Watching England beat Croatia was, to many of us, a source of great optimism: a win over one of the world’s best teams by a very good collection of young Englishmen representing the diversity of our country.
What is striking about the European Championship is the contrast between countries like France, Holland, Belgium and Portugal, as well as England and others, whose squads reflect the diversity of their societies, and some eastern European nations whose teams are very white.
England has imposed the additional test of having the team “take the knee”. There was an uncomfortable moment at the beginning of the Croatia match when a minority in the Wembley crowd started booing during the kneeling. They were drowned out by cheers, but it was noticeable that some of the fans chose to make their statement of opposition despite the appeal of Gareth Southgate, amongst others, to support the players who had chosen to take a stand on racial justice and equality.
The adoption of “the knee” last summer was initially an expression of solidarity in the wake of the George Floyd killing and a wish to make a strong statement about persistent racism in British sport. The origins of the gesture lie with the American footballer Colin Kaepernick in 2016. It was taken up by sportsmen like Lewis Hamilton, who were isolated black success stories in the overwhelmingly white sports field.
It is not surprising that the practice was also taken up in English football. The fact that most leading teams in the Premier League have significant numbers of black or mixed-race players does not disguise the continued expression of racist tropes and behaviour amongst a minority of fans on grounds and on social media.
The diversity of English teams also cannot conceal the continued “structural” barriers to career progression and positions of authority in football, as is reflected in the dearth of black managers. And there are regular reminders that – outside the relatively protected bubble of high-level professional football – black people face massive injustice, as with the killing by a police officer of the former Aston Villa player, Dalian Atkinson.
A Europe-wide survey of fans in March by YouGov showed that there was majority support for players “taking the knee’’ from (mainly white) fans across the continent. Perhaps surprisingly, support was strongest across Southern Europe: Portugal, Spain and Italy – and lowest in the Netherlands. In UK countries, there was clear majority support (57 per cent in England and Scotland; 53 per cent in Wales). But there was a dissenting minority.
We don’t know exactly what debate has raged in the English squad, but it is clear that some players wanted to keep up the practice of taking the knee; their teammates wanted to show solidarity; and the manager backed them up. So, where does the opposition come from?
There have been some black players who feel that “the knee” is just ineffectual tokenism and who refuse to go along with it; as shown at the end of last season by the Crystal Palace player, Wilf Zaha.
Some clubs have stopped “taking the knee” – as with Celtic and Rangers at a recent “old firm” game in Glasgow. Scotland’s national team is not following England’s example, but will do so for the England-Scotland match on Friday. Brentford, newly promoted to the Premier League, has declared its intention to stop the practice; arguing that it is no longer making an impact.
The fans booing are making a different point, however distastefully. Though probably very few are actively hostile to the anti-racism movement, they just don’t like “taking the knee’’. The home secretary, Priti Patel, appears to have some sympathy with them.
Other attempts have also been made to politicise the issue as with the Tory MP Lee Anderson claiming that Black Lives Matter is an extreme left “Marxist” movement associated with unpopular causes like “defunding’’ the police. He hasn’t got a great deal of traction – yet – but probably represents a segment of the fan base. This “guilt by association” argument is highly suspect.
I suspect Anderson would not argue that our support for the Union Jack or the St George’s Cross should be diminished by the fact extremist groups have sought to “own” both politically.
It seems likely that “the knee” will remain as a strong statement against racism by the English team as long as the team survives in the tournament (hopefully beyond a difficult encounter in the last 16); and it will have majority support amongst fans and the wider public. But the question is: where does it go then?
I hope the players’ representatives and the football authorities are giving some thought to the next stage. It is not too difficult to envisage a very ugly start to the next football season when some clubs and players want to continue the protest and others don’t.
Hostile booing in some stadiums will likely increase the determination of committed players to maintain their protest. Divisions open up within and between clubs. To avert this outcome, there is a strong argument for a dignified, organised, end to “the knee” in English football after this tournament (hopefully with England winning it).
But that categorically should not mean an end to the campaign against racism in football and in sport and society generally. Many of the problems in football identified earlier remain, which require consistent, firm action to exclude racists clubs and to develop a pipeline of managers among young black players.
Other sports are a long way behind football in recognising the issues. Cricket seems to have become less diverse over time and the ugly, cavalier response by some fans to Olly Robinson’s teenage tweets reminds us of the prejudices swirling around not far below the surface. Nor have the problems of prejudice and discrimination in wider society gone away.
The English football team is performing a valuable service in reminding us of that uncomfortable reality. I hope they can also help unify the country in a celebration of success at the final on 11 July.
Sir Vince Cable is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and served as secretary of state for business, innovation and skills from 2010 to 2015