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The England national team at the 2018 World Cup

Lessons from the treatment of England’s black players

13 July 2021

England lost to Italy in the final of the European Championships on Sunday via a penalty shootout, with 19 year old Bukayo Saka missing the crucial last penalty kick. Coincidentally, all three penalty misses by England were from black players – Saka, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford. But Saka is of interest to our Nigerian readers because he is the child of Nigerian immigrants and qualified to play for Nigeria before he rejected the country of his parents’ birth for the country in which he was born and raised.

His miss, with that of the other black players, prompted an immediate torrent of vile racist abuse, monkey emojis, etc on social media from English fans. The abuse included some calling for an all white team, while others questioned the “Englishness” of the black players, without some of whom, like Raheem Sterling, who was picked for the Team of the Tournament, England may have not reached the final. At the other end of the spectrum, a handful of black people have suggested on social media that black players should boycott the England team.

A young player like Saka now faces a future with his confidence being put at risk by firstly, having a nation’s expectations placed on his shoulders and feeling that he let down the country of his birth. Secondly, he is expected to put up with racist abuse for stepping up to the plate while doing his job. He and his handlers must be asking themselves: “Was choosing England over Nigeria really worth the bother?”

It is understandable that players like Saka would prefer to play for the country in which they were born and raised. Playing for Nigeria can be very challenging, with a terrain that includes dealing with unprofessional, incompetent and corrupt officials from the Nigerian Football Federation (NFF). Playing for England also means a higher profile, with the hype following the English national team. This means the player is more of a magnet for endorsement deals.

However, these players are already multimillionaires from club earnings and don’t particularly need the extras from the image rights that come from being an England international, especially when they have to navigate the institutional racism that manifests itself in blaming black people when things go wrong and hardly ever giving them credit when the good times are rolling. 39 years after the first black player, Viv Anderson, represented England at full international level, the country still awaits its black football captain on a non-temporary basis. Black coaches are still a rare breed in the English game. Incidentally, it was highlighted during this tournament how most newspaper frontpages focused on England’s white players when celebrating successes primarily delivered by the likes of Sterling, who was born in Jamaica and moved to England as a five year old.

If as a black player you get little credit when it is smooth sailing and a whole heap of blame plus racial abuse when it goes belly up, it calls into question your decision to throw your hat into the England ring, instead of playing for a country that would appreciate you.

Alex Iwobi, a former Arsenal youth player like Saka, chose to play for Nigeria at senior international level after representing England at youth level. He told Arsenal’s website in 2016: “It was a difficult decision picking Nigeria over England. England did contact me recently before I played my first competitive match for Nigeria, asking if I wanted to play for England. I’m very proud to represent Nigeria but I would like to say thank you to England for the chance they gave me, it was a difficult decision.

“The love Nigeria showed me, when I played for them in a friendly, the fans were just crazy. The fans almost eat you up because they love you so much. I’m enjoying playing for them”.

Iwobi’s experience shows that the love of money shouldn’t come before playing for a country where the love from the fans is unconditional. Other players born in England of Nigerian parents such as Ademola Lookman and Eberechi Eze should look with interest at what happened to Saka and England’s black players before deciding where to pitch their international tent. Ola Aina, who like Saka was born in London to Nigerian parents, represented England at all youth levels before choosing to play for Nigeria at senior level. He said of that decision in March: “No regrets whatsoever. It is for now one of the best decisions I have taken in my career. In several ways playing for Nigeria has made me a better player.”

Author Paul F Davis said: “If you don’t feel it, flee from it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated.”

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