A father and football fan laments - by Martin Brookes
Friday, 23 July 2021
This is a personal article. There are more articulate and many prominent voices on this subject, and I rarely write about myself. But I feel compelled to write this.
I am a middle-aged man who grew up in north-west London, exactly where the three boroughs of Harrow, Brent, and Ealing meet. Not far from where, many years later, footballers Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka would grow up in Brent and Ealing respectively.
When young I became an Arsenal fan and went religiously to Highbury to watch them, starting in the 1970s. The intensity of my support fluctuated during adulthood though I remained a season ticket holder for parts of my adult life. Two daughters and the demands of work eventually put an end to this and the role of football faded again.
I have never tried to impose my interest in football on my daughters. That said, I could never countenance them supporting another club. As they grow up in south-west London, the risk was always that they would follow Chelsea. That idea pained me; it still does.
I always liked that Arsenal seemed more progressive than many clubs. Or, at least, I wanted to believe they were more progressive and diverse. I hated mishaps such as the lack of black faces on the mural when the famous Highbury North Bank was redeveloped in the 1990s. The ritual antisemitism aimed by Arsenal fans at Spurs was so ignorant and offensive that I despaired. More positively, I delighted in the success of black players like Ian Wright, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira.
Though a mostly passive fan nowadays, I have enjoyed the recent emergence of Saka as a player. Even more, I enjoyed my younger teenage daughter’s growing interest in football and Arsenal, in which the appeal of Saka played no small part.
I told my daughter not to expect Saka to start matches during the Euros as he was too inexperienced. What do I know about football? Saka’s selection and performances during the tournament delighted and deepened her interest in the national team.
I loved the image of England this team conveyed — of a diverse and inclusive squad and, in turn, society. As someone who has plied his trade in charities after leaving a career in finance, I applauded the evident social consciences of the modern crop of footballers. As a Londoner, I liked what the backgrounds of players like Saka and Sterling said about the city I live in, of which I am very proud. I wanted these ideas to rub off on my daughter.
Such things were always more important to me in this tournament than the football itself. But football is important and I know how deeply it runs through the national conscience. As it does in me. The mere memory of a past match or a snatch of a song is usually enough to provoke an emotional reaction.
I was at Wembley when England lost to Germany in Euro 96. As we left the ground, a close friend asked whether he would ever see England in a major final. I didn’t know how to respond. “Maybe never” didn’t seem very helpful. I probably mumbled something about the injustice of, well, just about everything. I know we didn’t feel bitterness about Southgate’s penalty miss. We were experienced enough as fans to know the lottery of penalties.
Twenty-five years later, not only did we have England in a final. Even better, we had this England in the final, with all that they represented. And then last night happened.
The rights and wrongs of the match itself and tactics, including around the penalties themselves, are swamped by the awful treatment meted out to England’s young black players on social media. As well as the terrible behaviour of drunken England fans, including targeting Italy supporters or innocent people going about their business.
One can talk about any of the three England players who missed a penalty. It is Saka who gets my attention. Some of this is pure parochialism — he is an Arsenal player from west London. Some of it is about his age and inexperience.
Saka is 19 and lives with his mum and dad. As a parent myself, I can imagine how much they want to protect him from toxicity and unpleasantness. As a white man, I cannot begin to understand how one deals with these anxieties, fears and hurt.
Arsenal has responded strongly in a statement. The statement is humane, considerate, protective towards the young man who falls under the club’s care, as well as condemning racist abuse and calling on more to be done to stop it.
One of the saddest things is how far we fell last night. In recent weeks we had soared, seemingly comfortable presenting ourselves as a diverse and inclusive country reflected in a talented and young football team. That optimism seems naive in the cold light of today.
Rather than reflecting on how well England had performed, on the spirit of the team and squad, my daughter ended the tournament reporting racist comments on Instagram. Having embraced football, she is left with the taste of anger and hate, something horribly familiar to those who have followed football for decades.
Shame on us all that this is the society she inherits. Shame too that the scenes in central London and at Wembley itself make it less likely that England will host the 2030 World Cup. That is another loss for her generation.
I will take my daughter to see Arsenal next season. I hope Saka plays and his name rings loudly around the Emirates stadium.
In his book Fever Pitch about being an Arsenal fan, Nick Hornby describes wanting Man Utd’s George Best, perhaps the greatest footballer in England at the time, to be unavailable to play against Arsenal. If my daughter and I see Arsenal against Man Utd, I hope Marcus Rashford plays. I will applaud him. (And hope that Arsenal win.)
Arsenal still conjures up a deep sense of belonging, representing a form of home. The national football team does the same. I just wish my country would take seriously and could end this poison of racism. My daughter’s and Saka’s generation deserves no less.
12 July 2021
Martin Brookes has founded and built charities after a career as an economist. He currently runs a charity in London supporting local voluntary organisations and government policymakers responding to the pandemic.