I am an African immigrant, one of those that has been vilified by the British government long before it was open political party rhetoric. I may not have come on a boat or escaped war and may have a life 100x more privileged than those who did, but I am an immigrant nonetheless. And several times over at that – born on the African continent and raised in 3 different Caribbean countries before coming to England nearly 30 years ago to continue my education. When I got that education, all 7 years of it, I thought I’d go back ‘home’, though looking back I don’t think I really knew which home I was referring to. Other immigrants will understand this; I felt as if I had one foot here with the other foot kind of flicking between Zimbabwe and The Bahamas, occasionally straying to Jamaica.
This year, 2018, was the first time England had made it this far into the World Cup championship since 1990. No one can forget that day, 28 years ago, when England faced Germany in the semi-finals. I was 2 years in by then and had reluctantly accepted that England was not all roses and cheery skipping through lavender-filled fields in the countryside or eating daintily-cut sandwiches and cakes washed down with tea at 4pm. Not for us immigrants anyway – it was cold, hardly snowed, rained a lot, and the British, who I had only known to live happily in our sunny climes, didn’t really want us in their temperate ones. There was always one who woke up with the sole intent of making that very clear to any passing brown-skinned person.
The conflicting existence of immigrant life
Anyway back to World Cup 1990 – Italia90 as it was called. That was also the year that Cameroon was the first African country to dazzle on the world football stage. No matter where you were from, once you were black, you supported Cameroon. When they were knocked out, you supported any other team but England. The history of the dysfunctional relationship between the colonial land and our homes was very much alive and coupled with the way we were still being treated in the 20th century, it would have been high treason on all levels to support England, especially in the North of England where I was, where racial tolerance was, well, not tolerated.
It was during that ill-fated semi-final match that I had the first of many lessons on the conflicting emotions of the immigrant life. I didn’t want England to win but it wasn’t because I wanted Germany to win. No one liked Germany. But as an immigrant, you just could not support England.
For me though, having been exposed to so many cultures – yes, the Caribbean countries are very different – yet raised with the utmost African pride, I was inclined to be tolerant. At university, I had friends from all over the world including all 4 countries of Great Britain. I was curious about and wanted to enjoy this country. I wanted to feel a part of it, explore it, taste it, in the same way that I had done Guyana, Jamaica and The Bahamas, and in the same way I would do with Zimbabwe as an adult. Even though England really didn’t care much about having me here, I, all of us immigrants in my circle anyway, still wanted to be part of English society. What all that meant was that I did empathise with the frustration that the English felt over not having won the cup since 1966 where they’d also faced Germany. When that 1990 final came to a penalty shoot-out where Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle missed their shots, ensuring England’s misery for another 4 years, I felt a tug in my chest, but the immigrant rule was that you never supported the coloniser. You just didn’t. Period.
In the months and years after, we all watched the fall from grace of several players from that squad, we all mocked the decline of English football and we all lost faith in the England team ever winning anything, ever. Six years later, at the UEFA Euro96 tournament, it was another semi-final, another penalty shoot-out in another match with Germany. This time, the penalties went to sudden death and this time the protagonist was Gareth Southgate. His public slaughter by us all and the media that was tragic. Apparently even his own mother asked him why he hadn’t hit the ball harder. But, here is the first reason why 28 years later, I supported England in the semi-final World Cup match against Croatia – #GarethSouthgate.
All hail #Gareth Southgate
When he was appointed manager of the England Team, I silently applauded him. And to learn that this wasn’t some random selection was really inspiring. He had nursed himself back quietly and deftly, had clearly worked hard and was smart. He’d led the Junior England team to U-17 World Cup victory in 2017 after all. You see, we immigrants know about being smart, working hard, quietly and deftly – we do it all the time, with our eyes closed, so we appreciate it when we see it another.
Besides, who doesn’t like a come-back? And Gareth’s is the mother of all comebacks. Because really, no one should have survived that battering he got after missing that penalty shot 22 years ago, yet he did. It’s a mother of a comeback because he not only dared to get an English squad back to where it was all those years ago, but also journeyed back to look his demons square in the face. On the face of it, to go back where you seemingly failed, is a kind of courage we don’t see much these days. But he is of that special generation, the 70s babies. We are a special breed because we hold on to our old school values but not so tightly as to let them limit us, continuously harking back to the past. We use them to quietly and deftly make sense of the chaos that seemingly reigns in today’s age; we use them to help guide the generation after us as they navigate through their chaos; we use them to go back to basics when faced with challenges, yet are still able to appreciate and utilise the new rules and tools of 21st century society; and we use them to go out on a limb, take chances because sometimes you have to do things differently to get a different result.
The rehabilitation of English footie
And here is the second reason I supported England in the World Cup semi-final. #GarethSouthgate went out on a limb. One thing that we immigrants are acutely aware of and have experienced at one point or another is being passed over for that job or promotion when you are more than qualified, all because you don’t look right. We will all tell you that one reason England has performed so poorly over the past 28 years is that the managers didn’t always pick the best players – and many of the best players are black. There was a time when the English squad simply looked ridiculous as it nowhere near reflected what you’d see in Sunday leagues up and down the country – diversity. On top of that #GarethSouthgate chose players from some real underdog clubs, like Leicester City, as opposed to those from the big guns, the likes of Chelsea et al. He chose players he knew could play well, were hungry and truly represented the best of England and that was all that mattered.
In a way he has rehabilitated football and allowed us brown people to be a part of it. In 1990, you’d never see us in a pub, at a bar, or any public congregation to watch football. You’d be watching it safe and sound at home. But in 2018, we’re actually venturing to watch it outside of our living rooms! I had to run some errands for the first 30 minutes of the match, so at a traffic light, I shouted out to a bunch of people outside a drinking hole, asking for the score. Who shouted it back at me? A Nigerian man having a cigarette break, whilst an Indian man, also puffing on a fag, was hurriedly making his way into the pub to get stuck in. That would not have been possible 30 years ago, so thank you #GarethSouthgate.
‘Our lads done good’
The third reason I supported England in the World Cup semi-final against Croatia is one that must be a wake-up call for all of us – our children. My son is a Londoner, born and bred. He is proud of his triple heritage, but this is his home, regardless of where mummy and daddy are from. Like a true Brit, he eats, sleeps and breathes football – he’s getting ready to be vice-captain of the school team, plays for a local club, plays it on his Xbox and plays it on his phone. He collects football boots – literally all his last birthday vouchers were spent on them. He lines them up perfectly and reverently nearly every day.
He collects football kits; on a family holiday to Portugal his only objective when shopping was to get the full Ronaldo No 7 Portuguese kit. He asked the taxi-driver from the airport if he knew Ronaldo (incidentally he did, because his brother-in-law worked in Ronaldo’s restaurant, and so the theme for the 1h drive was set).When he goes out, all he really wants to wear is one of his kits or a tracksuit. He hates the Spanish football team because they are mortal enemies of the team – Portugal – of his favourite player – Ronaldo. He can’t walk anywhere without kicking something to show off his skills. He loves the French team because they are really good, and probably because he adores his au pairs – all of whom have been French. But England is his team because this is his country and he plans to play for them one day.
So could I really support Croatia as I would have done if it was 28 years ago? No. Did I want to? Honestly, a part of me nearly did, out of habit, but today, it wasn’t about me and my immigrant loyalties because the rules were different, the air was filled with hope, the stars were aligned for victory and the stakes were higher. As immigrant parents of children born in the diaspora, we at some point must put aside our conflicting emotions about our dual existence for the sake of our children. We must also work to reverse the intolerance that they will at some point have to face. This means we arm them with the tools to stand up squarely to that intolerance, no hesitation, no apology because this is their home. It also means we appropriately help them affirm their position and their rights to be a part of British society, a society into whose fabric football is tightly woven. It therefore made sense, whether wholeheartedly, symbolically or sympathetically to support their national team, our national team.
So ‘you done good lads’, ‘you done us proud’. ‘Engerland, Engerland.’
Now bring #Euro2020 home!