England vs Italy – the best of times and the worst of times

Though Gareth Southgate and the FA have strived to restore respect and honour to football, the truth is that it’s far from the beautiful game it could be. 

The worst of times

As many woke up nursing considerable hangovers from the expectation, hope and then crushing disappointment of Sunday’s game, many more were shocked by the sight of carnage and the reports of racist abuse that covered social media.

It wasn’t just neanderthals on social media who felt the need to throw mud at black players from the England team, however; a Tory MP attacked Marcus Rashford’s political actions regarding the feeding of poor children during the school holidays and a “comedian” took to Twitter to spread racist abuse. 

Accusing Rashford of “playing politics” and not focusing enough on his game, Dover MP Natalie Elphicke was widely criticised for her “ungenerous” comments and has apologised for her comments, leaked from a private Whatsapp group. 

Andrew Lawrence has had a tranche of his shows cancelled – from Maidstone to Chesham – from his tour as he attacked Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jason Sancho, pointing out that the only players not to score (missed or had their attempt saved by the Italian goalie) were black. He also slammed “equality, diversity” and made reference to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

However, the troubles around the match weren’t limited to the online space – scenes from Wembley Way and Leicester Square revealed the ugliness we’ve come to expect from England fans. It wasn’t even 2pm on Sunday – 6 hours before kickoff – when trouble started brewing in Leicester Square. Pints were being thrown around and pictures showed men with flares inserted into their bottoms, violent scuffles and drunken louts exposing themselves. Social media showed similar scenes in many places across the UK, including my own home town of Maidstone. It seems that the worst of people were there, representing England to the world and displaying pride and patriotism by smashing stuff up, assaulting each other – and police – and making a mockery of Covid regulations. Many drew parallels between the hooliganism displayed – seemingly without censure from the thin blue line – and the mostly peaceful vigil and protests when Sarah Everard was found murdered. 

The world was watching – and it was unimpressed

The world was unimpressed; French newspaper Libération lamented the death of the “much-vaunted English qualities of fair play, respect and decency”. Italy’s La Repubblica called the evening’s events “the darkest in English football” and La Stampa said English fans were sore losers; slamming them as unable to learn “how to react to defeat”. Swiss paper Blick was equally damning, saying “the Three Lions also have to wave goodbye to a lot of respect from the rest of Europe”.

Things were arguably worse outside the football stadium, however, where police made 49 arrests of fans who stormed Wembley. There was booing during the Italian national anthem and more when the players took the knee in support of Black Lives Matter. 

For some, it might have felt safer to be amongst ebullient, excited football fans they don’t know, than at home during the game. When England lose at football, domestic violence goes up by 38%. Wins prompt an increase of 26%, so whatever the score, victims are unsafe. 

After the game, a Marcus Rashford mural was defaced in Manchester with racist taunts.

The best of times

Pride, unity and community – those are the qualities that Gareth Southgate did bring home, according to various residents of his home town of Crawley, who are incredibly proud of their son.

David Goldblatt, writing for the Guardian, was full of plaudits for the England Manager, saying

“He neither under- nor overestimates opponents, treats them all with respect, and has shown remarkable emotional intelligence, towards himself and his players.He understands and celebrates the interlinked contribution of everyone in his team – players, coaches and every kind of support staff – and saves his greatest praise for the players who have had the least game time, on the grounds that we are only as good as our weakest link.”

David Goldblatt

David Olusoga is equally as hopeful about the future of Southgate’s England, saying

“it is united, youthful and instinctively forward-thinking. It is diverse, and comfortable in its diversity. It has the potential, if we were able to fully embrace it, to reclaim and decontaminate national symbols. This England team aims to write its own history – in stark contrast to the cult of bitter, backwards-looking jingoism that exists among sections of its fanbase.”

David Olusoga

The night before the game, Gary Lineker published a blog talking about the power of the sport. “What unites us as a nation like football?” He asks. “That is the power of England [the team]”. In his blog he heaps praise on the team of 26 lads who have brought “pride, joy and togetherness” to the nation “so often stuck in division”. With Brexit and, now, Coronavirus and restrictions, politicking and arguments over government handling of the Covid response, now more than ever before we needed some hope and some togetherness and, Lineker felt, that’s what they brought us:

“In their brilliance on and off the field, this team represents the very best of England in its diversity, dignity and shining social conscience.

To a man, they are thoughtful, empathetic and articulate. And they are changing what it means to be an England footballer.”

Gary Lineker

As previously mentioned, after the game there was racist graffiti scrawled across the mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester. Out of the ashes of so much ugliness, however, has grown a beautiful dedication to Rashford, as countless messages, pictures, poems and posters were swiftly erected to turn the negativity into love and support.

Manchester based artist, Akse, who first created the mural said it was was “really overwhelming and really cool to see the community coming together” to hide the nastiness and display the affection and respect for Rashford that they felt he deserved.  A crowdfunder to repair and protect the mural currently stands at just under £35,000 raised and states that additional funds over and above the costs, CCTV to cover the area and additional artwork, will be donated to food banks and anti-racism projects. 

The future of football

For all the ugliness that surrounded the game – before and after – I did feel that there was some unity shining through the division as even those who usually aren’t the slightest bit interested in the game became sudden pundits, delighting in watching “our boys” score. As more and more voices come out in defence of those players who have been roundly abused, I can feel a sense that things are getting better in some ways, even when it might feel they are getting worse. It feels like the world is finally waking up just a little more – to what racism does; how it makes people feel and the absolute plague it is on us all. Like BLM is making a real difference to the way people think. Like finally we are making headway into anti-racism and moving on from talking about “tolerance” as if people who are different from ourselves are solely something to just get on and live with, instead of embracing. One day we will live in a world where racism has been mostly eradicated, but until people are held accountable for their actions – online as much as they are in the offline world – that cannot happen. It’s time for social media giants to hold some responsibility and step up to stamp it out – in football and in society in general.

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