The ball swung in, high and fast. There, rising at the far corner was Dele Alli, planting a header beyond the keeper. He spun away, wheeling in jubilation. Countries away, somewhere in east London, a maelstrom of emotions greeted his goal. Within the deluge of bodies mobbing each other, hugging, cheering and dancing, were me and my friends, trying to make sense of it all.
England were heading to the semi-finals of the World Cup. England. Perennial underachievers. England. Reduced to tears twice by Portugal, humbled by Germany, embarrassed by Iceland. A generation of pain and now this. The ghosts of the past being laid to rest possibly?
The World Cup began with caution. A string of false dawns meant it had to. Too many times England have seen the sun set too early on tournaments. Despondency and apathy created by years of sterile football. But then came Tunisia and Panama and Colombia and one by one, the mental barriers the nation collectively constructed towards optimism and hope melted away. All around us the tournament rippled with shocks of the underdog shaking the foundations and rattling the big nations. This was the World Cup in which the giants of the game fell and its creator, the sleeping giant of them all, had a chance to end decades of hurt and, as we’re fondly saying it, bring it home. No Germany. No Argentina. No Brazil. Even Spain, the great team of the modern age, fell.
For a British Asian such as myself, there was something oddly illuminating about this tournament. As if years of watching England through some sort of foggy prism had given way to enlightening clarity, brought about by a reinterpretation of identity, of what it meant to be British and to be English. At times it brought me at odds with other English people. According to British Future majority of people (61%) thought the English flag should be flown more and 53% regarded seeing it as a source of pride. I was for a long time part of the 11% who saw it as a concerning side of socially debilitating English nationalism.
To a lot of ethnic minorities born and raised in England, our point of identification often came with Britain rather than England. The latter implies a race, the former a nationality and a more inclusive and malleable concept, one in which those who aren’t necessarily white can belong to. It’s strange, two flags which might mean the same thing for the rest of the world means very different for those of us living within the UK. A YouGov poll in 2015 illustrated the sudden shortfall in patriotism and the inclination towards identifying as British rather than English indicating this wasn’t specific to just minorities. But for us, the reasons were often rooted in associating English nationalism with the likes of National Front, EDL and Britain First. Groups who celebrated their English identity by trying to take something away from others. We were told to go home, that England belonged to the English and we were never that. For my part, England has always felt home but I’ve always felt inclined to identify as British rather than Asian.
And yet as Dele Alli raced away I drowned in a crowd of sheer happiness. A crowd that would not fit the Daily Mail characterisation of what it is to be English. After all, this was in the same stretch of London where the newspaper lamented the extinction of the English. We couldn’t be English, with different skin colours and accents, and yet here we were, feeling an intrinsic burst of relief and joy when England doubled their lead. In Bermondsey, an estate is draped in a sea of English flags without an ounce of hostility but instead positive inclusivity. Identification with England, the place of birth, feels that little bit easier now. According to British Future, 74% of ethnic minorities and 75% of British Muslims regard the England football team as a symbol of England belonging to all races within the country. If someone loves England for its culture, history and for being a home, a skin colour shouldn’t be why they still don’t qualify as English.
Perhaps it’s because the game has always been an expression of working-class Englishness, the class demographic we have most in common with. Perhaps it’s due to the high volume of BAME players within this team, making the unifying feel stronger, enabling you to cheer an identity you once felt uneasy about because this time it reflected you. But it feels different now. For so long, the England football team was something of a quiet love, affinity with it undercut by the discomfort of the far-right hooliganism that sometimes defined a subset of the supporters. Throw into all of this Brexit and the sense its driving factor English nationalism was fuelled by xenophobic concerns and it was hard to feel emotionally connected to some of the people living in the same country as me.
Either that was stupid or football, the beautiful game hijacked by corporate powers lately, still has the magical effect on bringing together people. The country at the moment is drunk on happiness and a rare feeling of unity that not even the Royal Wedding could conjure to this level.
Maybe it’s coming home, maybe it’s not. But as a diverse gathering of people least likely to be seen as English celebrated wildly with each other, this is a World Cup of a perceptible shift in the meaning and tone of Englishness for so many of us. Or at least the confirmation of something we yearned to believe over the incessant babble of noise telling us to either go home or that being English was selling out.