The England shirt: What it was, is, and... could become?
As I walked through London on Sunday afternoon I felt eyes on my knock-off Italia 90 home replica shirt. Eyes of people with reason enough to feel suspicious of it. A woman wearing a hijab; a black man pushing his young child in a pram. It’s something I considered before leaving the house, and as I have no way of knowing how they actually felt about the shirt, maybe my reaction to it says more about my thoughts than theirs. I’m conflicted about the shirt, but I decided to wear it. If there was one thing in the back of my mind giving me some comfort it was the players 1500 miles away who later that day would walk out wearing the real thing. This England team.
I understand that as a white, cis man my comfort is of no comfort and indeed little relevance to those who have feared, and still fear, that shirt and what it might stand for in the eyes of the wearer. But I do want to talk about this England team; some of their individual brave stances, and what I’d like to think they, as a collective, say about what England can become.
It’s an England team that features Danny Rose, open and outspoken about his battles with depression and anxiety.
It features Raheem Sterling, who has not let the death of his father at the age of two, hold him back from being there for his mum and becoming one of the best footballers in the world. By all accounts he’s a nice guy off the field too.
I almost don’t even want to talk about the vile and concerted campaign against Sterling in certain national newspapers because no-one should be judged for how they react to that. There is no wrong reaction. Even if he had let off an angry tirade he would have been well within his rights to do so. He has, in fact, responded with grace off the field and some of the best football of his career on it.
The squad is the most ethnically diverse England team ever with eleven members of the twenty-three man squad from a BAME background (the 2016 squad had ten, and no previous squad had more than eight). They stand as an example to young BAME footballers that they can succeed, although there is still clearly an issue with developing the talent of young British Asian footballers.
Whilst it’s clear that things have improved, we shouldn’t pretent that everything is ok with the shirt, with the England team or with English football more generally.
Of course, the shirt carries with it a history of violence, racism, homophobia and sexism perpetrated by individuals and groups wearing it. On a wider level, the shirt represents, England, a country with history of colonialism as well as institutional racism, sexism, homophobia and almost every single other discriminatory practice you might want to list.
It also goes without saying that those abuses are also not just in England’s past, but are also deeply embedded in the present. Others have written more authoritatively and eloquently than I can or will on these issues. If you’d like to read more, try Jonathan Liew on the lack of opportunities for black managers in English football; Kashif Siddiqi on why British Asian footballers struggle to make it at professional level; Carrie Dunn on not only sexism in football but the unwillingness on the part of some to do anything about it; Jonah Bury on why that there are no openly gay or bisexual male footballers in England’s top four divisions. You get the idea. There are hundreds more issues, writers and pieces I could have listed here. And that’s not good.
It’s also true that not every player in the current squad is someone we can be proud of - I’m thinking mainly of Jamie Vardy’s history of using racist language.
This has to change, and that will take work. There are links in the articles listed above to people and places trying to do that work, which you should support if you can.
I do think there’s enough about this England team to be proud of though. As with their wins over Tunisia and Panama, this England team exemplify a step on a path, not a finish line crossed. They represent a future that is more diverse, more tolerant and more understanding.
My Italia 90 kit was 28 years old. I hope in 28 years from now, a shirt with Rashford, or Sterling, or Rose on the back can be worn as a symbol of players who helped presage and create the brighter England playing at the Infantini Space Island 2046 World Cup. Ultimately, knowing it was this England team I was supporting by wearing that shirt made the cheap, almost completely unbreathable material slightly more bearable.
P.S. I wanted to include in this piece a discussion of English players riding unicorn floats in a pool in Russia but I still can’t decide whether I think the photograph bravely challenges traditional conceptions of masculinity in football or absolutely aligns with a lads on tour stereotype. I suppose they do all wear shirts with their names on the back.