openDemocracyUK

Race, identity and English football

Guy Aitchison
8 June 2010

 

There's a wonderful piece in this week's New Statesman by the Guardian columnist Gary Younge reflecting on his complex relationship with the national football team growing up as a black man in England. Along with Paul Gilroy and Stuart Hall, Younge is one of the best writers we have on questions of race, identity and belonging and his new book, Who are we - and should it matter in the 21st century?, promises to be an important contribution to the debate.

Younge writes,

When I was growing up in Stevenage in Hertfordshire during the 1970s, the question of who to support in the World Cup never posed much of a dilemma for my family. We backed Brazil. Nearby Hitchin may have been where I was born and, with the exception of a six-week family trip to Barbados to see relatives, England may have been the only country I knew. But when it came to my footballing allegiance, I got my kicks from a country I knew nothing about and with which I had absolutely no connection. At the time, this seemed entirely logical.

First of all, Brazil were an exciting team to watch. They played with flair and an elegant conviction. They were also brilliant. At the time of the first World Cup that I can vaguely remember, in 1974 - my mother bought our first colour TV for the occasion - Brazil had won three of the previous four tournaments. England, on the other hand, did not qualify in 1974 and would not qualify again until 1982. My elder brother, a talented footballer, was nicknamed Pelé. The notion that he might be imagined as a great English footballer never occurred to anyone, and that included us.

In those early and not so early years, this relationship to English football was not merely ambivalent, it was antagonistic. It wasn't just that I did not support the national team, I actively wanted it to lose. And not just in football either. In everything from It's a Knockout to the Eurovision Song Contest, England's loss perversely became my gain.

This propensity to apostasy in sporting matters had much more to do with what was going on off the field than on it. It was about flags, anthems, war, migration, race, racism, colonialism, patriotism, nationalism, fascism and family - to name but a few things. But the nature in which these different forces interact is in constant flux. I am not the person I was in the 1970s and Britain is not the country it was, either.

Read on.

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