Football during the Euros and World Cup brings out a weird sense of patriotism in me, more than any other time. It’s when I, as a Black woman, feel unquestionably British. As British as white people.
They shout, ‘Is it coming home Paula?’ and I respond, ‘Of course it is!’ I’m not usually a fan of the sport, but the way I was screaming ‘Come on Sterling’ during that match, you would never have guessed.
But this morning, I felt anything but patriotic. As soon as England beat Denmark, I knew I had to make plans to watch the match. I couldn’t just play it on a laptop screen, sat on my bed. I needed to go out! I wanted to dress up and mumble through the national anthem and chant with my mates.
I messaged my best friend (who is an actual real football fan – he knows all the stats and everything) and we decided that we should watch the game at his house with a few other people.
We both knew the truth: if we win, people will be rowdy. If we lose, people will be rowdy. And we are still in a pandemic; I’ve only had my first jab and I was not interested in testing out if it works. I felt safe inside.
In hindsight, I’m glad we settled on this plan. As soon as the match ended, I knew that there was going to be racist abuse and aggressive behaviour.
Still, I had planned to leave early and get the Tube home, but instantly changed my travel plans as I didn’t want to be swept up in the drunk rage of the streets.
I had hoped things would be different. It had felt like in the lead up to the game, white Brits all over the nation had suddenly become allies to all Black and brown people – I heard on Twitter some were being offered free drinks in pubs and bars by complete strangers.
A video also went viral of a random Black man being raised into the air and celebrated after England won against Denmark.
It gave me hope for England fans. But then I look at today’s news and realise that England fans are the very same people that have spewed racist bile following the loss and defaced Marcus Rashford’s mural.
British football fans are known worldwide for their culture of hooliganism, but I think we trivialise the link it has to extreme, deep-rooted racism, especially among a certain demographic.
As Black people, we are very aware of this. It’s why I was not going to allow myself to be in spaces that were not safe for me.
I wanted to get home safely and I worried this result may make that harder. I got a taste of it on the way to my friend’s house. I was given a glimpse of how heat up things could get.
I was late and missed kick off. When Luke Shaw scored minutes into the game, some girls started screaming on the train. Someone else started playing a horn. The sounds were echoing off the walls so intensely that I was momentarily stunned. It took my brain a while to register that it was supposed to be a happy sound.
The scale of destruction in central London and the clips circulating of men drinking heavily and doing drugs publicly were worrying.
However, the match itself was brilliant to watch, being surrounded by and joining in with a group of passionate guys. When it went to penalties, the atmosphere in the room shifted; it became hushed, tense and we realised it probably wasn’t coming home.
Worse though, when Rashford missed, Sancho’s attempt was blocked, then Saka – a bright-eyed 19-year-old superstar – didn’t get the ball in, I was heartbroken.
I knew straight away that the blame by some fans was going to be laid squarely at the feet of these three Black lads. It didn’t take long before Saka’s Instagram comments were filled with racist and offensive comments and emojis.
My friend turned to me and said, completely deadpan: ‘I’m driving you home, Paula. You’re not going on public transport’.
My stomach sank a bit because I knew exactly what he meant. I was not going to fight him on that. I wanted to get home safely and I worried this result may make that harder.
In the car, we were dodging people walking recklessly in the middle of the road and at one point, we passed a car that had driven into a telephone pole. It made me think: ‘What is it about football that brings out the worst in British fans?’
After being so excited to watch the match, a part of me is glad we didn’t win. Not because of the England team, but because English fans did not deserve it.
I certainly know that if we make it through to the World Cup finals next year, I’ll be at my friend’s house with my cab home booked.
- A Tell opinion / Paula Melissa Ugochukwu