I am not from England. I have no family in England. And I have not spent a considerable amount of time on English soil. So my investment in the success of England’s soccer team, at face value, doesn’t make much sense. I cheer as Raheem Sterling glides past a defender; I smile as Bukayo Saka sends the perfect pass to a teammate; I hold my breath with the anticipation of possibility when Jadon Sancho gets anywhere within 25 yards of the opponent’s goal. Watching this summer’s European Championship, I have sometimes been surprised by my instincts to jump off the couch and pump my fist after England scores. And considering how my understanding of England’s history of global imperialism has developed over the course of the past several years, such fandom might amount to outright cognitive dissonance.
Part of my investment stems from the fact that I have followed the English Premier League since I was a boy, having become entranced by the French striker Thierry Henry during the 1998 World Cup. When he signed on to play for Arsenal Football Club in London a year later, my support followed.
I begged my parents for the cable package that would include the games from this rainy island across the Atlantic. Ultimately they relented, wanting to support their wide-eyed, soccer-obsessed little boy. I have followed Arsenal, as well as its close competitors—Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, and others—ever since. I dreamed of playing for Arsenal, of scoring goals in its hallowed stadium, of lifting trophies for a team whose fans would make me a legend of North London and an adopted American son.
Part of what I loved about watching the Premier League, English soccer’s highest tier, was how cosmopolitan it was. The stalwarts on the Arsenal team that I loved—and that went undefeated in the 2003–04 season—were from England, France, the Netherlands, Sweden, Brazil, Côte d’Ivoire, Germany, and Cameroon. Seven of those 11 players were Black. I loved how much of myself I saw in their faces, especially as I was playing in a country where soccer was still largely a suburban, white sport. I also now realize that this gave me a distorted sense of how cosmopolitan England was as a whole. England, I naively thought, must look just like Arsenal.
But England does not look like that Arsenal team. Far from it. According to the most recent census data, 87 percent of England is white and just 3 percent identifies as Black, African, or Caribbean.
And over the past few years, following the Brexit vote of 2016, more people in England have been grappling—in ways not so dissimilar to the grappling happening in the United States—with the country’s history, identity, and trajectory. Some of that friction has been reflected onto England’s soccer team. As one of the nation’s primary unifying symbols, it has come to symbolize the tension between who England has been and who it will be.
The last time the English soccer team made the final of a major tournament was 55 years ago, when it won the 1966 World Cup. To look at a photo of the 1966 team is to look back at an image of the past that many Brexiteers might wish they could go back to. The players are dressed in knee-high red socks, white shorts, and long-sleeve red jerseys with the English crest emblazoned on their chests. Each of them has his arms crossed, each of them is smiling, and each of them is white.
The English national team would not have a Black player until Viv Anderson stepped on the field for the country in 1978. It was a difficult time for Black soccer players, who often weren’t welcomed into stadiums, in ways that were not at all subtle. In a short documentary by Britain’s Sky Sports, Anderson recounted one match, when he was 17, where fans threw bananas and pears at him as he was warming up. In that same documentary, Brendon Batson, the first Black player to play for Arsenal, recalled a time he received a letter in the mail, and how when he opened it, a bullet fell out. “The letter said … if you put on the white shirt of England, this is for you,” he said.
When I look at the 1966 photograph, the contrast with the English team of today is stark. The squad’s stars include Sterling, an immigrant born in Kingston, Jamaica; Saka, whose parents are Nigerian immigrants; Kyle Walker and Kalvin Phillips, whose fathers are Jamaican; Sancho, whose parents are from Trinidad and Tobago; and Marcus Rashford, whose family comes from the island of Saint Kitts. The list goes on.
In fact, the U.K.’s Migration Museum has shown that without players whose parents or grandparents immigrated to the country, England would have had only three players from its starting lineup on the field in its second-round match against rival Germany.
Still, the Black players on England’s team today continue to be treated by some fans and by some in the press in ways that are conspicuously different from how their white counterparts are treated, if not straightforwardly racist. Sterling in particular, despite dazzling for the national team, has long been subjected to racist press coverage. And as recently as 2018, a video appeared to show a rival spectator shouting racist abuse at Sterling; even his own club’s fans have been banned for doing the same. In the face of such racism, Sterling has not stayed silent. He has called it out—not just for his own sake, but for the sake of all the other Black players across England and Europe.
It is another example of how this team is no longer the England of old, not only in appearance, but in action. As my colleague Yasmeen Serhan has written, today’s England players are making explicitly progressive statements both on and off the field on issues including racial justice, LGBTQ rights, and free lunch for schoolchildren. The writer Musa Okwonga wrote for The Guardian that “though it is not new for footballers to be engaged in causes beyond the pitch, I cannot remember an England team in my lifetime whose members have been so publicly dedicated to doing their bit.”
So perhaps because of the makeup of this team—with faces that look not unlike my own—playing in the sort of stadiums that I once dreamed of playing in, advocating outwardly and unapologetically for the sort of more just and fair world I believe in, I find my affinity for the English squad growing. Maybe I am cheering less for England the country and more for the sort of future this new generation of players represents.
On Sunday, England will face Italy in the final of Euro 2020. If it wins, this will be its first victory in a major tournament in more than half a century. And if it wins, it will have done so with a team that looks different from the English champions who came before, and with the adulation of a country that, in so many ways, is still grappling with what that means.