FOOTBALL became a metaphor for the polity of the nation when Gareth Southgate wrote an open letter, “Dear England”, before the opening of the Euros tournament. Football sometimes becomes part of the collective consciousness of our country, the England manager said, hoping that his current squad — the most ethnically diverse ever — would inspire and unite the nation. Splendidly, they have done that.
But, sadly, football has become a metaphor for the nation in a way that also reveals its squalid underbelly. The national anthems of others have been booed. Rival fans have been abused in the stadium and had their seats stolen. A nine-year-old Danish boy and his family were attacked on a bus. Sickening films of thuggery have emerged, in which a child is punched and an Asian fan is repeatedly kicked in the head. The three black players who missed penalties have been subjected to a barrage of racist abuse. The ancient football demons of hooliganism and racism have re-emerged with frightening new vitality.
We may respond that the bad is outweighed by the good. But there is something new that is worrying. Although Boris Johnson hastily donned an England shirt when the team got to the final, his previous behaviour was disturbing. When the England players — white and black alike — took the knee before each match, sections of the crowd booed, and the Prime Minister declined to condemn this. Indeed, his Home Secretary, Priti Patel, attacked the players for “gesture politics”, and defended the right of spectators to boo.
After the outpouring of racial abuse against the penalty-missers, Mr Johnson changed his tune. Ms Patel deleted her earlier tweets. But few were taken in. The Financial Times — hardly an organ of leftish “woke” politics — adjudged that “a substantial proportion of the governing Conservative party shares Patel’s contempt for the England team’s anti-racism efforts”. One Tory MP even refused to watch the England games, in protest at the team’s taking the knee. Another opined that one of those who missed a penalty, Marcus Rashford — who received an MBE last year for his campaign against child food poverty — would do better to concentrate on “perfecting his game” rather than “playing politics”.
Mr Johnson’s Government, with its calculated demonisation of Black Lives Matter, has, at the very least, given cover to a covert racism, which, it calculated, was to its electoral advantage in the post-Brexit mood of Little Englander nationalism.
Its hypocrisy was dramatically outed by one black member of the England squad, Tyrone Mings, who attacked the Home Secretary directly, saying: “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.”
Old-style Conservatives are clearly uncomfortable with the Johnson-Patel strategy. Mr Mings was backed by the former Tory-party chairman, Lady Warsi, who insisted that dog-whistle politics “win votes but destroy nations”. Another former minister, Johnny Mercer, said that the black player was “completely right”, and warned against modern Conservatism not to lose its way.
It is a real indictment of the state of our politics when it is our footballers rather than our Prime Minister who best embody the decency of our nation.