From Three Lines to Three Lions
The road to equality and justice
Since 1966, the nation has been waiting for ‘it to come home.’ Fifty-five years later, England was almost on the verge of achieving the dream. Pundits described the rise of the young English football team, under the ‘leadership’ of Gareth Southgate as phenomenal. Yet, the might of the Italians with their unbeaten record over 3 years and 34 games was just a tad too much for the young English side to beat. The jubilant Italians were skilful and orchestrated the majority of the match where the English lads barely got possession of the ball after the first few minutes. They were clearly the better side and deserved to win the European title after 54 years. But that is not why the night of the Euro 2020 final at Wembley will be etched in the memory of the majority of the 67 million Brits and across much of the football-loving populace around the globe, it was the aspiration of the underdog.
Football is a religion and has fervent followers who are willing to risk all and dream of success. Football both unites and divides the country. While the dream and headiness of success bring out the best in people, it is also the harbinger of the worst behaviours. While it is ‘only a game’ and there will be winners or losers, and the sporting spirit dictates that one must not only win graciously but lose with dignity, this is lost on the fans. Yet racism is a reality in sport and examples of fans demonstrating overt racism, sometimes with impunity is sadly not uncommon. From the booing of the Danish national anthem at the semi-final at Wembley to the violence and overt, racism that ensued after losing the penalties at the final- only exposed the raw, divisions that exist in the minds of the English football fans. One must be careful not to equate the racist and uncivilised behaviours of a handful of inebriated, devastated fans with the belief that racism is still rife in society, yet it is hard to separate the two. The racist behaviours of the English football fans may be a manifestation of the divisions that have existed for generations and still do today. Britain is changing as a society.
Gareth Southgate is hailed as a leader who has united the nation. His belief in young players including the three Black players who received the most hate after the penalties – Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sanchez – has been instrumental in getting the English team further in international competitions than it has done in the last 5 decades. This team has so much more to give and need nurturing. Like a true leader, Gareth has shielded his players and claimed responsibility for the defeat. The English Football Association, the honourable Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Home Priti Patel have all come out publicly, strongly and promptly to condemn the racism shown by the fans towards the young Black players. As have many people in the country through social media.
The recent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (also known as ‘the Sewell report’) has been widely criticised for denying the significance of systemic, structural and institutional racism and for its misinterpretation of academic research and data across a number of areas including health and education. The report  claimed that structural racism in British society was no longer a reality and that Britain has made huge strides to become a fair and just land. Britain could also serve as a beacon of a just and fair society to other European countries. There was a huge wave of criticism against the report on racial disparities as awareness and acknowledgement are the first steps in tackling a problem so complex and so ingrained as racist mindsets. One of the statements in the report that drew the most vehement protests (and has since been modified) claimed that ‘the slave period not only being about profit and suffering but how culturally African people transformed themselves’. This concept of cultural transformation or ‘acculturation’ is worthy of more exploration.
We started by repeating the oft-quoted statement that ‘football is a religion’, at least it has the hallmarks of one. Football defines much of English society. As Reena Aggarwal, Obstetrician from London wrote in her Instagram post, ‘ on moving to the UK at the age of 9, she realised quickly that to ‘fit in and be accepted she had to pick a football side. Not knowing the teams and having no roots in England, she chose the most popular Manchester United. Over the years, she describes witnessing many moments of jubilation and heartbreak and times when the challenges of being a doctor took over and football took a back seat. ‘Football has a funny culture, and as a brown person it is not always easy to feel included or to care’. Manchester United has a much larger (659 million) and perhaps equally fervent fan following in far-reaching countries in Asia such as China, India and in Africa or South America.
The group of like-minded professionals that make up the BAPIO Think-tank were also up late discussing the decisions about choices and substitutions, condemning the racism demonstrated in the aftermath and recounting their own experiences from the field. The overwhelming emotion was one of support for the team, looking after the wellbeing of the young players nursing their bruised egos and above all the leadership qualities of the English Manager in nurturing diversity. The Football Association has not taken kindly to the ritual of the English team ‘taking the knee’ before their matches but this simple gesture has far-reaching positive consequences. Joydeep Grover, an Emergency physician from Bristol wrote, ‘The football hooligans are great! They are justifying exactly why it was important for England to take the knee before the matches, and why the politicians who criticised that gesture got it absolutely wrong.’
VijuVaradarajan wrote, ‘Southgate should and will be called as a “Sterling” example when styles or talks of Leadership are mentioned. A perfect example to the NHS of how to lead and support diverse teams in adverse situations.’ BAPIO stands for equality and justice and has not shied away from calling out racism, discrimination and bias in any field. Throughout its 25 years of service to the health care profession, it has stood up for the rights of the underdog and challenged the discrimination faced by many in the health service. As a member of the BAPIO Think-tank wrote, ‘Some people are really surprised at the racism demonstrated against footballers – this is how it is in the NHS. Day in and day out.’
BAPIO’s work in this area is cut out. The NHS as a mirror of UK society is divided along three lines; the privileged, the underprivileged and the immigrant. The divisions are no different in schools, playgrounds, courts of justice and in the Police system. It is clearly acknowledged that population health, economic, and education outcomes as well as the differential attainment for professionals are determined primarily by the three lines of the division that exists in the UK (and many other) societies. It will take a huge ideological shift from the very top rung of the social and political leadership of the country to acknowledge that life with its aspirations and outcomes, is not the same for people of this country who are divided by the three lines. Only by the total commitment from leaders such as Rt Hon Boris Johnson, Rt Hon Priti Patel, Rt Hon Rishi Sunak, Rt Hon Sir Keir Starmer and following the example of such leaders like Gareth Southgate will the country have any hope of providing equality and justice to its citizens. Perhaps the leaders in the UK Parliament can follow Gareth’s example by taking the knee to show they really want to move the country from ‘three lines of division to three lions of unity’. BAPIO will certainly be there working for equality and justice all the way.
By- Dr Indranil Chakravorty PhD
1 Boris Johnson and Federation condemn racism against English players – BBC-Edition. https://bbc-edition.com/international/2021/07/12/boris-johnson-and-federation-condemn-racism-against-english-players/ (accessed 13 Jul 2021).
2 The Sewell report risks turning the clock back on the fight against racism in the UK. The BMJ. 2021.https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2021/04/12/the-sewell-report-risks-turning-the-clock-back-on-the-fight-against-racism-in-the-uk/ (accessed 13 Jul 2021).
4 Why England players are taking a knee at Euro 2020 – in their own words. inews.co.uk. 2021.https://inews.co.uk/sport/football/england-take-the-knee-why-players-meaning-footballers-fans-booing-gesture-explained-1043056 (accessed 13 Jul 2021).