You go to football matches and shout racist abuse at black footballers because you have paid your money and so for the next ninety minutes you own every footballer in that stadium, especially the black ones. You own their strengths and their flaws and everything you know or suspect about their personal lives. For that time, your mouth becomes a firehose of hate. You look at this black man and you think: this is my victim, my ground, my England.
Why is this your England? Because just enough people tell you that this is so. There are plenty of people around you in the crowd who will listen to you roar abuse and who’ll still share a drink and a joke with you at half-time and after the match. In relation to racism, they’ll fall into a few different groups. A few will be just as vocal as you. Others will wish they had the courage to shout as loudly as you do but they won’t, not yet. Others still will have black friends at home but will act as if it’s not their problem – they won’t even report you to the stewards. They will know they are cowards and a few of them will later tell their black friends how awful it was, looking anxiously in their friends’ eyes for some form of forgiveness for their inaction, as if black people are suddenly the fairy godmothers of football.
You think this is your England because you read the most popular newspapers in the country and they agree with you – they agree with you that black footballers, like children, must be seen and not heard, that the second they decide to do anything more than score spectacular goals they become a threat. Those newspapers remind you daily that there is no aspect of criminality to which a black footballer cannot be connected.
You think this is your England because – well, why wouldn’t you? You have a political system whose immigration laws have long discriminated against the exact same social group from whom these black footballers claim heritage. You listen to your radio and one of its prime-time presenters has a history of racism stretching back decades. You watch your television and one of its most high-profile producers once edited the most popular newspaper in the country at a time when it was referring to African men women and children as cockroaches at the very moment that they were drowning in the Mediterranean. You log onto Twitter and you see one of the most-followed presenters rolling his eyes as if you are just some lone wolf of racism and have not been emboldened by the years of hard-boiled bigotry that his media outlet and others have been diligently pumping out.
But you are at this game screaming because, at some level, you are worried that this is not your England, and this stadium is the safest place you can take revenge on black footballers for making you feel this way. These black men are crawling all over your football teams and your TV screens and your culture. If you stop for a moment you will worry about how many people seem to love this England, even with all these black men in its national team – and maybe, to your dismay, that’s even why they love this team more.
The black footballer is within earshot so you call him a black cunt in the hope that your words will land with the force of a whip. You hope the black player will respond there and then, in your mind making a champion out of you, but he does so later, online and at length. Somewhere, in a newsroom or a living room, there are countless others with the same bile in them as you, slightly more confident today than they were yesterday.
You still think this is your England because there are not enough people in your immediate circle, even if they disagree with you, who have the courage to tell you differently. Your England is small, bitter, brutal and fearful, and it always has been. Your England thinks it has black friends but would never allow them to date your sons and daughters. Your England desperately needs one corner of a stadium, one section of an angry crowd, its safe space. You ruled the world and now you can’t even rule a touchline. You can never stop shouting because if you hold your tongue for long enough the appalled silence in the crowd around you will forever remind you of what you have lost.