of conflict that are part of the black British immigrant experience. These ideas that never leave us: that we are celebrated only if we bring success not just within our own communities, but to the so-called indigenous (white) population; the idea that we need to be model minorities. Perfect immigrants for whom there is little grace when we put a foot wrong. No grace when we miss a penalty.
Like every young person who grows up with immigrant parents or grandparents, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka will have been familiar with the mantra that as a Black person you need to be 100 times better and work 100 times harder in order to achieve in this country. Excellence is the best deterrent to racism, as my parents always told me.
The thing is, these young men are excellent. It’s why they were chosen by their manager to represent their country. It’s why they stepped up to the spot, taking the weight of a nation on their shoulders.
It could have all been so different. This morning, we could have woken up to stories of these three young Black players scoring penalties to win the men’s team their first major championship in 55 years. After the trauma of Covid-19, the death of George Floyd, the resulting Black Lives Matter protests and the criticism the team got for their anti-racist stance, it would have been the perfect story arc. But some stories are morality tales rather than fairy ones.
And the moral of this story is that a country where racists are supported by national leaders will never be a deserving winner. If racists on social media are to blame, then they were aided and abetted by some of those who hold the highest offices in our nation, including home secretary Priti Patel and prime minister Boris Johnson, who gave the green light to fans to boo their own players for saying they would not stand for racism.
I desperately wanted England to win, but I am happy that the greatest national team in a generation were not the ones to deliver victory to racists who chose to abuse them because of the colour of their skin, simply because they didn’t kick a ball into the back of a net. Black lives matter much more than this.
Chine McDonald is a writer, broadcaster and author of God Is Not A White Man: And Other Revelations