One dream over. Another reaches fever pitch
Can sport heal nations? Emma Raducanu has won huge admiration. And tomorrow England’s gifted young football stars are expected to display all the values that unite a troubled country.
In the long months of lockdown, towns and cities fell quiet. The only sound was the low hum of sparse traffic, punctuated by the grim wail of ambulance sirens. But in recent weeks, all that has changed. The streets of England have come alive with chants of “It’s coming home!” as jubilant fans celebrate their team’s victories in the European Championship.
Sometimes it can feel like the UK has never been more divided. Brexit exposed a gulf between towns and cities, old and young, conservative and liberal. Anti-vaxxers accuse government scientists of poisoning the population. The government has gone to war with universities, museums and the National Trust over “wokeism”.
And for a while, it seemed like football was doomed to become another front in these culture wars. The team’s decision to take the knee before the start of each match as a protest against racism caused outrage among some conservatives. Home Secretary Priti Patel dismissed the move as “gesture politics”, while Tory MP Lee Anderson announced that he would be boycotting the team.
Meanwhile, some on the left worried about a surge in nationalism among England fans, and the England flag’s association with far-right movements.
But the team’s staggering success, racing through match after match without conceding a single goal, has united the country behind them.
At the heart of this success has been Raheem Sterling, star of the tournament so far and one of the country’s most prominent Black footballers. As a result, for many he has become a symbol for a country united behind its team, regardless of political and racial divides.
Meanwhile, at Wimbledon, many have been equally inspired by the runaway success of 18-year-old tennis star Emma Raducanu. Born to a Romanian father and a Chinese mother, she soared through the tournament until yesterday – and become another emblem of a unified, multicultural Britain.
But others think sport has only provided a temporary pause in the country’s bitter struggles over politics and culture. They point out that bitter disagreements over race, gender identity, and patriotism still dominate the national conversation.
They also accuse Sterling’s new fans in the tabloids of opportunism. Five years ago, when England crashed out of the Euros early, he was vilified in sections of the right-wing press, attacks that he and others have suggested were racially motivated. But today he is praised across the media: the Sun, which previously branded him “obscene Raheem”, now proudly splashes him across its front page.
And as pandemic restrictions are eased, they argue, the UK’s divisions will only become more obvious. Yesterday, Boris Johnson announced that face masks will no longer be mandatory in shops and on public transport after 19 July. That means there will soon be a very visible split between those who choose to keep wearing their masks, and those who prefer to ditch them.
Can sport heal nations?
Going to penalties
Yes, say some. The proudly multicultural, tolerant England team, together with the kindly decency of manager Gareth Southgate, seems to represent a new kind of Englishness. For many, the image of Sterling and Harry Kane locked in a tight embrace will be an image of post-racial Britain. After years of resentment and suspicion, the whole country has finally found a cause it can rally around.
Not at all, say others. The widespread support for the England team only thinly masks the deep divisions that still remain, as proved by the behaviour of some fans who have booed as their players take the knee, and even jeered other countries’ national anthems. Whether or not football ends up coming home, England will remain a country fiercely divided against itself.
- What do you think of when you see the England flag?
- Is there an inherent tension between patriotism and liberalism?
- Imagine the football teams of all four nations of the UK decided to form one single British team. Design a logo for this new side.
- Get in a small group and write the words for a new song, in the style of Three Lions, to celebrate England’s successes in the Euros.
Some People Say...
“England will still be England, an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past, and, like all living things, having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”George Orwell (1903–1950), English writer.
What do you think?
Q & A
- What do we know?
- Most people agree that patriotism is an uneasy subject in England. Previously, politicians preferred to define themselves as British, which was seen as a more liberal alternative to Englishness, increasingly associated with the far right. But the rise of Scottish and Welsh nationalism has caused a similar wave of English patriotic feeling which some in the Conservative Party especially have sought to ride. Many in England are now uncertain about how best to define themselves.
- What do we not know?
- There is some debate over whether or not British politics has really been changed by the “culture wars”. Some people believe that where previously, economic issues like tax levels and welfare defined the gap between left and right, now the gap is to do with culture: national history, LGBT rights and multiculturalism. But others argue only a loud minority of people really care about these issues. The entire country, they claim, is becoming more and more progressive.
- National Trust
- A charity set up in 1895 to protect heritage sites in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It has been criticised by some politicians for investigating the links between some of its properties and the slave trade.
- A term that refers very broadly to a range of socially progressive views, especially on racism, sexism, and transgender rights. For many conservatives it is also associated with so-called “cancel culture”.
- Culture wars
- The term given to political debates over social issues, like LGBT rights, women’s liberation, racial discrimination, and patriotism.
- Home Secretary
- One of the four Great Offices of State, the Home Secretary is in charge of immigration, policing, and national security.
- Lee Anderson
- Conservative MP for Ashfield in Nottinghamshire since 2019. He won the seat from Labour, of which he was formerly a member.
- The world’s oldest international tennis tournament. It is one of the four Grand Slams, the biggest tournaments of the year, and the only one played on grass.
- Emma Raducanu
- Although ranked 338 in the world, Raducanu won a place at Wimbledon as a wildcard, and raced through the early rounds.
- A word that originally referred to the dimensions of a newspaper (as opposed to a broadsheet), but has come to be used to describe newspapers that focus on sensationalist news and gossip, since many such newspapers use the tabloid format.
- The Sun
- Britain’s most widely-read newspaper. It was founded in 1964 and bought in 1969 by Rupert Murdoch, who turned it into a right-wing tabloid.