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England and the World Cup 2018 – a darkmatter conversation

by Ash Sharma, Anamik Saha, Naaz Rashid, Jasbinder Nijjar, Daniel McNeil, Malcolm James, Chanzo Greenidge and Dhanveer Singh Brar
25 Jul 2018 • Comment (0) • Print
Posted: General Issue [10]

This is an online ‘conversation’ that took place during and after the 2018 football World Cup.

(The conversation is still open if you would like to contribute. It is also possible to make shorter reponses via the comments section below.   Email: for further details).

Contributors: Dhanveer Brar, Chanzo Greenidge, Malcolm James, Daniel McNeil, Jas Nijjar, Naaz Rashid, Anamik Saha, Ash Sharma.

Ash: England reaching the 2018 World Cup semi-final with a number of black players is a cause of great national celebration, especially amongst the liberal/left commentators who are arguing that the support for the team is a form of progressive English patriotism.


For myself, I just haven’t been able to support the team, even though I like some of the players and the manager. I remain in the ‘anyone but England’ camp. But it seems this position, even with black/brown folks, is not popular anymore. Is this a generational thing? My dislike of English nationalism is pretty visceral and historically rooted. Have we reached a moment where this is just anachronistic? How do we make sense of this conjuncture?

Anamik: I see nothing particularly radical about this team or moment. The English team has always been multiracial – or rather bi-racial (that is, only black and white) so that’s not new. Maybe less divas? Either way, I was amazed to see the England XI be celebrated for its diversity – I on the other hand see the systemic exclusion of other racialised groups including South and East Asians, Arabs, Turks and so on. The ethnic/racial composition of the Swiss, Belgian and French teams was so much more reflective of their respective societies than the English team, yet the English claim to be more enlightened (or indeed ‘tolerant’) on issues of race than other European nations.

What became clear to me during the tournament is that the younger generation were more invested in the England team than the older generation. I was in Margate when England were playing against Sweden and saw a couple of young Muslim guys in England shirts. I wish I had asked them about their reasons for supporting England. Part of me reads this scene as a sign of conviviality. But I can’t help but feel, and I am aware that this will sound incredibly patronising, that it might stem out of a naïveté about English nationalism and football? Maybe the World Cup as media ’spectacle’ has obscured this troubled history/politics of football and the far right, where young POC are concerned?  My sister sent me this article on Borges and football which rings true for me:

As I edit this Mesut Özil has just quit Germany due to the racism he felt he experienced from the German football federation and German society at large. The specific context aside, this for me highlights the precariousness of being a racialised Other playing for a national team. The reaction to memes regarding the ‘Africanness’ of the French champions is also reflective of this precarity. We can interpret this as part of the ongoing contestation of what it means to be English/French/German. But in this war of position, the manoeuvring of POC/anti-racists/sections of the Left is no match for the Right and its media and the forms of archaic nationalism that are activated during international tournaments.

In the end I actually found myself getting behind in the England in the semi-final. But needless to say say I was relieved when they lost. With Brexit and the ongoing migrant crisis I was scared by how an English victory would have been instrumentalised.

Malcolm: There are also interesting questions here for me, and things I am still trying to work out, so is a bit vague. I am also not an England supporter, or a supporter of any national team, although I do like football. I do also get the anyone but England line, and even the pro-Brazil position some had in the past – but neither of those are my position.

On a black and brown England team – while I get the dissonant politics that a team of black and brown players offers to white English nationalism, I have not been satisfied by that position. On the one hand I don’t think that does enough to undermine nationalism (also the case of the 1998 French team), and it seems to suggest that nationalism does not have the capacity to absorb that moment too, which I think it does. So I was always more with Balotelli on that one, who played for Italy simply because it was the place where he was born, a happenstance of location, a mundane negotiation of professional ambition, not seemingly because of any other national investment – I also agree that many people occupy this kind of position without discomfort.

On this year’s World Cup, I too have been interested in the reach of nationalism, the continual use of racist stereotypes in commentary and the playbook defamation of Sterling – all incidents which also counteract some of the gains we might perceive in the ethnic make up the England team.

But beyond everything I have been curious/concerned about the emotional and psychic investments people have in the nation and where these blur into such things as an affection for players we see week in week out. For me, it’s been difficult to work out where my professed (I still profess it) total ambivalence for England’s football team, and complete disdain for English nationalism, connects to my interest in and affection for the players. It seems in there, there might be an allure to the nation, a connection to a normative national psyche, so informed by the trauma of football, that persists in spite of myself.

Written a bit larger, how is that national allure being denied by turning it into a story about a good world cup, a positive thing, or even a progressive nationalism (which is bullshit obvs)?

I missed the last England game, because I didn’t want to be in a pub with England supporters shouting ‘Football’s coming home!’ (i would have watched it at home though but was out for a birthday) but I suspect if I asked punters how close they felt that claim was to a national/exclusionary claim, they would say, as some did, that it was positive and celebratory. Others might just be in the moment of course. But for me, the difficulty in talking about, but embracing fully its emotional content in the current social context, allows for a possible, but not inevitable, slippage into direct forms of exclusions – maybe precisely because it is operating on emotional register without its discursive limits being properly established.

… I might change my mind in a few minutes tho!

Dhanveer: People making the argument that the football team are an example of progressive nationalism are deluded. Equally so, we need to think a lot more carefully about using standard tropes of anti-racist thinking which have served us well in the past to critique the England team in its present form. It may produce an equally problematic form of delusion. The goalposts have shifted and its imperative we are a lot smarter about this.

Firstly, lets think about football. Football is no longer a social sport in its prior sense. It is now a product which is a dominant force in the culture industry and media. This was a process put into play during Premier League era, and as a result the England team are a media object/cultural commodity/spectacle, competing with tv/film/music for eyeballs and advertising revenue.

Following on from the above, younger black and Asian fans have grown up with football as an almost exclusively mediatised event. The Premier League is televisually dominant (everyone has a team now, its on in every pub), fans use computer games/fantasy football leagues etc as means to gain knowledge about teams/players. So therefore it’s no great leap to gain an attachment to the England team, they are just another thing seen on the screen. It’s an effect of being a new type of football fan. I expect the same men which Anamik saw in Margate are also die-hard Man Utd fans and I’d also like to think they have a pretty sophisticated understanding of the violent nature of the British state in its current form. But as Malcolm notes of Balotelli/Italy, England just happens to be where they were born and its the local team.

Therefore the relationship between football watching, football consumption, affective attachments and visceral nationalism has quite markedly shifted from lets say 1980s to the present, and we need to have an more solid account of how race/class/gender/sexuality are all being played in that setting.

Jas:  Racism, Nationalism and Militarism: Some (Tentative) Reflections on the Politics of Supporting England at ‘Russia 2018’
It is difficult not to be disaffected by the wave of euphoric (hyper)nationalism that became associated with the England football team’s exploits at the World Cup in Russia this summer. This is so especially when considering that the very emergence of ‘the nation’ is contingent on colonial relations of domination that continue to shape contemporary racist formations, orderings and arrangements. Let us take any marker of race-relations in England (and broader Britain) – the criminalisation and subsequent over-policing and under-protection of black/Asian communities; the disproportionate incarceration of black/Asian people; the popular and political framing of migrants in search of refuge as insects, parasites and alien bodies contaminating the body politic; the formalisation of a public and private ‘hostile environment’ towards migrants; the colonisation of the school and university curriculums; or the placement of predominantly black and minority ethnic families into public housing stock not fit for purpose – and it becomes clear that those with darker shades of skin are still formally and informally subject to epistemic and material forms of violence which are associated with second-class citizenship at best, non-citizenship at worst, and the long-standing, enduring and unresolved histories of colonialism.

These material conditions emerge from the deep-rooted, shifting yet, paradoxically, unwavering entanglement between the discourses of race and nation. The coterminous relationship between ‘Englishness’ and ‘whiteness’ means that to be a black or Asian English ‘citizen’ is to be regarded as nearly, but not quite, English – the most recent and arguably clearest example of this being the ‘Windrush Scandal’. The mutual relationship between race and nation, thus, becomes one of racism and nationalism that legitimises the exclusionary, degrading and, sometimes, deadly relationship between darker skinned bodies and public and private institutions fashioned along racial and nationalistic lines. In this sense, it is indeed quite valid to acknowledge that backing the England football team, something that is done by black and minority ethnic individuals as well as those from the right and left of the political spectrum, is a complicated matter that differs from one site to another (see Valluvan and James, 2018). However, even when accounting for nuance and ambivalence, that same backing, as part of a wider hegemonic project, (implicitly) feeds into and fortifies the myth that a world without national borders is unimaginable, thereby further legitimising racialized conceptions of ‘legal’ and ‘illegal’ bodies. Thus, in the last instance, supporting England appears inseparable from (hyper)nationalistic sentiments that inevitably condition, and are conditioned by, (neo/post)colonial logics of white privilege, supremacy and racialized belonging/non-belonging, inclusion/exclusion and expendability.

England’s success in Russia, and the rising tide of national and, by extension, racial pride it has garnered is also a critical ideological tool in terms of securing consent for militarised state practices of national protection, preservation and fortification. The national mantra of ‘football’s coming home’ serves as a colonial trope that (alongside ideas of democracy, law, order and ‘civilisation’ generally) suggests ‘giving’ football to the world. Hence, it inevitably insists on a racialized sense of destiny by alluding to the notion that the World Cup will return to hallowed ground. As such, it implicitly feeds the assumption that home – the nation (civilisation itself) – is that special place worth safeguarding and shielding at all (human) costs. Given the inextricable link between race and nation, protectionism and preservation become a matter of fortifying Britain from racial threats deemed to be disassociated from the national fabric. Race, these days, is not ‘just’ linked to criminality. Rather, racialized subjects are institutionalised as, among other things, part of violent criminal collectives armed with knives and guns, or as potential bomb-making/knife wielding/van-hiring threats to national security. In this regard, ‘football’s coming home’, and the relationship between (hyper)national, racial and spatial sentiments it shapes and is shaped by, feeds, however directly or indirectly, into Britain’s sense of racial and national self-worth. In doing so, it cannot be disassociated from the state’s potential to realise its war capacities of racialized territorial defence and control domestically, as well as globally.

I may be labouring the point somewhat and, perhaps, overplaying the role of Football in the politics of race and racism, as well as nation and nationalism. Nonetheless, Football (and sport generally) is political, as is racism and nationalism. Furthermore, ideas and practices concerning race and nation and, correspondingly, discursive and material forms of racism and nationalism are ubiquitous. They permeate more or less every sphere of public and private life – and they do so relationally, rather than in isolation. As such, I think it is worth recognising how the act of supporting England is now indicative of a post-racial logic in which a superficial sense of national (and racial) unity – what has commonly been spun as a ‘progressive nationalism’ – masks the historically enduring and institutionalised forms of racism that shape contemporary social and economic relations in Britain.

The intra and inter-relational character of racism and nationalism also means that the nationalism which materialises from the seemingly harmless act of supporting England is, in one way or another, implicated in a broader politics of domestic war-making in multicultural Britain. In this scheme of things, pledging allegiance to the England football team and, thereby, inescapably (and in some instances unintentionally) capitulating to a more profound sense of (hyper)nationalism and militarism ultimately appears irreconcilable with a radical anti-racist, anti-nationalist and anti-militaristic politics and praxis. Hence, if those of us seriously committed to an anti-racist agenda are to connect the dots between different forms of racism and nationalism, we cannot do so selectively. Rather, we must critically question what it means to support the England football team, and its complex relationship with the historically deep-rooted and intertwining terrains of racism, nationalism and militarism.

Daniel: I have vague memories of the fans chanting ‘Everton are white’ in honour of the 1986-7 First Division champions. I know that John Barnes back-heeled a banana during the 1988 Merseyside derby thanks to Dave Hill’s Out of his Skin. But I came of age in the 1990s, when the Premier League sought to consign such moments to the dark ages – a pre-history filled with the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes that had never heard of the back pass law, Bosman ruling or top-down campaigns to kick racism out of football.

I’ll always be more comfortable working through the contradictions and translocal rhythms of club football that works within, across and against the nation. But I’ve found myself grappling with questions that will be familiar to any radical egalitarian who has a passionate belief in history and the historical process during the 2018 World Cup. Do we stand with those fans, players and managers who bellow out ‘God Save the Queen,’ and pretend to forget the likes of Cecil Rhodes who thought they had a divine right to colonise the world?  Or do we align ourselves with the progressive nationalists who retort that such anthems, chants and ‘banter’ should not prevent us expressing our (Maradona-given) right to cry for Harry, England and St. George?

We’ve not exactly consigned objectionable English fans to the dustbin of history or found a way to break up the attacks of rampaging monarchists and the business of post-imperial nostalgia. We still witness folks colonising an IKEA to express their joy at England’s victory over Sweden. Our twitter feeds still include the establishment figures in their suspenders cheering on England in the House of Commons. But there’s a sense that a professional-managerial class has become pretty comfortable squeezing out the rough edges and the irremediably posh. Neoliberal figures know that it’s bad for business to give too much support to the racist tram lady and her declaration of English independence from the Poles and the f-n Blacks. Anyone who questions the right of David Lammy to support England is loudly shouted down. Jacob Rees-Mogg is confined to the television studios rather than the front benches. The number one chant isn’t ‘God Save the Queen’; it’s ‘Football’s Coming Home.’

In singing along with comedians from West Brom and the Jewish diaspora, who pledge their allegiance to Three Lions rather than the Union Jack, we have a notion of Englishness that is not merely a euphemism for London and the south-east. We have a vision of Englishness that is distinct to the dutiful subjects proclaiming their loyalty to the defender of the Anglican faith. I’d prefer a chant along the lines of ‘Enoch was wrong,’ but perhaps we can carve out some progressive potential within the laddish nostalgia of ‘football’s coming home’? After all, Baddiel and Skinner may be a 90s tribute act, but they suggest a past that is not entirely dependent on the Manichean division of Southern Fairies/Northern Monkeys from ‘Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels’. We don’t get the sense that there’s anyone on the team who’s a few drinks away from making a joke about Scouse Olympians running swiftly to evade the police or the Geordie in a suit who is also known as the accused.

The England men’s manager Gareth Southgate is, of course, indelibly linked to Euro 96 and nostalgia for the 90s has helped the media normalise his unapologetic middle-classness (a sly update on Hugh Grant’s 90s persona with his waistcoat, affability and ability to shape the media narrative rather than fall victim to a predatory press? A sign that we only have a problem with political-corporate spin when it takes us into war and not when it asks us to identify with the stage-managed conviviality and ‘niceness’ of middle England?).

Yet there’s also a sense that the liberal middle-class didn’t fetishise Gareth to try and recuperate and right a vanished past but to work towards a healthier future. Sites that are targeted as a metropolitan elite (like the BBC), and podcasts that know how to make fun of the media narratives about Remoaners, Little Englanders and real football men (like The Totally Football Show) have been transformed from spaces in which white males lament the racism of South Americans, Russians and Southern Europeans into spaces in which women and men of colour are integral to the punditry team. Such shifts reflect a Premier League that embraces foreign players who enhance the product, i.e. support its desire to permeate new markets. They are reflective of a global business that respects the rights of its players to achieve financial success as private citizens or commodities, and has instilled corporate guidelines that its consumers should not tolerate any form of racial discrimination. It’s not so clear, however, that the acceptance of multiracial realities are combined with any desire to learn and embrace different cultures off the pitch. As much as Southgate is meant to have embraced the tactical nous of a Guardiola, isn’t the M&S waistcoat defiantly anti-Pep?

We also get the sense that Phil Neville, the current coach of the English women’s team, isn’t taking any lessons about Spanish language or Hispanophone culture. Sitting on a BBC punditry panel with the Argentine Pablo Zabaleta, Neville took a sip of Zabaleta’s Mate before pronouncing that the South American drink is just “disgusting … hot water”. What’s interesting here is that Neville’s indifference or hostility to non-English cultures is combined with features in which he is shown having dinner with the former Lioness Alex Scott, or bemoaning the fact that she interrupted their routine to have dinner with a friend. For Neville, and the British media in general, Scott is ‘mixed-race’ rather than ‘bicultural’.

Neville’s visceral response to a drink associated with Argentinian and Uruguayan culture, and the banality of Neville having a ‘real cup of tea’ with Scott, may help us to reconsider what it means for people of colour to be part of the sugar in the British cuppa. It is noticeable for example, that individuals such as Scott, Jess Ennis-Hill, and Meghan Markle – who are framed as strong, female and mixed-race role models – feature prominently in our national imaginary and our corporate multiculturalism so long as they appear endearingly enthusiastic, exuberant and exotic rather than dangerously foreign, loud or spicy.  Revealingly, our journalists rush to claim such individuals as exemplary representatives of a progressive, postcolonial present, or a diverse, postcolonial future. There is little political and theoretical space to consider how they may be deployed by a media that remains haunted by the colourism and shadism of a shameful imperial past.

One final caveat: I’m probably more open to the idea of supporting England, and less resistant to the idea of loving England, because I’m stationed in Canada. I may catch some of the BBC feeds online, I may tune into BBC Radio and hear Chris Waddle’s concerns about the ‘footballing brain’ of Raheem Sterling, but I’ve also had to watch some games in the company of the unchanging cast of three white male pundits in the studio of the Canadian Sports Network (TSN). At least two of the crew have no experience of playing professional football. All three have difficulty looking finding a suit that fits and saying anything that suggests they live in a world in which irony exists.

Confronted with the drabness and literal-mindedness of Canadian pundits, I’ve become more forgiving of the predictable cliches of Phil, Alex, Chris et al in the British studios. At least they have some trophies in their cabinet, some sense of what it means to look smart/sports casual, or some awareness that a commentator may sound 100% sincere and 100% ironic at the same time. And this is where my ambivalent love of England becomes most acute. I feel the need to turn to Danny Blanchflower and say that the game is about glory, doing things in style, so I know that there’s an affiliation to Anglo-Celtic culture that I can’t wish away. I think of Edward Said’s desire to repeat Hugo of St Victor’s lines – that the man who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is a foreign land – so there’s some semblance of a connection to postcolonial subjects who know that the likes of Jane Austen and W.M.Thackeray need to be read alongside thinkers such as Sylvia Wynter and C.L.R. James. Above all, perhaps, there’s a lingering sense that the job is to find a new way of belonging – with time and space, as well as each other – so that we can cheer on an England that is a little bit sharper, stylish and substantive…

Chanzo: My grandmother was born a British subject in Trinidad in 1908. I was born in the Dominion of Canada in 1978. My English cousins, from family grapevine reports, are extremely excited about England’s run in the 2018 World Cup. I’m quietly supporting… Croatia.

I think that the excitement about Black representation in British football should be focussed on Eni Aluko’s stint at ITV and Sol Campbell’s recent move to become an assistant coach of the Trinidad and Tobago men’s senior team. The capacity to transition from the playing field to positions which help shape the media narrative on teams and players are of far more value than presence on the field. The same holds for representation in technical and administrative positions. However, Sol Campbell’s move to Trinidad and Tobago raises the issue of the difficulties Black ex-players and coaches are encountering in accessing technical positions in Europe.

The focus on the players is happening not simply because of the visibility that accompanies victory, but also because of the defensiveness that some feel in the midst of political backlash against immigration and multiculturalism in Europe. The opportunity to push back in the most visible tournament in the world with an association between national success and unity among players of different ethnic background has proved irresistible for many, some of whom I might have expected to be more critical.  England’s team success has encouraged some to list the countries to which team members like Lingard, Sterling and such have links. I find it odd to boast of players’ diasporic links to the Caribbean when no Caribbean team has made it to the World Cup in the last 12 years. Why talk about France and Belgium’s African content when African teams have fared so poorly in this edition of the tournament?

One response I received to my questions was that English football itself has changed, and that England’s style of play in itself represents a cosmopolitanism that might not have been evident in the days of Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles. I would suggest we look more deeply at this. The birth of the English Premiership in 1992 combines with a number of geopolitical shifts that ultimately impoverish football outside of Europe. Top players from South America, Africa, the Caribbean spend much more time, and play their best football in Europe. This means that young people in these regions see their best exponents on television, when European youth (including diasporic youngsters) have much easier access. This World Cup is clarifying for us who wins and who loses in this type of system. For those familiar with plantation economics, the answer has been clear for some time.

On both a technical and systemic level, I believe we are witnessing a decline in the quality and diversity of World football as institutions which produced some of the finest talent crumble under the weight of Champions League economic concentration. This destruction of wealth is plastered over the diversity of increasingly dominant European teams, which seems to make decline more palatable for some. With the football industry, Europe has achieved the system it dreamed of in its imperial era. Tributary states willingly offer up their best raw material for little return, and rejoice in even the most tangential association with European success.

And a final note about “It’s coming home”: I can argue that much of what we understand to be modern football was developed between Russia and Eastern Europe and South America. However, if I’m honest I know that home is also where the power is. IFAB, an institution exclusively comprised of the four British FAs, sets the laws of the game. UEFA clubs and their academies continue to dominate the trading and coaching of players worldwide. The Premiership and its continental colleagues have sucked the rest of the world dry of its young talent over the past 30 years, while pampered fans were carried along to better and better matches, all the time whining about local talent being excluded. And now, Europe is the superpower in a unipolar football world. To think that winning the World Cup is somehow a miraculous, unexpected sign of redemption after you’ve kneecapped the opposition is a testament to the English capacity to live in a state of perpetual cognitive dissonance. Orwell would be proud.

More thoughts:

Now that France has been declared world champions, people are jumping on the ‘teams with African immigrants’ bandwagon. I guess the fact that UEFA has created a global plantation with deepening inequalities in wealth and the quality of facilities in order to totally dominate world football is OK as long as dark people are on their teams. Here are seven (7) reasons why, if you (Trevor Noah included) care about African football or migrants, you might want to reconsider calling France an “African” team:

1. It sounds desperate.

There were 5 proud African teams at the 2018 World Cup, each with 23 100% African* players. None of them made it out of the group stage. Meanwhile, 6 of 8 quarter-finalists were European. So maybe having African players is not the key success factor.

*Please keep in mind that France provided more players to this World Cup than any other, including Brazil, and that many African and Caribbean teams still rely on their diasporas and foreign-based players to be competitive on the world stage. Don’t celebrate brain drain.

2. It seems ahistorical.

I haven’t seen people shouting at Jamaica to “thank Africa” for Usain Bolt, or at the USA for the Dream Teams. My point here is that African peoples’ contribution to French society goes back just as long (longer, actually) as either of these countries.

3. It doesn’t help Africa.

If African players like Didier Drogba, Abedi Pele and many others had opted to play for France, we could be talking about four to five stars instead of just two. If this French team is hyped as ‘another African team’, it only encourages defection.

4. It will backfire.

Are you OK with someone chirping “thank England” the next time a Black person produces a masterful work of literature in English? These arguments already exist, but if you make a similar essentialist argument, be prepared to have it thrown back in your face.

5. It marginalizes the true star of France’s World Cup story.

If anything, this victory belongs to the French banlieues. The margins of French cities like Paris and Lyon have been suffering with issues of employment discrimination, stop-and-frisk and police brutality. Lift them up first.

6. Take the credit, accept the blame. Germany played better than France in this World Cup. If you’re willing to credit multiculturalism for France’s fortunate path to the final, are you willing to blame it for Germany’s early exit?

7. France didn’t play African football.

African countries have a brand, whether drawn from the innovations of people like Sam Arday and C.K. Gyamfi or from the originality of its players. France may have African content in its dressing-room, but its style of play remains a Frankenstein of the worst trends in the European game: anti-football laced with fast-break counterattacking and an over-reliance on scoring from set plays.

Naaz : Anyone but England
The Tebbit test was imprinted on me early on and so I, naturally, am an ‘anyone but England’ supporter. The first World Cup I followed properly was Mexico 1986. In my diary on the day that England were kicked out by Argentina I have drawna table setting out reasons to support England and reasons to support Argentina (photo available on request). Principal reasons for not supporting either team are down to the big headedness of Diego Maradona on the one hand and England supporters on the other. Also, a reason I gave in support of Argentina was that Bryan Robson had criticised ‘3rd world referees’ for not being ‘good enough’. This had clearly touched a nerve with me as someone with roots in a ‘3rd world’ country. Over 30 years later this feeling remains with me. As we go through the tournament I choose teams from the global South and then move through South America, to any non – European country to southern Europe, followed by central and eastern Europe, ending lastly with Western and Northern European teams but never England.

Race and the Nation
For me some of the things that strike me are the racialised/cultural differences that are referenced e.g. African football which is frequently spoken of in terms of pace, power and physicality rather than tactics or technical skills much in the same way that Serena Williams’ artistry on the tennis court is reduced to her physical strength.

I like Gareth Southgate and he’s said some sensible pertinent things (e.g. in noting the media’s problematic focus on Raheem Sterling) and this is indeed a diverse team but I am cynical at the attempts to reclaim Englishness through football. As many have noted similar things have regularly been repeated about the French team over the years. Yet during this tournament a young Black Frenchman was shot by police in Nantes, a graphic reminder that football is just a performance. I’m also surprised at the persistence of the ‘progressive Left’ in wanting to reclaim nationalism. Why? This seems to be a variant on the Brexit normalisation of racism (legitimate concerns etc) i.e. people want to fly the flag so to hell with anyone who might be made uncomfortable by that. Who is being centred in this debate? Rather than ask me to deny my discomfort about the St George’s Cross and the national anthem why not teach people why the flag is problematic.

I am also cynical (although slightly less judgemental) about people using the England team’s diversity as a pro-immigration argument. This  promotes the good migrant/bad migrant narrative and entrenches the ideas that ‘immigrants’ have to be exceptional to be accepted and that they have no basic humanity worth respecting otherwise.

And then of course there’s gender. Football is absolutely a performance of heteronormative working class masculinity which has been complicated by the entry of the middle classes (who can afford  season tickets) a phenomenon which went hand in hand with the Mock-nification and Laddism of Brit-Pop from the mid-90s onwards. (Interestingly, the 1990s drew on the happy go lucky you’ve never had it so good Swinging Sixties, which was also when England last won the World Cup.) It is also about the collectivity or the mob, the matching shirts, the chanting, even of the national anthem, bringing people together. While many might want to think of it as something primordial, it is also performative, socially constructed and supported by the media, states and big business.

Building on mine and others comments about race and nation, gender is of course crucial in that analysis (as set out by Yuval- Davis and others). The family is often seen as a microcosm of the nation – hence the requirement to conform to specific family forms which support the economic and political progress of the nation. But equally it is an iterative relationship and the state of the nation impacts on the family. At the extreme end this can be observed in the toxic masculinity of increased levels of domestic violence when England play and especially when they lose. But at the softer end it might be seen in the maintenance of rigid gender roles whereby men have to be emotionless and guarded in their everyday lives whereas football offers an outlet for outpourings of emotion and affection between straight men which is not seen very often in other circumstances.

While there has been a welcome inclusion of women commentators there does appear to be an absence of women in the stadiums. As I have already remarked on social media –the cameras regularly cut to a pretty female face in the crowds but have seemingly not been able to do so in relation to England fans and I wonder whether there is an absence of women actually there, or whether the media is fixated on the stereotype of the English hooligan. I do see more women in pubs watching football games compared to a few tournaments ago, which then makes other women feel more comfortable about going although (invariably male) pub pundits who think part-time women supporters of football are somehow not entitled to an opinion irk me, deeply. It is only football after all – how ironic that women are berated for their lack of commitment only when it comes to the beautiful game…

Ash: The shifts in the way football is being viewed and supported is important to grasp, if we want to critique its racialised, gendered, classed discourses. The Premier League, as Dhanveer says, is a highly mediated experience. This does produce a set of affective and psychic investments coded by the televisual spectacle. Given the cosmopolitan nature of the Premier League teams it is not difficult to support a team these days, even with the racist histories of many of the clubs and their fans. (The global mediated fan basis of some of the big teams is important for the neoliberal  branding and capitalist expansion). There are differences between perceptions of clubs – In the UK undoubtedly Arsenal is considered the cosmopolitan club, with a strong following of black/brown folks. This is not quite the case of Chelsea, with its notorious racist fan history in the 1970/80s, and has less of a multicultural following. I say this as a long-time Chelsea supporter, (I know), which does raise the question of what being a football fan means, knowing these histoires.

I don’t think that supporting England is quite the same experience as supporting a club team. The idea of the nation has always been a mediated experience, ie the ‘imagined nation’. It has also been the key subjective, affective investment in the production of modern identity. The hyper-mediated form now, just intensifies this, especially in ‘real’ and ‘imagined’ collective viewing.

I like the notion of ‘disidentification’ as developed by Judith Butler and José Muñoz, as a way of conceptualising the forms of entangled dis/identifications that might be in play when supporting the England team, especially for black/gendered fans.


Disidentification is about recycling and rethinking encoded meaning. The process of disidentification scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and recircuits its workings to account for, include, and empower minority identities and identifications. Thus, disidentification is a step further than cracking open the code of the majority; it proceeds to use this code as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture.

There is something of a disidentification going on in the racial support of the contemporary England team. This could also be an argument about the possible differing forms of disidentifications between English nationalism, and the present national team. Is it possible to have a trenchant critique, and even a visceral hatred of the English nationalism, racism, and the historical  brutalities of slavery and colonialism, while still have a disidentification with the football team. Clearly there are many folks who effectively are in this position.

For me, this depends upon how we understand the relationship of the present team with the discourses of English nationalism. I would argue while there a number of black players in the team, and there is rhetoric of diversity – coded as reflecting the ‘modern’ nation – the culture of the team is rooted in an assimilationist discourse of liberal multicultural nationalism. The blackness of the players is largely marginalised, or erased, and if ever raised it is only in a negative manner. For example the way Raheem Sterling was treated by the media with regards to his tattoo and its reference to guns and his father’s death. Given this there remains i would argue a close articulation of the team with the idea of  contemporary (multicultural) nationalism in relation to histories of Englishness, racism and empire. So what forms of disidentifications are being mobilised – in ways are the dominant codes ‘cracked opened’ and the code used ‘as raw material for representing a disempowered politics or positionality that has been rendered unthinkable by the dominant culture?’

It is interesting to compare the situation in France. The French team, with the dominance of African players doesn’t represent/reflect the nation – in fact it challenges the idea of French universalism. Further, football is less integrated into the national imaginary,  and even less so for the Afro-French national teams, compared to England and its team. This does open up spaces for forms of disidentifications with the national team, even with the knowledge of French (post) colonial history and racism.

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Ash Sharma is the co-editor of darkmatter. He teaches at the University of East London, UK and is a member of the Black Study Group (London). He blogs at tabula rasa and co-edits the writing zine Southern Discomfort . Re-imagining (sub)urban space at twitter: @ashdisorient He is completing a book on race and visual culture.
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Anamik Saha is a lecturer in the Department of Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, University of London. He previously worked as an ESRC Post-Doctoral Fellow, and then a lecturer in the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds. He has also been a Visiting Fellow at Trinity College in Connecticut and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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Naaz Rashid is a Lecturer in Media and Cultures at the University of Sussex. She is the author of 'Veiled threats: representing the Muslim woman in public policy discourses'. Policy Press, Bristol (2016). She researches on race, ethnicity and postcolonial Studies, gender, representation of Muslims in policy and media, gendered Islamophobia, gender violence, urban sociology and creative food industries.
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Jasbinder S. Nijjar is a PhD student at Brunel University London, examining the relationship between institutional racism and the militarization of policing in London. He is the editorial assistant of the online open-access darkmatter Journal, and has written for academic journals including Sociological Research Online and Popular Communication. He also has an upcoming article in the journal Social Justice.
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Daniel McNeil taught Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Hull and Newcastle University, and served as the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Professor of African and Black Diaspora Studies at DePaul University in Chicago, before joining Carleton in 2014 as a strategic hire to enhance the university’s research, program development and teaching in Migration and Diaspora Studies. During his sabbatical in 2018-19, he will be a visiting fellow at the Harriet Tubman Institute for Research on Africa and its Diasporas. McNeil is the award-winning author of Sex and Race in the Black Atlantic: Mulatto Devils and Multiracial Messiahs, which disrupts regimes of representation that frame “mixed-race” subjects as pathological objects or “new” national icons for the twenty-first century. His current research continues to demonstrate the suggestive, provocative and explorative work of diasporic and dissident subjects who are in, but not always of, the global North. His forthcoming book projects include A Tale of Two Critics, which maps the journeys of intellectual discovery taken by America’s most notorious film critic and Britain’s most influential intellectual, and Migration/Representation/Stereotypes, a SSHRC-funded project that brings together interdisciplinary approaches in Cultural Studies, Critical Migration Studies and Performance Studies to reveal the politics and poetics of contemporary identities that work within, across and against the nation-state. He is also a contributor to upcoming collections that will unsettle dominant narratives of Canadian history and culture, African American arts, activism and aesthetics, and Francophone immigration discourse.
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Malcolm James can be found on twitter @mookron or contacted by email
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Chanzo Greenidge is a political scientist specializing in the application of critical realist approaches to the study of identity, culture, migration and international political economy. After spending the first 12 years of the century as a trade and migration policy consultant, researcher and lecturer in the global South, he now lives in Quebec (Canada) where he combines online work at his firm, BRAVO Language Services, and Caribbean game development company Coded Arts with local work as a football coach and coordinator of the Pinngualaurta - Let’s Play physical and cultural literacy programme.
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Founder member of the Black Studies Group (London)
All posts by: Dhanveer Singh Brar | Email

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