Who is it really 'coming home' for?

2018 was undoubtedly a great year for English football. For the first time, in what seemed like forever, England was not underperforming. Instead, they reached the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years. Though it started off as an unserious refrain, as the competition progressed, even the most incredulous of supporters were given a glimmer of hope that maybe, just maybe, football was indeed ‘coming home’. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be.  We fell at the hands of the eventual runners up, Croatia. Rather than experiencing the usual feeling of disappointment, there was a general atmosphere of satisfaction amongst England supporters, largely deeming our performance as somewhat successful. In addition to their competing successes England’s World Cup team was praised not only for its talent but also for the incredible diversity seen amongst the players. The team was dubbed the most diverse in England World Cup history. Of the 23 players in the squad, 11 were black minority ethnic, almost double the number of the previous World Cup, where there were 6. This is a fine example of how far we have come as a nation. Black players were once denigrated and denounced as not being truly ‘English’, now, as a nation we cheer on a team where they make up nearly half the team – a far cry from the previous sentiment.

Nevertheless, despite this increased appreciation for black players, repeatedly and almost habitual scrutinizing of Raheem Sterling (the England and Manchester City forward) shows how far we have yet to go. The Sun and the Daily Mail’s routine assessment of Sterling’s actions is not new, stretching back to at least 2016 where he was criticized for buying his mum a house despite an “embarrassing” performance at Euro 2016. Since then, Sterling has found himself the subject of all sorts of criticism ranging from his shopping habits to where he buys his food. Perhaps the most glaring example is seen after England won their first ever World Cup penalty shootout. In a since deleted Daily Mail article, instead of praising England on progressing to the quarter finals after a hard-fought win, journalist Matt Lawton referred to Sterling as the ‘source of frustration’ after, eventhough only one player having a higher match rating than him.

After being racially abused by fans in a recent game against Chelsea, Sterling himself spoke out against the media, condemning them for fuelling racism. Naysayers have been quick to disagree with the forward, claiming that the media scrutiny is specific to Sterling and is not a problem for other black footballers. Now, whilst such blatant character assassination is by all means rare, it is simply untrue that Sterling is the only young black footballer that has had to deal with excessive media criticism for actions that their white counterparts have either gotten away with or, in some circumstances, even been praised for. Whilst teenager Phil Foden was praised for buying a £2m home ‘for his mum’ (despite the fact that he and his whole family will be living there), 20 year old Tosin Adarabioyo was looked at in a negative light for buying a £2.25m house for himself and his family. One Daily Mail journalist even cited Adarabioyo’s house purchase in defence of Newcastle United Under 23’s boss Peter Beardsley, who racially insulted a player, calling young footballers these days cosseted and over-paid.

This double standard is shockingly obvious: although objectors condemn black people for ‘playing the race card’, there’s a clear trend. Young black footballers are being undeservedly and disproportionately faulted for actions. Whilst the trope that white people don’t like to see successful young black men has admittedly been applied to seemingly unrelated situations, there is definitely an element of this present in these criticism of black footballers. This is a microcosm of the hardships faced by black youths in wider society.

Such constant media scrutiny is without a doubt a contributing factor to the persistence of racism in football. Despite the attempts by campaigns such as ‘Kick It Out’, this season there have already been instances of racism in the Premier League, including a Tottenham fan throwing a banana skin at Arsenal forward Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang. Though not solely to blame for such incidents, the media must accept responsibility for perpetuating negative narratives about black footballers. This must be rectified if there is ever to be a reduction and eventual eradication in the racism that is still apparent at football matches.

The future of young black English footballers is nonetheless promising. Starlets, Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold, have been given huge amounts of support and were even selected as part of England’s World Cup squad despite their young age, whilst Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi have been tipped to be amongst the best English talent in the near future. But as young black footballers continue to flourish, it becomes ever more essential for the media to cease demonising them and to instead encourage them to achieve their full potential.  Racism, is indeed an issue across all aspects of society. It is clear that, as well as the need to eliminate racism all together, for the sport of football to make the most of its talent, the media must stop its contemptuous portrayal of black footballers so that, just maybe, we will achieve the long standing goal of kicking racism out of the game.

By Victor Echefu