National sport, national identity: Can football unite us off the pitch too?

The link between international sporting events and national identity is undisputed and age-old. From the Olympics, to the World Cup, to the European Championships, sporting competitions have the power to unite a country - even one with deeply entrenched divisions. In England, no sport can do this quite so well as football; but can our national sport heal divisions off the pitch, too?


In 2018, after England's semi-finals defeat at the World Cup in Moscow, The Economist published an article titled "English or British? Football highlights an enduring identity crisis," which examines how football is a vehicle for the expression of Englishness, and how that national identity is "at odds" with Britishness. Over the last month of the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament, questions about Englishness and how a collective sense of national identity translates off the pitch have resurfaced, but the conversation has shifted, and feels more optimistic than it ever has before.


Image credit: @england Instagram.


Englishness is by nature an elusive concept. A shared sense of national identity does not exist in England the same way that it does in other modern nation-states, and few if any are able to articulate any sort of convincing definition of Englishness. This is in part because England is not a sovereign state, but is rather part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and therefore the identity does not match the nation-state. (The same can be said for Scottishness, Welshness and Irishness, though each comes with its own issues and arguments).


In recent years, and particularly in the wake of the Brexit referendum of 2016, Englishness became synonymous with isolationism, xenophobia, and right-wing politics, and overtly celebrating our national identity either through words or symbols, like hanging the St George's Cross, has become something of a taboo. Connotations of racism and colonial nostalgia mean that many English people have felt entirely alienated from their own national identity, leaving the country more divided and making an accurate definition of Englishness even more difficult to conceptualise.


However, over the last four weeks, our national football team has led the nation towards an entirely different vision of Englishness - one that relies on inclusivity, equality, and a commitment to progress. Before each game, players took the knee to signal their solidarity with Black Lives Matter, and Harry Kane sported a rainbow armband to demonstrate allyship with the LGBTQ+ community during Pride Month.


And our England team live these values both on and off the pitch - Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Bukayo Saka, Jordan Henderson, and frankly the entire squad, are not only incredible football players, they are also champions of social justice. Free school meals, racial equality, equality of opportunity for kids - these are the issues that fuel our nation's most famous sporting team.


Image credit: FARESHARE/MARK WAUGH/PA WIRE


Before the Euros began, British Future and the Centre for English Identity and Politics published a pamphlet titled: "Beyond a 90-minute nation: Why it’s time for an inclusive England outside the stadium." The concept of a "90-minute nation" refers to the idea that England fans up and down the country unite in support for the 90 minutes of football under the St George's Cross, but after the game is over, many revert to feeling unrepresented by that very same flag. As its title suggests, the pamphlet argues that while football can provide a sense of English national unity in a way that little else can, that unity must be reflected off the pitch as well, in order to create a sense of permanent cohesion.


The report opens with some promising, though by no means perfect, statistics: "New research for this report finds that this team's appeal cuts across age, gender, politics and ethnic background, with two-thirds of white (66%) and ethnic minority (65%) respondents in England agreeing that the England football team belongs to people of every race and ethnic background in England today." Similarly, "Three quarters (77%) of white people in England agree that "Being English is open to people of different ethnic backgrounds who identify as English." The authors go on to suggest that:

"the accepted wisdom, that Britishness is an inclusive identity while Englishness remains more contested, may now be open to question. The gap between British and English identity appears to be shrinking."

So does this team have the potential to shrink that gap even further and alter the definition of Englishness long-term?


Southgate's team have undoubtedly embodied a version of national identity that challenges traditional understandings of Englishness - one that has allowed those unrepresented by the England flag to feel seen, appreciated, and included.


Unfortunately, progress of these proportions does not come without challenge. Already we have seen an eruption across the media in response to vile racist comments that have been left on penalty-takers Marcus Rashford's, Bukayo Saka's and Jadon Sancho's social media platforms - comments Gareth Southgate condemned as "unforgivable" in his press conference this morning. The swift return to vitriol and hatred is distressing and infuriating, and gives us good reason to be ashamed. However, that this abuse has been so quickly and directly addressed - not only with words, but with actions too - offers real hope.


The FA released the following statement:

"The FA strongly condemns all forms of discrimination and is appalled by the online racism that has been aimed at some of our England players on social media. We could not be clearer that anyone behind such disgusting behaviour is not welcome in following the team. We will do all we can to support the players while urging the toughest punishments possible for anyone responsible."

Southgate equally affirmed the position of the England team:

"It's not what we stand for. We, I think, have been a beacon of light in bringing people together, in people being able to relate to the national team, and the national team stands for everybody. So, that togetherness has to continue, and we have shown the power our country has when it does come together...we felt that from the fans and I'm incredibly proud of the players."

Both the FA and Southgate's statements clearly signal that Englishness is incompatible with bigotry and hatred. Where we have come to associate the English flag with this very behaviour, it's quite clear that the nation is now coming together and taking a stand against it.


Image credit: @england Instagram.


The journey towards a more inclusive sense of Englishness is clearly far from over, but we cannot and should not doubt the extent of the progress that has been made by this team. As England's national sport, football, or perhaps more accurately, footballers, undoubtedly have the power to shift culture, and Southgate's team is leading us in the right direction - towards a conception of English national pride that relies not on bigotry and abuse, but on compassion, progress, and inclusivity. A pride that is felt not because of our nation's past, or even its present, but because of how we come together both on and off the pitch to collectively shape its future.



References

"English or British? Football highlights an enduring identity crisis." The Economist. July 12, 2018. https://www.economist.com/britain/2018/07/12/english-or-british-football-highlights-an-enduring-identity-crisis.

"Racist abuse of England players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho & Bukayo Saka 'unforgivable'." BBC Sport. July 12, 2021. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/57800431.

Sunder Katwala, John Denham and Steve Ballinger. "Beyond a 90-minute nation: Why it’s time for an inclusive England outside the stadium." British Future and the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton, 2021. https://www.britishfuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/Beyond-a-90-minute-nation.-Inclusive-England-report.10.6.21.pdf.