Not coming home
The relationship between the English Caribbean diaspora and the national football team
By Colin Babb
Candice Brathwaite, a British author and TV presenter with Barbadian heritage, days before the England v Italy Euro 2020 final at Wembley, expressed her pre-match anxieties in a diary column for the (London) Standard newspaper. One of her concerns was the racist behaviour the black players would receive if England lost the final.
Her fears, and the fears of many in the Caribbean diaspora in England, were quickly realised. Italy beat England 3-2 on penalties after a tense 1-1 draw which required extra time. The England players who missed their penalties - Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Buyako Saka - were three of the 11 in the squad with Caribbean or African heritage.
Across all the major social media platforms, the depressingly predictable racist blame and abuse of Rashford, Sancho and Saka erupted into a firestorm. The pushback to this abuse included Gareth Southgate, the England manager, defending his players and emphasising that the team stood for everyone. Harry Kane, the England captain, said to those who directed the abuse, "You're not an England fan and we don't want you".
Post-match debates have featured commentary and conflicting opinions about identity, nationality, race, acceptance, and how to maintain the improved widespread connection with the England team. Alongside ongoing concerns about how social media companies should combat targeted abuse and cyberbullying.
For many people in England during the Euro 2020 tournament, including some in the Caribbean diaspora, whether they were football fans or not, there was a growing attraction to the team’s progress. This was enhanced by the diverse backgrounds of a young and exciting squad, and the prospect of England winning their first trophy since 1966.
Ex-England players with Caribbean heritage were at the forefront of this enthusiasm, support and analysis. Ian Wright, who played 33 matches for England, was a pundit for ITV during the tournament. Sol Campbell, who played in six consecutive major tournaments for England, worked for TalkSport radio.
Brian Deane, who has family roots in Nevis, played three matches for England. Before the final he showed off his three England shirts with a short video clip on Twitter, wished everyone a fantastic day, and hoped the ‘boys will bring home the prize’ #ComeOnEngland.
Growing up in a Guyanese/Barbadian household in 1970s England, my attitude towards the England football team was, partly, influenced by my Caribbean family, friends and wider community. This was rooted in a tradition of not supporting England at anything, football or otherwise. My family and other Caribbean people I knew were either disinterested in supporting England at football, took some pleasure in seeing England lose, or adopted a default position of ABE (Anyone but England).
Anderson and Regis
Many in the Caribbean diaspora pursued their passion for football by supporting English clubs. However, they were reluctant to support a country they didn’t feel part of or welcomed in.
For some of the English-born Caribbean population, associating themselves with West Indian cricket, whether they were committed cricket fans or not, possessed a more desirable appeal than supporting the England football team.
There were also no opportunities to gain inspiration by watching players with Caribbean heritage play for England. Until Viv Anderson, English-born of Jamaican parents, made his England debut in 1978.
Nearly four years after Anderson’s breakthrough debut, Cyrille Regis, born in French Guyana with St. Lucian and Guadeloupean parentage and heritage, was selected to play for England.
Prior to his debut at Wembley, Regis received an envelope in the post that contained a bullet. The anonymous letter claimed Regis would receive another bullet if, as a black footballer, he played for England.
Over the last 20 to 30 years, during my years of growing adulthood, I have become more comfortable about the idea of being English/British. This has been a long personal journey of identifying with my immediate Caribbean heritage, combined with an increasing sense of Britishness and a firm sense of a two-fold identity.
I now support West Indies in cricket and England at football. Without feeling unique in making these choices. My personal journey to supporting England was magnified and complete during England’s campaign in the 1998 World Cup in France.
By 2010, nine players of Caribbean and African descent were selected for the England World Cup squad in South Africa. Rio Ferdinand, who has St Lucian heritage, was appointed as the first non-white captain of an England World Cup squad. Unfortunately for Ferdinand, injury prevented him from playing in the tournament.
The squad for the 2018 World Cup in Russia featured 12 players of Caribbean and African descent, including Raheem Sterling - born in Kingston, Jamaica.
Some in the Caribbean diaspora, many of whom were born in England to parents born in England, and some with mixed Caribbean and non-Caribbean heritage, will continue to fight against the ongoing challenges of supporting the national team. Some will rigorously demonstrate their commitment to do so.
Some may need some time to have their enthusiasm restored and reignited before the next World Cup in Qatar. Others may consider rejecting the England team and its unwelcome negative associations.
Jadon Sancho, who travelled to the Turks and Caicos Islands with Marcus Rashford for a post-tournament holiday, posted a positive social media message to his followers and detractors. Sancho said that it was an honour representing England and had no doubt the team would be back even stronger.
Meanwhile, the global profile of black and mixed race England will continue to be partly projected through the team’s players with Caribbean or African heritage. The Caribbean diaspora’s generational shift towards supporting England will continue. With more players with Caribbean or African family links, including Ben Godfrey, Joe Gomez and Mason Greenwood, set to challenge for places in the England squad for Qatar 2022.
Colin Babb is the author of 1973 and Me: The England v West Indies Test Series and a Memorable Childhood Year (Hansib).