LONDON – Hannah Kumari has been an English soccer fan since childhood, but she never wanted to fly an England flag. Until now.
Kumari is one of millions of fans ecstatic that England’s men’s team has reached the final of a major tournament for the first time since it won the World Cup in 1966. But like many British people of color, she’s had an ambivalent relationship with symbols of Englishness.
Yet embracing them has come more easily thanks to the young, multi-ethnic squad that is on the cusp of triumph in the European Championship. After beating Denmark 2-1 in a semifinal on Wednesday that was watched by half the country’s population, England faces Italy in the final at London’s Wembley Stadium on Sunday.
“When I woke up this morning I thought, ‘I’m going to buy a St. George’s flag to hang out the window for Sunday,’” Kumari, who was born and raised in England to an Indian mother and Scottish father, said the day after the Denmark game.
“I’ve never owned an England shirt,” the actor-writer said.
“Something has definitely changed,” she said. “I feel almost like that team has given me permission to feel like I can wear an England shirt.”
The last few years have been hard on England and the rest of the United Kingdom. Britain’s exit from the European Union — a decision driven in part by a backlash against immigration — left the country scratchy and divided. More than 128,000 people have died in the U.K. during the coronavirus pandemic, the highest toll in Western Europe.
Euro 2020 — the name is a year out of date due to the pandemic — has provided a much-needed jolt of excitement and fun. Millions weary of lockdowns and bad news are backing a team whose members speak out against racism, take a knee before games, support LGBT pride, campaign against poverty and, crucially, win games.
For decades, supporting England has been synonymous with dashed hopes. The lyrics of the country’s most popular soccer anthem, “Three Lions,” originally released in 1996, evokes England’s 1966 triumph and the long drought that followed: “Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming.”
Those 30 years have become 55, but once again England is dreaming.
The country’s hopes rest on a team very different from the all-white squad of 1966. A poster created by the Museum of Migration showed what the England team would look like without the players who had a parent or grandparent born abroad: Just three of the 11 starting players remained. Missing were stars who included team captain Harry Kane, whose father is Irish; Marcus Rashford, whose mother is from Saint Kitts; Jamaica-born Raheem Sterling; and Buyako Saka, a Londoner with Nigerian parents.
The team is known less for wild off-the-pitch antics than for social responsibility, epitomized by 23-year-old Rashford’s campaign against child poverty, which convinced the government to restore free lunches for thousands of poor children.
Last week, Kane, 27, wore a rainbow armband to support LGBT pride during England’s match against Germany.
The players may be young multi-millionaires, but they celebrate their local as well as international roots. Rashford’s childhood in a working-class Manchester community inspires his anti-poverty work; Kalvin Phillips is a proud son of the northern city of Leeds; Sterling calls himself the “boy from Brent,” after the London borough where he grew up.
For some, their success is helping to make Englishness a source of pride rather than awkwardness.
The English make up 56 million of the U.K.’s 67 million inhabitants, but English patriotism and the country’s red-and-white St. George flag were long shunned by liberal-minded Britons, associated with football hooligans and narrow-minded “Little Englanders.” Britishness was regarded as a more welcoming identity by many U.K.-born and foreign-born citizens alike.
England’s rugby, cricket and soccer teams have done much to strip the English flag of its negative associations in recent years. The increasing prominence of Scottish and Welsh flags and symbols as those countries gained more political autonomy over the last two decades has also made many people reflect on what English identity means.
“There has been an enormous intergenerational shift towards a civic and inclusive English identity that crosses ethnic and faith grounds,” said Sunder Katwala, director of the equality think-tank British Future. “Most migrants to Britain haven’t identified as English, but interestingly, their children have.”
Katwala said sports teams and tournaments don’t drive social change but "ratify that shift that has been happening in society.”
“When I was a teenager we associated football with all of the negative aspects of English identity: With violence, with racism, with hooliganism," Katwala said.
He said the modern, multicultural England team is part of a “culture shift” that has “changed the public conversation about what is English.”
Not everyone thinks the national soccer team represents all that is best about England. Some conservative commentators have derided the players as uncomfortably “woke.” Team members have been booed by some fans while taking a knee against racism before games. Home Secretary Priti Patel has criticized the kneeling, calling it “gesture politics,” and declined to condemn the booing.
Victory has silenced much of the criticism, at least temporarily. Politicians have jumped on the England bandwagon. Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has often criticized protests over racism and Britain’s imperial past, attended Wednesday’s game, awkwardly wearing an England jersey over his dress shirt. He’s under pressure to declare a national holiday if England wins the final on Sunday.
Some have compared Britain’s political leaders unfavorably to the national team's understated manager, Gareth Southgate, who forged his young players into England's most cohesive squad in many years.
If the tournament has been therapeutic for England, it is also redemptive for the 50-year-old Southgate. He played for England in the 1990s, and his failed penalty kick during the Euros semi-final in 1996 handed victory to Germany.
Opposition Labour Party lawmaker Thangam Debbonaire urged Johnson to study at “the Gareth Southgate school of leadership.”
"The British people will be asking themselves who they want to lead them. Do they want someone who works hard and has a relentless focus on embodying British values, or do they want the current prime minister?” Debbonaire said in the House of Commons.
Southgate addressed the team’s critics in an open letter at the start of the tournament, saying his players would not “stick to football” and keep quiet about social issues.
“I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players,” he wrote. “It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”