By Sanal Mulackal and Sherwin Shaji
On Wednesday 29th November 1978, England manager Ron Greenwood, bestowed upon Viv Anderson a starting berth in the men’s national football team, to play against Czechoslovakia in front of 92,000 rapturous supporters on a frozen Wembley pitch.
Why was this significant? Viv Anderson set history in motion that night by becoming the first of 92 (and counting) BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) players to have represented the Three Lions.
Interestingly, Anderson was also eligible to represent Jamaica as both his parents originated from the Caribbean island, before migrating to Nottingham, England, where Anderson first learned to kick a ball. He went on to have a stellar career in English football, winning ten major honours and thirty international appearances.
What led to the rise of BAME players within English football? And, how far has the English national team progressed in terms of accepting and integrating BAME players?
Seen above: Viv Anderson, representing England.
The Caribbean to Wembley via HMT Windrush
To understand the rise of BAME players in England, we have to rewind back to 1948 to 1971, where a seismic societal shift occurred within the UK, which is commonly attributed to the Windrush migration.
Throughout this period, England was ravaged to its core following World War II, with labour shortages stretching far and wide. To combat this, the Labour government invited folk from colonised nations (predominantly in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia), to live and work within the UK, to rebuild an economy that was heavily scarred following the war efforts. The first wave of migrants saw 500+ Caribbean men, women and children board the HMT Empire Windrush to set sail on a perilous 8000 mile journey from the Caribbean to Tilbury, Essex. It is estimated that 500,000 Commonwealth citizens migrated to the UK, between 1948 and 1971, with the vast majority staying for generations to come. This was further bolstered through the 1971 Immigration Act, which permitted Commonwealth citizens to obtain permanent residency in the UK.
This resulted in an influx of BAME children being born within England and consequently acquiring British nationality. Some of these children (or even their kids), grew up to join academies and clubs, up and down the country, with the cream of the crop representing the England national football team.
In the current England team, the only BAME players to have been born outside of the UK and have immigrant parents/grandparents are Raheem Sterling (Jamaica) and Fikayo Tomori (Canada).
Breaking Down Barriers
When Viv Anderson pulled on an England shirt in 1978, he would have expected to hear the roars of the three lions supporters but was instead greeted to monkey chants and bananas being pelted at him from rival fans as well as his own. A small minority of the public were making so much racist noise, that Ron Greenwood had to publicly defend his inclusion of Anderson, stating that he wasn’t chosen to fill a ‘diversity quota’ but due to his own merits as a footballer. However, the ‘they don’t look like us’ mentality from far-right football hooligans continued to resonate through to various corners of the British society, resulting in black footballers facing much more criticism, compared to their white counterparts.
Despite the extreme circumstances facing Anderson, he faced it defiantly and accelerated the movement to eradicate racism from English football. The era that followed saw several iconic moments including, England and Liverpool winger John Barnes flicking a banana out of play artfully with his foot, after it was thrown at him during a match in 1988 and Paul Ince becoming the first black player to captain England in 1993. Such events forced the football society to review its actions and accept players, not based on the colour of their skin, but by the talent they bring to the game.
Seen above: Paul Ince, the first BAME captain for England, representing England.
So how far have we progressed since 1978? From a playing perspective, the statistics show that BAME players are increasingly involved with the national set up. Figure One shows that between Euro 2000 and Euro 2018, BAME players in the 23 man squad have quadrupled.
Figure One. Breakdown of BAME and Non-BAME footballers to have represented England at major tournaments.
* England did not qualify for Euro 2008. This figure is from the 23 man squad that played the final qualifying match for Euro 2008.
**This was the most recent England match, against Kosovo in November 2019.
England are blessed with a vast pool of extremely talented footballers, with Figure Two showing how strong a starting XI of just BAME players can be. The flag alongside the respective players’ name indicates the country they could have represented as a result of biological ties with that particular nation. If the players in Figure Two had chosen against representing England, then the national team would have been significantly weaker.
Figure Two. England team consisting of just BAME players.
Nb: F. Tomori is also eligible to play for Nigeria, and J. Blackman is also eligible to play for Barbados.
We Love Football. We Fight Racism.
However, there are still players that are either undecided or have switched allegiances. One possible reason for this is put forward by Arsenal starlet Bukayo Saka, who stated “I’m happy to have represented England at youth level but am also proud of my Nigerian heritage’’. Whilst it would be a real shame to lose Saka to the Nigerian national team, it is more than understandable that he would want to represent the country that his parents emigrated from, in order to afford Saka the opportunities he has taken.
Another reason players may want to switch allegiances is the relentless racism that they are subjected to in England. Wilfried Zaha is one such player to have experienced this and continues to experience. Before Zaha’s switch to Ivory Coast in 2017, Zaha explained that a fan wished for him to break his legs and, “go back to the slums of Croydon’’. Zaha further commented that as social media pages become more prevalent, the racist abuse he faces increases daily.
Seen above: Wilfried Zaha.
Ask yourself this. Why would a player put his mental health under extreme strain to represent a nation that cannot accept him for who he is and for his footballing abilities? There are 128,983 players registered with FIFA and they should not be judged for their colour or background, but for the respect, team work and camaraderie that they each bring to the game.
Play Your Part
The numbers suggest that England are producing extremely talented BAME players and they are being given the opportunities that they deserve, with 92 BAME players now having represented England.
Whilst we have progressed in leaps and bounds since 1978, many of us may have experienced directly or indirectly, the underlying racist rhetoric that too often rears its ugly head within society. There is no place for racism in the world and we each have a responsibility to ensure that this message is echoed from wherever we are reading this from.
Let us work together to eradicate racism, once and for all.
Many Nations. One Badge.
Seen above: Gini Wijnaldum and Frenkie de Jong celebrating in solidarity against racism.