Thursday September 16, 2021

The largest circle

Sport has a unique ability to unite a diverse nation. I fondly recall the 2019 Cricket World Cup: England won, and afterwards, the Irish-born captain of the English team, Eoin Morgan, stated “We had Allah with us as well.” According to Morgan, the bowler Adil Rashid told him this. Morgan added, “We had the run of the green. Actually, it epitomises our team. It’s one with quite diverse backgrounds, cultures, and people growing up in different countries.”

Speaking as someone who has chosen to live in England, Morgan’s remarks made me feel more at home. I had choices in life; friends of mine have gone to America and Australia to pursue their dreams. England’s cricket team and their eloquent captain gave me a greater sense of belonging, even if it was only in the momentary glow of sporting success.

For anyone who didn’t follow the recent Euro 2020 football tournament: England went mad over the football team. The Three Lions song which states repeatedly “it’s coming home” was heard throughout the land. Some affixed small St George’s Cross flags to their cars. Some proudly hoisted them outside their homes.

A good look at the England team suggests that they are as diverse as the cricket squad: their first names range from Raheem to Harry. By all indications, they are a group of well-mannered young men, at the height of their physical prowess. Unlike some teams I have seen in my time, they are more concerned with collective rather than individual success. They are respectful. They are also sensitive to the issues of our time, indicated by them taking the knee. Their presence at the Euro 2020 final should have been a moment of national unity and glory.

And yet, there was nowhere near the same unifying feel as there was in 2019. This is not the fault of the England squad, nor is there any blame to be attached to Gareth Southgate, their diligent and eloquent manager. Rather, it has to do with some of the fans’ behaviour; in many ways, this shows how far England has to go.

Most countries have a Janus-like quality, they look forward and backward simultaneously. Years ago, I read a book which showed a study among different nationalities: people were asked to draw three circles, one indicating the past, another indicating the present, and yet another indicating the future. The participants were asked to draw the circles in proportion to their importance, the larger the circle, the more important it was. Curiously, the Belgians in the study made all three circles equal. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Americans made the future circle substantially larger than the other two. I believe that if the same study was carried out today, many English people, if they were honest, would make the circle indicating the past the largest of the three.

Take World War II. Yes, there are many veterans still with us. It unleashed horrors we should never forget. However, the football fans’ chant often used against Germany is ‘Two World Wars, One World Cup’. The vast majority of the people who shout this are too young to recall personally the World Cup win of 1966, let alone the privations of World War II. Yet, this backward focus remains strong even in 2021: before England’s recent defeat of Germany at Wembley, the German national anthem was booed. A picture of a young, crying German fan was circulated online. This unfortunate girl was attacked online by England fans. Yes, Germany unleashed horrors during World War II: but what does a modern German, whose political and economic system was partially designed by the British, have to do with it?

To be fair, there was outrage in response: unleashing abuse at a child is beyond the pale for most people. But there is something altogether unpleasant, downright nasty, in the fact that people would take their support of a team to that length. Furthermore, as bright and attuned as the England team are, there are still fans who boo them when they take the knee. Some booed when the Danish and Italian national anthems were played; one even tried to shine a laser in the Danish goalie’s eyes. Video footage from the final showed an Asian man being repeatedly kicked in the head by England fans. After England lost, racist abuse poured out: a mural depicting Marcus Rashford was defaced.

Euro 2020 has highlighted England’s ‘largest circle’. There is a type of person who wants to go back to a past that never existed, when England won the World Cup, was the Workshop of the World, had an Empire, and somehow was elevated above other nations and races. This is a fictional landscape, a soft-focus fantasy which hides an altogether more complicated reality and problematic history. The truth is that England has always been a melting pot, even from the time when the Romans arrived on these shores and has been continually refreshed by new influences. After the Romans, the Anglo Saxons came, then the Normans. Later, French Protestants fled here, as did Jews from Eastern Europe, and more recently, people from Pakistan, who worked in Yorkshire textile factories and drove buses. It was never as simple as some of these fans believe; booing and crying about it will not make it so. However, they will not be told; they will engage in violence and hurt others rather than admit it. My concern is this: are the people who act this way the past, or are they a portent of the future?

As a Muslim woman, I think it’s wonderful that a Raheem can work with a Harry and create successes which bring joy to people. I still identify with the England team, as they represent some of the best that this society has to offer. Given the pandemic and the struggle to escape its clutches, we needed a lift to the national mood. However, the fans who boo, who jeer, who are violent and offensive, remind us that there is a long way to go before it’s not just ‘coming home’, but is making this country more of a home for everyone who lives here.

The writer is a practising solicitor in England.

Twitter: @shahjhan_malikk