REPRESENTATIVE: The diversity of the World Cup team has changed some people’s relationship with the England flag
TOTTENHAM FANS have a word for it – they call it “Spursy”. The urban dictionary defines it as “to consistently fail to live up to expectations – to bottle it”. England fans will have felt for many years that they could identify with that – let’s call it “Englandy” – as their beloved football team persistently either failed to qualify for major tournaments or, when they did, crashed out on penalties or to a team that they should probably beat, like Iceland.
But England in the last few weeks have become a lot less “Englandy” as we all know. They got out of their group unscathed. They won a penalty shoot out. They even won a quarter final without causing too much anxiety. Yes, it all came to a sad end against Croatia earlier in the week but as far as extra-time exits go, this one didn’t feel too bad.
There are several reasons for this – firstly, expectations were low. Secondly, a lot of this team came from (by football standards) some of the country’s more humble clubs earlier in their careers. Thirdly, because of the strong bond that developed between the team and the fans and the bond between their charismatic manager and pretty much everyone else.
I’ll venture another reason – this team looked a lot more like the England I see every day.
It is a multicultural, ethnically diverse group of players. Gareth Southgate put it like this just before England’s semi-final. “We have the chance to affect something bigger than ourselves, particularly with our diversity and youth – and represent a modern England.”
England weren’t the only team to stand out – in Belgium’s 23-man squad, 11 players come from migrant backgrounds (the same proportion as England) and the biggest stars in the French side – Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante all have African heritage. As one French fan told the USA Today: “I don’t see that they are black, I see that they are blue.”
So all is well then – but of course it isn’t quite.
Here’s Romelu Lukaku – one of Belgium’s biggest stars – writing in the Players Tribune: “When things were going well, I was reading newspaper articles and they were calling me ‘Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker, when things weren’t going well, they were calling me ‘Romelu Lukaku, the Belgian striker of Congolese descent’. If you don’t like the way I play, that’s fine. But I was born here. I grew up in Antwerp, and Liege and Brussels.”
Hasan Patel is a young England fan. Last week he tweeted this: “Had a very unpleasant moment yesterday when a group of white men came over to me and my friend saying that we should take off our England flags since ‘We’re not English’. Mind you, I was born here. It’s my flag as much as it is yours.”
The comments posted in response to his tweet are mostly supportive but some aren’t.
The radio station LBC have been criticised for putting a caller on to one of their phone-in shows who told host Kevin Maguire that this England team didn’t “represent” him. Maguire asked the man, who called himself Ian, if he wanted England to lose and the answer that he did was all too predictable. The host condemned Ian’s prejudice but it’s for you to judge whether this idiot is a lone bigoted voice in the wilderness or not.
I’ve written here before about why choosing which team to support isn’t always easy for a lot of black and minority ethnic people in England or in the wider UK. For some it was the uncomfortable association with the English flag.
But maybe that’s changing too. Carl Anka is a journalist and broadcaster. He is also black. He tweeted: “These past five weeks watching the England team is the very first time I can see someone carrying an England flag and I don’t want to walk in a different direction.”
So perhaps the oft-heard phrase after an event of national importance “we came together as one” is starting to look a lot more truthful and we can thank the players of that England team for that.
And as for Spurs, I heard a journalist on BBC 5Live talking about bumping into an Arsenal fan in Russia who was complaining that, in his words, “the Tottenham players let us down”. As he turned around to walk away the name Kane and the number nine could be seen on his back. Now that really is “Englandy”.
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