We lost the battle, but won a much more important war: How England’s loss was a victory for decolonization and BIPOC representation
I’ll be the first to admit that sports just are not my cup of tea and that soccer, in particular, is something I just can’t stand because of both its racist and colonialist past (more on this in a second) and just how boring it is to watch people chase a ball around for more than an hour and a half. (Seriously — imagine if all the money we paid soccer players was donated to improving the lot of marginalized people around the world, and that if everybody who attended those games or watched them at home spent that hour and a half engaging in activist work instead. WOW what a different world we would live in). I didn’t watch any of the games because I lacked both personal interest in the game and the sort of moral depravity that allows one to enjoy a soccer tournament which was held during a global pandemic, promoting social gatherings in homes and bars which ignored social distancing and public health care guidelines, and the fact that international travel was required to get the teams to one location. Fuck the disabled, the elderly and the immunocompromised, am I right? But that’s a digression for a later time, that deserves it’s own article to unpack. Because of these considerations, I didn’t pay any attention to this year’s tournament up until things took a seriously political turn, bringing to light much of the discrimination and racism that whxte folks around the world love to pretend doesn’t exist anymore.
What got me to start paying attention were the vile and racist memes and posts that were beginning to trickle into the online world, subsequently followed by a variety of news articles about racist attacks on players for the English soccer team as well as accounts of racist vandalism performed shortly after the match. Shocked and horrified that such things were being said about anybody, I took a deeper look into the victims of these attacks and the context under which they were being made.
Now, the problem seems to be that British people still assign more importance and value to soccer than they do the Black people they share their nation with, and with whom they hold a disgusting legacy of colonialism and oppression over. Three Black soccer players on the English team were scapegoated when the English lost the soccer match; and this should really come as no surprise that whxte soccer fans would place all the blame for the loss on Black bodies, when really, soccer is a team effort and everybody on the soccer team held an equal amount of responsibility for the team’s loss. This follows from the long history of Black individuals being held to higher standards than their whxte counterparts.
As a whxte person myself I do not want to speak for the lived experiences of Black and BIPOC individuals in the workplace because it is not my place to do so; rather I would like to uplift Black voices that have spoken about their plight, and so I would like to encourage you, after you have finished reading this article, to make use of Google and educate yourself about what Black people experience in mostly-whxte workforces. But sentiments that I have often come across when reading about these experiences is that Black individuals often feel as if they are held to higher standards than their non-BIPOC counterparts, and are often made to bear the responsibility when errors are committed by the entire team. As the article “8 everyday challenges black employees face” reads, BIPOC employees are often assumed to be “diversity hires” by their racist coworkers who assume they were only hired under the pretence of making the company appear more diverse and less whxte and as such, are lesser than their whxte coworkers:
It’s assumed that these candidates don’t have the skills to do the job they were hired for. While that’s simply untrue, the biases persist. To counter these unfair narratives, Black employees have to excel and go above and beyond to prove they’ve earned their spot in a way white colleagues do not. Similarly, the threshold to qualify for new, more prestigious roles is higher.
I suspect this is exactly what we are seeing with these Black soccer players on the England team. There is certainly a feeling among racist soccer viewers that these soccer players were simply diversity hires unworthy of competition in this match, and these racist fans are angry because on one hand, their team lost, and on the other hand they feel as if the people who “cost them the game” by losing the shootout did not belong on the team in the first place because they were not “English”.
Their anger is misdirected for so many reasons. If a whxte soccer player on the English team had scored literally just one goal, they wouldn’t have ended up in a shoot-out in the first place. But they didn’t. Three brave Black players stood up to take on the challenge and participate in the shoot-out, and when they lost the shootout they were blamed for something that was the failing of the entire team who put them in that position in the first place. We’ve seen this formula oh so many times. Whole team creates the problem, BIPOC individuals step up to try to fix the problem, and when they fail to, it is only these BIPOC individuals who are blamed for failing to fix the problem that they alone were not responsible for creating.
Additionally, it is so, so outrageous to be mad about the presence of Black players on the English soccer team out of a sense that they don’t “belong there.” Um, hello, you wanna talk about people being places they don’t belong? The English literally invented colonialism and for centuries, they invaded the traditional and sacred lands of BIPOC peoples, including much of Africa. They brought warfare, death and disease to these people while stealing from them what was rightfully theirs and stripping them of their rights.
The least that England can do for these people they oppressed so horribly for so long is to offer them spots on their soccer team. The English are perfectly okay with disrupting the cultures of others while being hypocritical about the presence of immigrants in their country disrupting theirs. And there is just nothing worth preserving about their culture anyway, from the imperialist and classist Queen, the heteromisogynistic and culturally appropriative musical stylings of the Beatles, and the fact that they don’t use any seasonings in their cooking besides salt. In fact, the English should be really fucking grateful to all the immigrants in their country because at the very least they’re bringing some actually edible food over with them. After they invaded pretty much every part of the world illegally and immorally, they’re in no position to be angry about immigrants coming over legally and morally and having the cultural landscape altered to be less “English”. They destroyed the cultures of others for so long and it’s just about time they had their own destroyed as well.
While I’m at it, why don’t we talk about the colonial history of soccer in particular? Soccer has always been the English’s favourite sport (most boring sport for the most boring people, it fits). The English were the most prolific colonizers in the world. Soccer is also the world’s most popular sport. Coincidence? I think not. It seems to me like when the English spread themselves around the world like an incurable disease, they spread soccer around as well.
Many different peoples around the world have been playing variants of what we now call ‘soccer’ for more than two thousand years now, including the Chinese and some First Nations bands. What we now call soccer is an imperialist understanding of the game, because now the entire world is expected to play by the rules that England associated it with. Many different people around the world still play soccer according to more local customs, but because of the global neocolonial popularity of the English set of rules for the game, Other Ways of Playing Soccer have been marginalized and we have learned to see their sets of rules as “incorrect” in comparison to the English set of rules which we accept as the only “real” set of rules. Is there any good reason for thinking that there is only one way of playing soccer and all other ways are somehow lesser than? No, but it sure serves English imperialism if they have you thinking there is.
Overall, I think England did really well in this tournament — politically, if not performance-wise. If the English had won this soccer cup, it would further contribute to the notion that soccer is an “English” sport instead of a global phenomenon that the English appropriated. The English team is more diverse then ever before, which is a triumph we should acknowledge even if there is still work for them to do in becoming even more diverse. The three special spots that arose at the end were given to Black players, further increasing Black visibility in the sport. And many racists came out of the woodwork when “their” team lost, exposing their true, evil selves to the world; and hopefully that will result in repercussions for those who made racist social media posts online.
There is still progress to be made, of course. Like I just mentioned, we could start to see more than just racial diversity on the men’s soccer team. We could tear down this notion of it being a “men’s” team because we know there is no existing biologically stable category of “male,” and that it is a pseudoscientific myth that “male” and “female” bodies are significantly different enough to warrant dividing the two groups into separate physical categories. We could just make it the English people’s team instead of the English men’s team, and reprioritize and recenter the importance of the contributions of transgender individuals to athleticism by hiring a new team which is at least 50% gender-non-conforming. We could increase racial diversity on the team until the point there are no whxte players left on the team at all, to make sure more BIPOC players can have a chance to show their talents to the world. We can do away with the notion that you have to be fit and muscular to play sports by hiring more disabled players and players who exist in larger bodies, assuring that they have the proper accommodations to succeed in the sport by introducing longer resting periods and alternate rules for those who struggle with the existing rules because of disability.
Or, better than all of this, England could just do away with their soccer team altogether, because no matter how much we change it for the better, an English soccer team will always be a sign of colonialism, imperialism, violence and oppression. No English team at all would serve to distance England from the sport they claimed was theirs, that they stole from marginalized people, altered to suit their needs and forced upon other marginalized people. I know this is a radical proposition, but it’s far less radical to care about basic human rights than it is to dismantle a sports team that stands for just about everything that is wrong with this world.
Until the English team has been disbanded, I urge you to keep your television sets turned off for subsequent soccer tournaments, and do something useful with your time like reading Ibram X. Kendi instead.
-a. j. morgan-kelly//decolonize. liberate. resist.