13 July 2018
Norman Tebbit, a former British Conservative minister, once asked in relation to cricket, whether Pakistanis born in England supported the England cricket team when they played Pakistan. He used what was to be called “the Norman Tebbbit cricket test” to question the patriotism of Pakistanis and other minorities born in the UK.
Tebbit would have been outraged if he came to Wembley on 2 June this year when England hosted Nigeria in a pre-World Cup friendly. The overwhelming majority of Nigerians and Brits of Nigerian heritage in the stands were rooting for the Super Eagles of Nigeria. But for many Nigerians in the UK, it goes beyond supporting your country of birth or country of your parents’ birth against England. Many, possibly the majority, favour an Anyone But England aka ABEG approach during international competitions.
Former England international John Barnes was on Victoria Derbyshire’s show on BBC News this morning suggesting that black people have always supported England even in his heyday in the 1980s. But this does not reflect my experience. Barnes was talking in the wake of England’s exit in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia on Wednesday. The England team, featuring several black players like Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Dele Alli and others, was said to have “brought the country together”. It was also claimed that because the team reflected the racial diversity of England, black people were now comfortable to associate with the team. Barnes argued that black people supported England in his time but would not want to watch the team in parks and pubs, like during this World Cup, due to the likelihood of many racists being in the audience. He argued that changed attitudes in society have led to more black people identifying with England and therefore “passing” Tebbit’s cricket test.
I’m not sure which circles Barnes moves in. He should try visiting some barber shops in Enfield, north London for example. There’s one there with a Nigerian barber – who is an England fan. But his support for England winds up many of his customers, majority of whom are black, born and raised in England. Why this antagonism towards England?
For starters, Nigerians and other black people in the UK are not alone in wanting the England team to fail. Most Scots, Irish and Welsh share the same sentiments. Nothing captures this vibe more than this tweet:
— Rory's Stories (@RorysStories) July 7, 2018
Many pubs in Glasgow put up Argentina flags during World Cups and Argentine 1986 World Cup winner Diego Maradona is feted like a hero in Scotland for scoring both goals, including the infamous “Hand of God” one, that knocked England out in the quarterfinals.
It’s hard to explain why there is so much antagonism towards England in football. But it appears to boil down to English arrogance and hubris. People just almost naturally love to see over-inflated egos getting their comeuppance. Croatian midfielder Luka Modric complained after they beat England about how they were disrespected and underestimated by English pundits. Hakan Mild, a former Sweden international, said before England played Sweden in the quarters: “They think they are so good, they are not. They are spoilt children who earn a lot of money”.
— ITV Football (@itvfootball) July 12, 2018
When you see their misguided sense of superiority, their media over-hyping very average players, claiming everything about them is the best in the world, their dismissal of opponents, and so on, you begin to understand the roots of the antagonism towards their team. When England were about to play Germany in 2010, ex-England striker Alan Shearer said that no German could make the English first team on paper. When they got whacked 4-1, someone told him football was played on grass not on paper.
England have a knack of comparing their average players with genuine greats. They compared Kevin Keegan with Johan Cruyff, compared Gary Lineker with Marco Van Basten, compared Frank Lampard with Kaka, compared Shearer with the Brazilian Ronaldo, and Wayne Rooney was called the “White Pele”. During a friendly against Brazil in 1997, when Shearer kicked Ronaldo, commentator Martin Tyler said: “Shearer tries to settle the argument over who is the better striker personally”. Today, they keep trying to force down people’s throats that Harry Kane belongs to the same level as Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. If they can’t claim to be the best, they claim credit for it. So Thierry Henry was: “born in France but made in England”.
As if this was not enough, when you see how the likes of Alan Sugar, the host of the reality TV show “The Apprentice”, in a tweet likened the Senegal team to poor Africans selling fake designer handbags in Marbella, you then wish Senegal would shove it down their throats by knocking England out if they met during the World Cup.
Is this type of racism, acceptable in 2018 🇬🇧 @BBC??? #AlanSugar #NotoRacism #DoubleStandards #AllLivesMatter #Senegal #IStandWithHumanity 🌍 @FootballSenegal @MameDiouf99 @IGanaGueye @DavidLammy @georgegalloway @jeremycorbyn @UKLabour @FIFAWorldCup #Plur pic.twitter.com/81569KEzgK
— DREAMTRIP (@Dreamtrip) June 21, 2018
On top of all that, the “blame the black guy” syndrome has never really gone away. From John Barnes to Raheem Sterling, the media would always try to pin England’s failures on their black players. You dare not make a mistake if you are black and playing for England. Sterling has been at the wrong end of a tabloid witch-hunt for some time, culminating in a non-story about a gun tattoo on his leg just before the World Cup.
Not too long ago, England had what looked like an unwritten quota of one black player per team. They also chose not make Sol Campbell captain, who seemed the best candidate at the time, for obvious reasons. When Barnes scored a wonder goal in a 2-1 defeat over Brazil at the Maracana Stadium in 1984, on the flight back home, some fans told him that, as far as they were concerned, the result was 1-1, as the goal was scored by a black player.
Not too long ago, those fans used to chant “no black in the Union Jack”. They still sing “Britannia rules the waves” during matches. When Britannia “ruled the waves” was when they went round the world slaughtering many, including Nigerians. When Linford Christie won an Olympic gold medal in Barcelona in 1992 and covered himself in the Union Jack, one guy pondered if only Christie knew that it was under that banner that his ancestors were taken from Africa to the Caribbean as slaves. For many sections of the British media, Christie, who was born in Jamaica but raised in England, was “British” when he won Olympic gold and “Jamaican-born” when he was banned for steroid use.
So the antagonism towards England runs deep and it would take more than mawkish sugarcoating from a fluky World Cup semi final run and branding of the Premier League to get many Nigerians and other black people in England to jump on the England bandwagon. Football didn’t “come home” at this World Cup and many of us are quite pleased that, if it can’t go to Nigeria, it should go to a country like France instead.