Sport matters to national identity. The pageantry of flags, emblems and anthems (both official and unofficial) load sport with symbolism and imagery of the nation. One of the key reasons governments spend billions of dollars to host sporting mega events is to build or reinforce a sense of national identity.
However, national identity is fluid, not fixed. Sport offers an arena in which national identity can adapt and change.
In England, where many civic institutions represent Britain as a whole, the men’s national football team is particularly important to English identity. In 1996, the country hosted the European Championships tournament. This coincided with the so-called awakening of English national identity, symbolised by the supplanting of the union flag with the waving of the Saint George’s cross at Wembley football stadium and the singing of a new fans’ anthem, Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home).
In recent years, celebrating Englishness has often been linked to a narrow and exclusive imagery, which is said to marginalise ethnic minorities and those with a more socially liberal perspective, and has been tied to a football culture often associated with hooliganism. Yet now, as England have reached the finals of the Euros for the first time, the team and its manager, Gareth Southgate, have put football at the centre of a debate about English identity for the opposite reason. Is a more proud, inclusive version of Englishness emerging?
Multicultural teams in a globalised world
A recent graphic promoted by the UK’s Museum of Migration shows a stark picture of what England’s starting 11 would look like without immigration over the past two generations. With only three players without a parent or grandparent born overseas, the national team is held up as a microcosm of a diverse, multicultural population (although the absence of England’s significant Asian communities is glaring).
To paraphrase historian Eric Hobsbawm, the imagined community of multicultural England seems more real as a team of eleven named people. As Southgate said before the 2018 World Cup: “In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is. I think as a team we represent that modern identity and hopefully people can connect with us.”
In many ways, this is old news. Sport in England and the UK (akin to national identity) has always been a multinational affair, owing to its colonial ties with the countries of the former British Empire. Whether it was Jamaican-born John Barnes scoring against Brazil in 1984, Kevin Pietersen (South African born) winning the Ashes in 2005, or Greg Rusedski (Canadian born), Johanna Konta (Australian born) or, more recently, Emma Raducanu (Canadian born) performing at Wimbledon, British sport has long reflected its colonial history and the tensions and contingencies that brings.
Nor is this issue unique to England or the UK. In 1998, the French World Cup-winning team was both celebrated and attacked by pro- and anti-migrant voices for the multiracial makeup of their “rainbow team”, as a large proportion of its players – including its star Zinedine Zidane – had ethnic backgrounds in former French colonies in Africa and the Caribbean. The imperial legacies of Belgium, Netherlands and Portugal are also evident in the diversity of their respective squads.
Beyond former colonial powers, most national teams are now more ethnically diverse than they were 30 years ago, due to globalisation and the naturalisation of foreign athletes. England’s quarter-final opponents Ukraine have fielded Brazilian born players Júnior Moraes and Marlos this year, and their captain Andriy Yarmolenko was born in Russia. In addition to historical, cultural and linguistic connections, there is a clear performance imperative: teams that embrace ethnic diversity often outperform teams that don’t.
‘Englishness’ and immigration
What is significant about this moment is the wider political context in the UK – particularly the uncertainty over what is “English” national identity and, critically, what should it be.
All this comes amid the fray of polarised debate over the issues of immigration and race in England, and the UK more generally. The prospect of a tighter, points-based system of immigration, which has now been introduced, was one of the key themes of the Leave campaign in the 2016 EU referendum. Had such a system been installed several decades ago, the graphic about the English team’s immigration history may well have been approaching reality. And without the talents of Raheem Sterling, Kalvin Phillips, Kieran Trippier and others, England fans may well have been lamenting another disappointing tournament campaign.
Amid the euphoria of reaching a final, there remains much soul-searching, as well as division, among the English on the key questions of “who are we” and “what exactly do we want to celebrate”?
Fans, quite rightly, are celebrating the achievements of the whole English team, as well as the activism of individual heroes like Sterling and Marcus Rashford. Yet while many fans embrace the diversity of the team, the booing of their own players taking the knee against racism – a gesture that originated in the US – shows that identity politics can still divide, on and off the pitch.
In spite of the positive image of diverse modern England projected by this group of players and manager, it is unrealistic to expect football to navigate the current “culture war” and be able to consolidate a more progressive, inclusive vision of Englishness – at least on its own. Other civic, and possibly political, institutions are needed if England is going to mean more than “the 11 men in white shirts at Wembley”.
Notwithstanding how people identify themselves in terms of their nationality, research shows that both hosting a football tournament and making successful progression through it can have a positive impact on national feelings of happiness and well-being. If England beat Italy at Wembley on Sunday and win Euro 2020, a feel-good factor will inevitably abound, which may be a springboard to unite a country that is still deeply divided.