England and equality: Why Gareth Southgate's men deserve support from this passionate Scotland fan... but won't get it
Gareth Southgate is a courageous leader. He doesn't have the appearance or personality to fit the typical profile, but he undoubtedly is.
In a footballing sense, he has commanded the adulation of a nation from a position where so many other great men, and we're talking world class coaches and managers here, have failed under the intensity and expectation of the job. He makes tough decisions on the park, isn't cowed by player reputation or fan pressure, and is getting England to their full potential for the first time in god knows how long.
However, it's in a human sense where he truly stands out. The refusal by him and the team to stop taking the knee at this tournament must be applauded. To some that may seem a little strong. After all, what's the harm in briefly dropping one leg to the ground for five seconds to show support of black people and other racial minorities in the fight against rampant bigotry? Of course, there isn't any, but that doesn't mean it hasn't been weaponised by those who either see equality as a threat to their way of life, or those who've been brainwashed into believing marginalised people are the real threat.
In the warm-up friendlies and build up to their first two matches at these Euros, 'taking the knee' was a continuous talking point. Supporters made it known they weren't happy with the stance and booed the players. It was a minority, but that's all it takes to become a major story. Any sort of media-driven controversy can be distracting for players, particularly with the hype and intensity going into an international tournament where all but one of their games would be played at home en route to the final.
A lesser man would've taken the path of least resistance. It's a depressingly common occurrence in our society. Those in positions of influence and power don't speak up for what's right because it could adversely affect their own way of living. It's really not difficult to imagine England managers of the past doing exactly this; telling the team, regardless of preference, that kneeling will take place no longer so as to focus fully on the task at hand. For Southgate to stick to his convictions, and not just on the subject of racism but on LGBT matters as well, demonstrates the strength of the man.
There have been several stories of supporters from ethnic backgrounds feeling a stronger connection to this team. It was previously tough for them to fully appreciate the emotional pull of international football because so many of their fellow fans made it clear they weren't entirely welcome, while the FA or team did very little to try and change it. That's absolutely heartbreaking. Imagine being made to feel unwelcome by your own country.
I know it's something my own cousin has been forced to deal with throughout his life. He was born in Edinburgh, raised in Glasgow, but his dad happened to be from Ghana. He is a football fan (Celtic, despite my desperate attempts in our childhood to turn him into a Jambo) but he isn't really a Scotland fan. He's been told to "go back to your own country" too many times in his life and no longer sees the point of giving his heart to a nation that apparently doesn't want him, so he supports Ghana and considers himself Ghanaian. I can’t blame him.
Can success for this England team change attitudes and perceptions in everyday society? Bestselling author Caitlin Moran tweeted after England defeated Denmark in the semi-final on Wednesday: "Cab ride across London during extra time - pubs exploding, horns sounding. For an England team who took the knee, wear rainbow armbands, campaign against child poverty. It feels like a cultural game-changer on the same scale as The Beatles."
To myself, and likely a lot of football fans, this seemed incredibly naive. Yes, football is a force for good, as I wrote about extensively last week, but it isn’t exclusively so. It's often been a breeding ground for the far right, who are currently dictating a lot of modern-day policies at an alarming rate.
There's little doubt that football helped bring about a greater acceptance of black people in this country. Compare the 1980s to the present day and you'll know that things have improved, with trailblazers like Viv Anderson, Laurie Cunningham, John Barnes and, in Scotland, Mark Walters helping to change perceptions. But there are still challenges black players have to endure that white players don't. Phil Foden gets a glowing report for buying a house for his family, while Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and, most recently, Bukayo Saka are somehow vilified for doing the exact same. It's racism as blatant as the abuse they receive from the stands. Black players are now accepted as part of the game, but they're still not accepted as human beings. Not on the same level of their white team-mates, anyway.
The anti-knee sentiment doesn't just exist on the ground, it permeates throughout the houses of parliament with several Conservative MPs showing either contempt or complete ignorance over the gesture. One thing we know about international football is that feelings of nationalism and patriotism rise significantly in the country experiencing success. For a nation struggling with its sense of identity, as attitudes of the past clash with progressive ideas of the present, under a hypnotic spell of a government who continues to treat the marginalised or helpless with contempt, things have the potential to get even worse.
If success for Southgate and his men later today meant attitudes changed significantly regarding racism and the 'black lives matter' fight, they would have my support. But that's very unlikely to happen and therefore I default to my position as a passionate football fan: one who wants to see his team win, his rivals lose, and Italy to stick about seven past England.
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