Last week, after more than a year of playing in empty stadiums, the England men’s football team finally walked out into the Riverside stadium in Middlesbrough in front of a small, socially distanced crowd. This warm-up game for Euro 2020 was hardly notable for the football as England ground out a 1-0 win over Austria. What stays in the mind is that, when the English players – a remarkably diverse starting 11, five of whom were players of colour – took the knee before kick-off, there was the now familiar duel between those booing the gesture, and those clapping to drown them out.
In May 2020, in response to the murder of George Floyd and the global mobilisation of the Black Lives Matter movement, players of the English Premier League collectively agreed to take a knee before games and have, with a few exceptions, continued to do so since. It has been a statement of support for the victims of racism and a demand for racial justice, in English football and the wider world, and has already attracted backlash, from the flying of an aerial “White” Lives Matter” banner by Burnley fans, to social media abuse of black players and booing the knee by Chelsea fans at the FA Cup final.
These events may not be to the game’s credit but they confirm the remarkable status of football as a public theatre of race issues, and England is not alone in this. Over the next month, the 24 squads at Euro 2020 will offer a snapshot of Europe’s diversity and demography, while the football press and public’s attitudes to the teams make the politics of nation and migration, race and ethnicity, more transparent than in many areas of public life.
England is one of five countries – alongside France, Portugal, Belgium and the Netherlands – with very diverse squads, where players of colour have a long-established presence on the national team and, not uncoincidentally, were major colonial powers. France and Portugal capped their first black players in the 1930s, the Netherlands in the 1960s. Viv Anderson’s England debut in 1978 was the beginning of a great wave of black English players. At Euro 2020, between a third and half the squads of the old colonial powers will be players of colour.
In all these countries the ethnic composition of the national team and its performance in major competitions have, at times, been a lightning rod for pro- and anti-migrant politics, civil and ethnic versions of the nation. France’s World Cup triumphs were claimed as victories for a multiracial French republic and a snub for the Front National, celebrated exuberantly in 1998 and more cautiously in 2018. But the team’s implosion at the 2010 World Cup was read as a bitter internal ethnic conflict, and the French Football Federation has been racked by accusations of institutionalised racism and attempts to introduce racial quotas into its youth teams. Given the rise of the far right in France and the presidential elections in 2022, it is hard not to imagine similar narratives playing out.
Belgium’s diverse and attractive sides have helped break the stalemate of Walloon versus Flemish identity in the national conversation, offering something of the hyper-cosmopolitan mix of Brussels. However, as the team’s centre forward Romelu Lukaku has made clear, these new accommodations are contingent. “When things were going well,” he wrote in 2018, “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.”
Compared with England, the institutional response in football to racism and the BLM movement elsewhere in Europe has been pitiful. French football held just a single day against racism, while individual players of colour have taken a knee to the bemusement of their white peers. The Belgian and Dutch authorities have been even more indifferent. In the Netherlands it was left to the players, led by national team captain, Virgil van Dijk, to boycott the country’s most popular TV show after racist comments by the host, an ex-footballer.
Portugal, notionally at ease with its significant African communities and football players, saw a surge in racist attacks over the past year that spilled over into football; Porto’s Moussa Marega walked off the pitch after the crowd racially abused him.
The second group of diverse squads come from Scandinavia and German-speaking Europe. Germany was stripped of its African colonies at Versailles, Switzerland and Austria never had any, and Scandinavia’s imperial adventures are very distant. Yet these teams are almost as diverse as those of the old colonial powers because they reflect a new era of post-cold war global economic and refugee migrations, and a relatively successful process of assimilation and adaptation. Germany, for example, has players of Turkish heritage whose families arrived as Gastarbeiter in the 1960s and 70s, sons of more recent African arrivals, and players whose families fled the Yugoslavian civil war. Switzerland’s squad includes players with roots in Kosovo, Croatia, Bosnia and Albania, not to mention players of Cameroonian, Chilean, Congolese and Sudanese descent.
As in the old colonial powers, these multi-ethnic national teams can be an exemplar of a new civic nationalism. In 2006, Germany revelled in its own flag in public for the first time since the end of the second world war as a young, diverse national team raced to the World Cup semi-final.
In Germany and Sweden, football clubs and fan groups operate as active agents in the settling of migrants. But nativist voices sometimes decry these teams’ authenticity or, as German midfielder Mesut Özil found after being photographed with Turkish’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, question their patriotism and allegiance.
Sweden’s national team, reflecting its longstanding and generous immigration and refugee policies, has been diverse for some time, and overwhelmingly a cause for national celebration; they capped Martin Dahlin, their first player of colour, in 1988, while their greatest modern player, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, is of Bosnian heritage. Even so, at the 2018 World Cup, Jimmy Durmaz, born to Assyrian migrants, was made the scapegoat for defeat by Germany and faced a torrent of online abuse accusing him of being a “suicide bomber” and a “fucking immigrant”. The squad responded by posting a “Fuck racism” video. Durmaz didn’t make the squad this time around but Sweden’s far right will have players with Macedonian and Congolese roots, and Swedes of Haitian, Ghanaian and Kenyan descent to abuse should they choose to.
Spain, Scotland and Italy are, by contrast, very monotone. Although Spain has capped black players, the balance of Basques, Catalans and Spaniards consumes the nationalist energy. Scotland’s great Irish migrations and the vicious sectarian politics that bedevils Scottish football and society provide the backdrop to the cultural politics of its national team. Neither form of division applies to Italy, who will be entirely white but for naturalised Brazilian defender Emerson Palmieri. Neither Spain nor Italy acquired a significant migrant community from their global empires. Indeed, both were countries of emigration until very recently. Brazilians with Italian or Spanish roots have been easily assimilated – such as Spain’s Thiago Alcântara or Italy’s Jorginho – but players of colour from their new migrant communities have been rare, often poorly received, and operating in football cultures that remain, like the country at large, in denial about their deep racism.
When Mario Balotelli, Italy’s first black football star, played for the national team, fans would often sing, “There is no such thing as a black Italian”, and he would be subject to abuse by crowds allowed at Italian team training camps.
Whoever wins or loses, Euro 2020 will show a continent whose nations are in the throes of another of its periodic demographic shifts, above all, the new migrations from Africa and the Caribbean. Men’s football continues to draw its stars from a narrow pool of predominately working-class young men, where ethnic minorities are already overrepresented and for whom the game offers a rare set of plausible role models and an accessible career path. Along with the phenomenal resilience and dedication of these players, these factors have combined so that players of colour are actually overrepresented in many squads.
It is progress of a sort, and it has produced a generation that is more confident and autonomous than their predecessors and who – like Raheem Sterling and Virgil van Dijk – are speaking out on racism in the game. The same cannot be said of either their coaches, club presidents or the administrators of the national game in Europe, where minorities are massively underrepresented or entirely absent. It is little wonder then that most football associations and leagues have been so oblivious to racism in the game and so hapless in confronting it.
Like the game at Middlesbrough last week, European football remains a place in which racism and resistance to racism are publicly on show – and our conflicting versions of who we are – are aired. I’m hoping for the clappers to outperform the booers, and that teams’ diversity will be a source of public national celebration rather than racist scapegoating, but as we know in football, “it’s the hope that kills you”.
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