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16th Jul 2021

Things felt different supporting England this summer, Sunday reminded me they’re not

Samuel Regan Asante

JOE Media CEO Samuel Regan Asante dreamt of football coming home – but those feelings turned to despair as the Euro 2020 final sparked a torrent of racist abuse

On Sunday, I woke up feeling more excited than I have for a long time. I was lucky enough to get a last minute ticket to the Euro 2020 final. Like so many others in this country, I was daring to dream that football might finally come home. 

Being honest, I wasn’t much of an England fan in the past. I supported them but I just didn’t feel the passion for the national squad. Growing up, for me it was all about club football – Man United are my team. I had huge respect for England players like Wayne Rooney, Rio Ferdinand, Paul Scholes and even rated their rivals like Tony Adams, Frank Lampard, and Ashley Cole.

The latter were dream signings on my Football Manager saves. I just wasn’t comfortable with everything else that comes with supporting England. The casual xenophobia, the chants of ‘Two World Wars and one World Cup’, and the fan violence. I know it’s the minority, but it’s a very vocal minority. 

For some reason, this summer felt different. Southgate and the England team took a stand against racism. At the beginning of each game, the team collectively took the knee to show how far there is still to go in the battle against racism and hate. We had an England squad that was socially aware.

The camp looked more unified than ever, and the players seemed more relaxed. I wasn’t exactly confident going into the tournament but I was more excited about England than I had been since the 1998 World Cup. 

Fast forward to Sunday, I arrived at Wembley Park station after a long and nervy journey on the Jubilee line to a jam-packed station in chorus to “Southgate you’re the one”. As I got off the train, a fan kicked a couple of bottles on the platform and glass shattered everywhere. He was warned by a police officer but seemed to pay little attention.

That was just a taste of what lay in store.

The road to the stadium was packed, and it already felt like things were spiralling out of control. The short walk that should have taken about 10 minutes, took me almost three times as long. I saw people urinating on the street, openly taking drugs, harassing Italian fans and most concerning of all, throwing glass bottles high into the air.

By the time I had got into the stadium, I had seen four people with bloody heads being carried away by their mates. My excitement faded during that walk and was replaced by fear.

There is an alternative universe where all this has been forgotten.

Football has finally come home. Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho are being hailed by everyone as part of a triumphant England squad. The ugly side of all this has been swept under the carpet. The troublesome minority are not the focal point of the final. 

But that is not our reality.

As soon as the game ended in heartbreak for England, I was reminded why I had never enjoyed supporting the national team. Hate began to rear its ugly head once more.  I’ve always found it so hard to write about racism or describe how it makes me feel. I just don’t know how you reason with people who are blinded by hate and ignorance. 

It was a stark reminder of how black people in Britain and around the world are loved conditionally but still not seen as human. When Saka put in a Man of the Match performance against Czech Republic, England fans were celebrating this young player’s talent. When he missed a penalty, the banana and monkey emojis were spammed all over social media. He was no longer English, to them he wasn’t even human. 

Last year, the Guardian published an article regarding the findings about a ‘groundbreaking report’ that really didn’t feel that groundbreaking to me. My friends and I had long come to the same conclusion and have been discussing it for years. Lighter skin players were praised for their intelligence, whereas black players no matter how technically gifted were praised for their strength and speed. The racial stereotypes are still being reinforced by pundits and some of the biggest media organisations in the world.

I personally don’t remember many white players being described as a ‘beast’ – “With his long stride, large backside and chest the size of a wardrobe, Man City star Toure is a BEAST of a player”.

Phil Foden was praised for his haircut before the Euros, and quite rightly so; but for years Paul Pogba has been criticised by pundits across all the major UK media outlets for having the wrong attitude, with little to no evidence. One of the reasons often cited is his ‘flashy haircuts’.

Wayne Rooney defended Pogba this month in his Times column stating, “some jump to conclusions about his character without knowing him. In my experience as a team-mate, the actual work he puts in every day on the training pitch and in games is first class. As long as that doesn’t change, then the stuff he does off the pitch — which has slowed down anyway — does not matter in my opinion,” going on to explain he is just from a different generation. 

Even those who leapt to Rashford’s defence cited all the good he had done for underprivileged kids across the country over the last year, but why should basic respect and not being subject to racism be conditional. I am not criticising the people who felt the need to point out the good he has done, I understand why they wanted to mention it but what they are failing to see is that it’s irrelevant. 

The media has long promoted racial stereotypes, xenophobia and anti-immigration sentiment  when it has suited them. At JOE, we wanted to point out that diversity is a strength and during the tournament we recreated a graphic, citing research carried out by the Migration Museum.

It proved to be the post with the most reach on the FootballJOE Instagram throughout the Euros.

It’s been a long year, not helped by the fact football fans are fickle.

When Southgate explained why the players were taking the knee, and said it had nothing to do with politics, there was still a backlash from those who claimed their actions were ‘politicising sport’. Yet those very people had been outraged when there were talks of a European Super League a few months earlier.

I remember hearing a lot of fans imploring the government to get involved. I don’t remember seeing tweets that the government shouldn’t intervene because sports and politics shouldn’t mix on that subject. The hypocrisy is clear for all to see, maybe it has nothing to do with keeping sport apolitical but rather continuing to undermine the fight for racial equality.

I am not sure how I will feel next time the England men’s team plays in a major tournament, and I hear chants of “it’s coming home”. It’s not that I don’t love the country or the players, but I’m unsure how much the country in which I was born and raised in loves and accepts me.

I know that the love shown to black people can be withdrawn with one misplaced kick of the ball. Rashford’s penalty was inches away from going in, and the moment the ball hit the post, I knew those few inches were the difference between ‘fans’ tweeting their adoration and posting racial abuse.

The social media companies need to do a lot more, but they’re not the root cause of the problem. Preventing racist posts does not stop people being racist.

The behaviour seen outside the stadium before and after the game was a reminder of what we all know; this is a wider societal issue. The hooliganism on Wembley Way happened because people can get away with it, just like they know they can get away with online abuse. Until we recognise the extent of the problem, I’m not sure how much will change.

It’s not all doom and gloom, it was great to see the solidarity shown to the black players by many who recognise that this issue has to be addressed. Tyrone Mings reminded me why I felt this England team was different. He used his platform to call out a hypocritical government and Home Secretary. Rashford, Sancho and Saka have all responded courageously. Captain Kane’s message was clear, if you abuse anyone “we don’t want you”.

I’m not sure how much will change, I hope those who were genuinely unsure about why the England team decided to take the knee, understand now. Football has always been political, look no further than ‘El Clasico’ – one of the biggest fixtures in world football, or the manner in which major tournaments are awarded to host nations.

I want the media to reflect on its representation of black people, even its sporting heroes.

That’s something I will be committed to at JOE; we will continue to position ourselves between the intersection of sports and politics. Most of all I hope this England team and generation of sporting heroes continue to lead by example, educate and push for change.