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Is football coming home to racist England?

‘Home’ is not a simple place. Sivamohan Valluvan and Malcolm James explore the complex relationship between nationalism, race and belonging in the beautiful game.

6 to 7 minute read

A crowd in a stadium holds up a huge Three Lions flag

Kyle Walker was not the only one who couldn’t get ‘Football’s Coming Home’ out of his mind. Skinner and Baddiel’s anthem, originally written for Euro 1996, had after all become the standard for the last three weeks. Of course, the imagery suggested by the original ‘Three Lions’ title for that song was more typically evocative of nationalism and football violence than the more playful ‘it’s coming home’ chorus. That then, if nothing else, begs the question: what exactly is ‘coming home’ this time round?

Is ‘coming home’ a metonym for popular jingoism allied to a bleak post-Brexit future? Or, as has been suggested by some commentators, is it the very subversion of that nationalist violence: the team’s modest and easily-worn multiculturalism finding more affinity with the progressive politics of Corbyn than it does with Theresa May and Nigel Farage?

Any claim for this moment as some kind of progressive nationalism should be treated with caution – not only because ‘nationalism’ and ‘progressive’ ought be viewed as oxymoronic, but also because it grossly overstates the relevance of football to political life. The fanfare around the ‘Black, Blanc, Beur’ French team of 1998, and their ensuing victory, should remind us that nationalism is not overcome by a multiethnic team.

While obviously better than an entirely white French side, nationalism can effortlessly write out such ‘progressive’ claims as it continues to pursue its anti-immigrant and anti-minority politics. A mere glance at the recent history of France makes that hard to deny.

Nonetheless, the various ways people have engaged with this England team remains important. It is for instance evident that so many of our friends, acquaintances, and even kin, often non-white, have happily engaged with the team’s quasi-success without it signalling an investment in the policing of national boundaries; without it endorsing a Brexit hubris; and without it rehearsing the next call to bomb the Middle East.

Nationalism and football

Between these two seemingly discordant positions lies therefore the complicated and contemporary story of nationalism and football. The noxious race politics that spluttered on during the last three weeks of World Cup fever is a useful place to start.

First, the jocular celebrations across England were never far from vicious ‘xeno-racist’ barracking. The violences, both on the street but also via headlines and Twitter – as visited upon Colombians, Croatians, and, less egregiously, on IKEA stores – are not insignificant. Such violences remind us of the connection between white English muscularity and entitlement that permeate narratives of English success. The emotions of deep and guttural joy – as witnessed at a pub near Brighton station during England’s final game against Croatia – was never very far, it transpired, from ‘Fuck off, you dirty fucking Yugoslav!’

Second, it is worth reflecting on how easily those acts of civic destruction were brushed over. The allowances given to such drunken bonhomie is in many ways welcome. But such good grace is rarely extended to racialised minority communities should they engage in comparable behavior. The racist over-policing and moral indignation that meets Notting Hill Carnival, Wireless, the Roma street corner, and Black nighttime leisure more broadly, is made all the more stark when the civic excesses of white festivity is seen as mere good natured, public camaraderie – on the grounds that it is supporting the nation.

Third, the special opprobrium reserved for Raheem Sterling was both nasty and expected. The tabloid media, and the traumatized English society it reflects, longs for scapegoats to violently repudiate. David Beckham played that role after England’s 1998 World Cup loss to Argentina. On that occasion, the vengeance stood in for the colonial conquest of the Falklands war. Sterling’s treatment was for its part textbook anti-Black racism.

Already readied in certain media quarters as the player of dubious provenance, he acted as a shibboleth for who is and isn’t truly part of the nation. Black friends of ours watched in pubs with alarm as white chauvinism became exercised at the slightest hint of an over-hit Sterling pass or a scuffed Sterling shot. Such repudiation is not imaginable for Harry Kane.    

Pop culture refrains

The ‘it’s coming home’ refrain itself also hinted at particular insights about English nationalism’s relationship to popular culture. As fans of different generations sang this song, many will have been too young to remember the first version; but for those who did, that public act returned them to a high point of white lad culture, associated with Loaded Magazine and Oasis. That celebration was never neutral. It was Cool Britannia’s claim to whiteness at the beginning of a new Labour nation.

2018’s invocation of ‘it’s coming come’ came initially to our attention through an inventive meme game, heavy with humor and irony. But with time, and through sheer repetition, it became something rather different – something akin to a more troubling instance of ‘banal flagging’ as appropriate to the streak of ‘postcolonial melancholia’ that courses through English nationalism. Those who see it as mere jollity should be reminded that the home is not an idle motif of nationalism. In England, as elsewhere, there prevails a desire for the homely nation as the site of care, nurture and fortification.

But it is also worse. In England, such a chant also signals a distinctly imperial claim to greatness. It takes a global object of importance (football) and then reasserts upon it a strong proprietorial claim. The chant’s implicit claim, that football originates in England, is not all that easily detached from English imperialism’s simultaneous claim to be the authentic foundation of the world.

To cheer, or not to cheer?

All this risks suggesting that the case for supporting England, regardless of the context, is beyond redemption. Such are the times we live in. Nothing shall pass without it being given an absolute verdict that rejects nuance, rejects contradiction, and rejects ambivalence.  

But how then to think through the discrepancies of geography? The practice and symbolism of supporting England landing differently, for instance, in Thanet when compared to Plaistow or Cheetam Hill; and likely to land differently in the pub when compared to the living room. An atunement to these variations is necessary if critics are to avoid being all too smugly righteous about who and why people might be revelling in the team’s good fortune. For, in any single location, and we have been in a few, there have been many different engagements: from indifference, to ‘Anyone But England’ anti-colonial opposition (though at times tinged with excitement), to strong exclusionary claims, to various channellings of national loss, to empathy for the young men we see week-in, week-out.

We should also remember, at the very least, that some black and minority ethnic footballs fans’ support of England does not involve on their part a denial of the racism they also experience. It also does not foreclose a more happenstance approach to the celebration of football. Mario Balotelli was consistently a powerful example of this, wearing an Italian shirt because of the serendipity of location whilst maintaining a studied opposition to Italian nationalism.

What is also almost entirely omitted from this wider critical commentary is the status of football itself. Mass football, famously denounced as ‘war minus the shooting’, can no longer act as a neat neat stand-in for the fate of the English nation – if it ever could. It is too multiethnic, too Black, too undisciplined a game (in spite of VAR), too globally commercial, and too weighted in favour of the treacherous allegiances of club and celebrity that accompanies it. The particular formation of contemporary petit-bourgeois nationalism (because that is precisely what UKIP, Brexit and much else is) does not therefore find it easy to co-opt the football team, like it can with rugby or the Proms.

Acknowledging these ambivalences involved in supporting the England team are necessary only because a blanket rejection of that position allies with the kind of sedimented recalcitrance that an anti-nationalist Left politics must rally against. By being so pious, by being so declamatory, by refusing to read the nuances of such support, is to end up soliciting a politically bankrupt puritanism; it is to abet nationalism, not abate it.

Malcolm James is a senior lecturer in media and cultural studies at the University of Sussex

Sivamohan Valluvan is an assistant professor in sociology at the University of Warwick

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