The Culture War in Football, Football in the Culture War

Euro '2020' saw the culture war explode into football. The England squad have shown us how to fight, but they can't win it for us. It's time for fans to become militant anti-racists.

12 min read

Following a moribund Premier League season and the squalid attempted money-grubbing of the failed European Super League breakaway, this year’s UEFA European Championship was a life-affirming example of football at its best. On June 28th, when Spain vs Croatia was followed by France vs Switzerland, fans were treated to perhaps the best football double-header seen on terrestrial TV since the semi-finals of the 1989/90 FA Cup. And, in the midst of this, a likeable England team committed to support for the Black Lives Matter movement came within a penalty shootout of their first major trophy in 55 years.

Despite our internationalist, anti-imperialist commitments, English football fans on the left often still feel an affection for England the football team. Big England games are major cultural events, and so the England team acts as a store of memory. For every bigot who smashes up a BMW whenever “THE GERMANS” beat England, there are probably a hundred people who are drenched in nostalgia every time England do well, thinking back to what they were doing and who they were with during the heady summers of 1990 or 1996.

The 1990 World Cup had a particular significance, because it became a mass communal experience built around what was then still very much a proletarian sport, and memorably featured the sight of a working class man openly crying. All this arguably went some way towards detoxifying a culture that had been demonised by Thatcherism, and led to football finding a more diverse audience; the game has since made (limited) advances towards including women, people of colour, LGBT people, and people with disabilities. The increased consumption of football has not been entirely a good thing, leading as it has to working class fans being priced out of the game as investors have flocked to an expanding market. Nonetheless, football has gradually become more welcoming to people who aren’t white men.

While still nursing a slightly guilty discomfort about the inherently nationalistic values associated with the Three Lions, it seems that most English socialists enjoyed England’s run in the tournament—not least because of the commitment to anti-racism and diversity in general made by the squad and their manager, Gareth Southgate. The England players had taken the knee throughout the 2020/21 domestic season, and were unequivocal in asserting that they would continue to do so during the tournament.

It may be minimally active anti-racism, and attempts to depoliticise an inherently political issue have been frustrating. However, these players have picked a side in the culture war when other self-describing progressives have been utterly craven and cynical, and when the reactionaries on the other side are fighting with ever-increasing ferocity. As such, what might otherwise have been considered merely a gesture has been rendered quite radical. It led to some football supporters, who had been put off the national team by the years of narcissistic celebrity culture and underwhelming performances, to feel almost duty-bound to root for England at the Euros, for the simple reason that the tabloids and a lot of fans would be waiting for them to fail so they could blame it on the players taking the knee.

These players have picked a side in the culture war when other self-describing progressives have been utterly craven and cynical

The murder of George Floyd by a police officer was a radicalising moment, and righteous indignation spread across the world in reponse. In the face of increasing anger from players, fans, and (belatedly, in many cases) journalists, the Premier League and its members scrambled to make gestures in support of Black Lives Matter. But this was BLM reduced to a vague idea and slogan, as opposed to the organisation itself and its radical demands such as defunding the police. It’s important to stress here that the US and British iterations of BLM are different, not least because they address different histories and different contexts—even one racist killing by the police would be one too many—and the struggle around Black Lives Matter in Britain is equally political, and equally relevant.

The threat of losing income from broadcasting rights in the event of players withdrawing their labour doubtless played a part in the action taken by the Premier League. It may be considered a rather insipid anti-racism—indeed, it may be better described as merely non-racism on the part of the authorities. Yet it was the result of largely bottom-up demands. Footballers have huge power in comparison to most workers, but they are still workers, and workers facing the same structural racism as other well-remunerated wage-earning people of colour.

Footballers have huge power in comparison to most workers, but they are still workers, and workers facing the same structural racism as other well-remunerated wage-earning people of colour.

It was encouraging, too, to see that—as is typically the case with elite athletes and famous people—these Millennial and Zoomer footballers share the politics of their generation rather than their economic demographic. They are broadly committed to a more equal society, as demonstrated by the BLM stance and Jordan Henderson’s show of support for LGBT communities. Predictably, there have been the usual attempts to hijack this altruism and repackage it as good old-fashioned liberal decency, but the actions of the players contradict this. Perhaps the most notable example is Marcus Rashford, whose remarkable campaigns for free school meals and public admonishment of Deliveroo for mistreating its workers have had incredible effects, but we should also note the England players’ collective pledge to donate their match fees from the tournament to the National Health Service—however much liberals might love the NHS in 2021, if they had had their way in 1945, the NHS would never have come into being. Thanks to pressure from below, created by workers via their unions, the British government’s approach to healthcare in the years after the Second World War was guided less by the liberal Beveridge, and more by the socialist Bevan. In the same way, however much the goals of the England players might seem compatible with liberalism, the means and the implicit notion of political-cultural contestation are not. For liberalism legitimate politics flows downwards from the neutral, rational state.1 What we have seen in recent weeks is not an anti-racism being bestowed from the top down, but an anti-racism from below, with workers making demands and bringing about change.

What we have seen in recent weeks is not an anti-racism being bestowed from the top down, but an anti-racism from below, with workers making demands and bringing about change.

For all the amusing memes they may have generated, the claims from the right that taking the knee constituted Marxism, and the off-the-record quotes from Tory MPs about Southgate having become “a tool of deep Woke” were risible and stupid. Yet there is a chance that this rattled overreaching might—deliciously—be good PR for Marxism. The biggest reactionaries and shits in the country decrying it might persuade nascent progressives that it’s good, and ‘Marxist Rashford’ is as good a role model as any—proudly Black, proudly working class, and an objectively good person. Furthermore, it is gratifying and darkly funny that the forces of reaction are so committed to maintaining inequality and squalor that they somehow managed to throw themselves out of the Euros party before it had even begun.

When the party ended, it did so with a defeat that hurt England fans more than any since the loss to Argentina at the 1998 World Cup. Following that defeat, David Beckham—sent off for an admittedly petulant infringement—was scapegoated to a harrowing degree, with effigies of him being hanged appearing in newspapers. This time, with all of England’s failed penalty attempts in the decisive shootout being missed by Black players, the onslaught of racist hatred that resulted was depressingly predictable.

The racism experienced by Rashford, Saka, and Sancho cannot be downplayed and dismissed as “a few idiots” on Twitter when there are highly-educated racists running the country and writing the headlines.

In truth, even had England won, the victory would have been marred by the presence, outside Wembley Stadium, of pissed-up racists indulging in violence for violence’s sake, totally against the spirit cultivated by the players over the previous few weeks. That the defeat was followed by an explosion of absolutely virulent racism was sadly inevitable, as were the disgracefully opportunistic suggestions from right wingers that ending social media anonymity (something they have long wanted to do, owing in large part to their being thin-skinned and pathetic) would somehow ‘solve’ this. Again, the question here is much more about the places in which legitimate politics is seen to exist, and the directions from which it flows. In other words, the racism experienced by Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho cannot be downplayed and dismissed as “a few idiots” on Twitter or Instagram when there are highly-educated racists running the country, writing the headlines, and otherwise entrenched in the state apparatuses. One such learned racist, the Home Secretary Priti Patel, was excoriated on Twitter by England defender Tyrone Mings for her disingenuous response to the abuse directed at the players. “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament,” wrote Mings, “by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”

Mings—who experienced homelessness as a child and now uses his platform to campaign on the issue—could just as easily have been talking about the legacy media. The British—particularly the English—media is replete with eye-watering and brazenly open racism every day. This isn’t confined to ‘edgy’ columnists and shock jocks. It isn’t confined to right wing tabloids. There is racist reporting in liberal broadsheets, there are racists presenting the news, and racists commentating on sporting events. And these racists don’t have the status they have in spite of being racist. They have that status because they are racist.

This is, of course, partly a component of capital’s classic ‘divide and rule’ strategy. There is a tragic irony in that many of the fans who are most against BLM are white working class people who would also benefit from some of the demands being made by the movement. Football has historically been subject to extreme policing and class-based discrimination. Since the 1980s, it has been axiomatic that the state has the right to impinge on the civil liberties of football fans. New stadiums are increasingly securitised, and fans are liable to have laptops and cameras confiscated during routine bag searches. From Margaret Thatcher’s ID cards scheme, to the kettling and aggressive searching of fans before games, to the slaughter of 96 people at Hillsborough, the common sense view seems to be that anything is justified to discipline these “violent thugs”. In other words, over-policed communities across racial divides have a shared interest in some of the aims of BLM. What would it take for white football fans to engage with BLM as football fans rather than as white? Capital is clearly in no hurry to find out.

What this all suggests is that the culture war is likely to intensify in the decade to come. To win it, anti-racism will need many militants. The young men of the England squad seem prepared to fight, and ready to win—both off the pitch and on it. Anti-racists who are not England international footballers have a part to play here—the players didn’t reach their current state of consciousness in a vacuum. Their activism will have been informed, to some extent, by the communities they come from as well as the peer groups they presently occupy, and that can happen again

This brings us to next year’s World Cup, which will be hosted by Qatar. As of February, at least 6,500 migrant workers had died in Qatar during the decade since the right to host the World Cup was awarded. Many are likely to have died whilst working on infrastructure projects ahead of the tournament. On this basis, there are entirely justified calls from the left for a boycott of the 2022 World Cup. Protest is essential, morally correct, and can sometimes force concessions and compromises from the authorities. The moral force of a claim that fans ought to boycott a World Cup that has killed thousands of workers is strong. A team boycott, though, feels unrealistic at this point. Is it likely that a group of young footballers at the peak of their powers, however politicised and thoughtful they are, will refuse what might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in a World Cup? Even if they did refuse it, there would be scope for a football equivalent of the shameful ‘rebel’ tours of apartheid South Africa, which were participated in by various England cricketers in defiance of the international boycott.

The momentum of the England squad as a campaigning force can and should be maintained and extended towards justice for all of the workers who make football possible.

But what the team can do—and it is the very least we have the right to expect—is to raise awareness. If England players were, for example, prepared to refuse interviews with the Qatari state broadcaster, it would significantly raise awareness of the plight of migrant workers, both in Qatar and elsewhere. This is an issue that could resonate widely and deeply in Britain, where 16% of workers were born abroad—including the mother of Raheem Sterling, England’s player of the tournament (and a supporter of Labour MP Dawn Butler). The national teams of Germany and Norway have already protested—albeit tamely—in support of rights in Qatar, so there is clearly some appetite for protest amongst players and a players’ campaign to move the tournament is perhaps not totally implausible. The momentum of the England squad as a campaigning force can and should be maintained and extended towards justice for all of the workers who make football possible.

The England players, and those who have rallied behind them, have demonstrated an appetite for a more progressive politics—particularly among those who are currently being excluded from the political process by both the Tories and the venal, anti-democratic Labour right. As such, effecting change will require more than big gestures from celebrities. The players are now, of course, being held up as heroes and leaders, particularly Rashford. But what we can learn from them is nothing to do with leadership; rather, it is the knowledge that we can’t wait for saviours—we have to do it ourselves. It wasn’t the FA that decided that the team should take the knee. It was bottom-up pressure from the players—in their role as workers—that made this happen.

So what can we do?

There is an argument being made by people of colour who are sick of talking about racism that it’s time for white people to do the work. To do meaningful work in football would require a better-networked left and a cohered activism within the sport, reaching across the differences created by club allegiances. White fans in stadiums need to confront racism whenever they see or hear it. The labour movement must be forced to take action, especially the Labour Party, which condemns racism when it suits a particular factional agenda, but is yet to do anything of any positive consequence on anti-Black racism, and has, in fact, frequently made matters worse.

It wasn’t the FA that decided that the team should take the knee. It was bottom-up pressure from the players—in their role as workers—that made this happen.

The FA must be held to account in lower-profile cases of racism in football. That they got off so lightly with regard to the racist abuse of Eniola Aluko by then-manager Mark Sampson demonstrates an imbalance between women’s football and men’s even when it comes to sanctions for racism, perhaps stemming from a higher tolerance for misogynoir, whereas football’s white gaze often fetishises Black men. Heavily racialised attitudes are still very prevalent in football, informing, among other things, the glaring absence of South Asian players from the upper echelons of the game. It is disturbing how frequently players of colour are still framed as lazy or unintelligent. These accusations clearly belong in the ‘demonstrably ridiculous’ category: a job that involves pushing oneself to one’s physical and mental limits almost every day seems an odd career move for an indolent person. Diminishing the intelligence of multilingual people who are capable of making several decisions concurrently, under scrutiny, and when on the brink of exhaustion is utterly preposterous. Why do people who have never so much as refereed a game feel comfortable stating that Theo Walcott ‘doesn’t have a football brain’, or complaining that Sterling ‘doesn’t put a shift in’? Why are players rarely compared with other professionals who aren’t of the same ethnic group? Why is it still so common to hear a Black player referred to as ‘a beast’? People—white people—need to ask these questions, and ask them publicly and loudly.

Football’s white gaze often fetishises Black men. Why is it still so common to hear a Black player referred to as ‘a beast’?

If nothing else, Euro ‘2020’ has proved that football can be radical and radicalising; that football is neither wholly capitalist nor wholly socialist, neither wholly racist nor wholly anti-racist; and that ‘keep politics out of football’ is not only a demand that shouldn’t be met, but a demand that can never be met, because football is inherently political. In the wake of the ESL fiasco, New Socialist contended that capitalism is in football, and football is in capitalism. We now know that the culture war is in football, and football is in the culture war. The England team aren’t going to win it for us. We need to follow their example and fight.

  1. We could note, too, that an ideology rooted in property rights both has a limited usefulness in challenging racism on anything but the most legalistic level, and is necessarily hostile to the kinds of commitments to collective provision, redistribution, and constraint that were crucial to the foundation of the NHS, however much liberals might praise it now. While the England players’ choice to give their tournament fees to the NHS is certainly legible within the framework of liberal charity, we argue that it can also—and perhaps better—be read as a commitment to collective provision: an act of solidarity. 


Jude Wanga (@judeinlondon2)

Jude Wanga is a writer, human rights campaigner and editor of New Socialist.

Tom Williams (@shirleymush)

Tom Williams is tutor in trade union studies and an editor for NS.