There has scarcely been a more breakneck reverse ferret than the support now shown by some sections of Her Majesty’s press for Raheem Sterling. You love to see it. Certain papers who cheerily trashed Sterling for so long, for reasons they could never quite put their finger on – but he could – recently seem to have become dimly sentient about the existence of racism.
The truly hideous scenes during England’s twice-halted 6-0 win over Bulgaria on Monday apparently marked a coming of age, with various outlets and pundits now turning on Uefa for the sort of inactivity of which they were guilty or supportive of about 10 minutes ago. I am sure Sterling and others will raise a wry eyebrow at the spectacle of some of the same hacks who lacerated him for buying a house or something now pontificating that the England side should actually have walked off in Sofia. They can never get it QUITE right, can they, these players?
As for sections of the media – a small minority, as sections always are – it certainly helps when they can behold people literally making Nazi salutes. That, they can all agree, is racist. Also monkey noises. Definitely racist. Even the Daily Express put “England Stand Up To Racist Fans” on their front page on Tuesday. Unfortunately, it’s all the many other notorious Express front pages that will end up having had rather more influence on our own shores, where racism has not been kicked out, and is not yet a distant dream. Still, other countries are worse, so what does it matter?
It matters, of course, to people who endure racism here. Football reflects society, not the other way around. After the repulsive behaviour of some Bulgarian fans in Sofia, Gareth Southgate reported ruefully of his conversations with England’s black players: “Sadly, because of their experiences in our own country, they are hardened to racism. I don’t know what that says about our society but that’s the reality.”
Yet again, you have to salute Southgate, who always confronts the more complex aspects of a situation, however tempting it must be to ignore them when some of the worst extremes were on show. What an extraordinary leader he is, for a generation of players that inspire in so many different ways. (Very incidentally, it should always be remembered that he is in position completely by accident. All the FA people who were paid to find expensive failures – sporting and moral – to be England manager only alighted by default on the caretaker when their other terrible choices had flamed out. To say the understudy turned out to be the very best of them doesn’t begin to cover it).
So yes, Southgate isn’t selectively blind, but many more seem to see the extreme events in Sofia as grounds for full complacency. This feels somewhat premature for a country where the prime minister has been accused on multiple occasions of using racist language, where the Windrush scandal has changed precisely nothing, and where ethnic minorities have faced significant rises in levels of abuse and discrimination since the Brexit referendum.
Much has been made of the fact that in Sofia, a small section of England fans were singing “Who put the ball in the racists’ net? Raheem fucking Sterling!” Perhaps this and the actual Nazi salutes means we don’t have to talk about the fact that for a much, much larger section of England fans, “No Surrender” IS now the fourth line of the national anthem, every time.
The singing of “No Surrender” has got louder and louder over the past few years, a full 21 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, along with “fuck the pope” and various other things which ought to be historical relics, but very much aren’t. On Monday night’s TV footage it was being sung at a volume absolutely indistinguishable from the rest of God Save the Queen, a song it has unofficially colonised. Just as bars in host cities are unofficially colonised by a section of England fans, who regard international fixtures as a sort of war-effect minibreak.
Obviously, obviously, it is a small minority – though apparently, not obviously enough that you don’t have to make that very clear every time you mention it in case someone not in the minority takes it upon themselves to claim needless offence.
But small minorities can be influential, and the decision of England’s long-notorious Small Minority to arrive in cities and literally plant their flags while singing xenophobic and sectarian songs, for the sheer toxically bonding provocation of it, is – unfortunately – not encased in a vacuum. It has a knock-on effect with other small but influential minorities. How could it not? If you act like the big man laying down a challenge, some will take you at your word. If there is drunken aggression – as there was in Prague only last Friday – bottles thrown at the police, arrests, footage of it all on the TV news, then an always-aggressive atmosphere of travelling xenophobia has been created by a small but sadly significant section of England’s fanbase. Their reputation precedes them. And a local Small Minority, scarcely in need of an excuse, may consider themselves challenged.
Still, other people are worse, so it doesn’t matter. As long as Nazi salutes are kept out, and people don’t take too close a look at some of the stuff you hear lower down the leagues, and fine, say, Millwall a whole £10,000 for racist chanting during an FA Cup tie, and completely ignore the wider points Sterling continues to make about the demonisation of young black men, and so on … well, haven’t we done well. We are top of the league of anti-racism. Two world wars and only one banana thrown last season – print that on a flag and inform some native you’re hanging it over their bar.