Honestly, I’m not an avid football watcher or even a regular football watcher. But every now and then the England football team gains momentum in a tournament (recently the Euros). I get swept up in frenzy along with half the country. The new success of a team brings a certain atmosphere to ' We’re told ‘it’s coming home.' While ‘it’ didn’t quite make it home during Euro 2020, something much more negative made its way through the country. Aimed at several players in the team, as well as members of the public. Racism has made its home in the football community and continues to be a defining factor. The growing anti-racism movements that have been taking place both inside and outside the football community have yet to make a real impact. 

A Brief History Lesson On The Three Lions Symbol 

The Lions first became a symbol of England as a flag in the 12th century. The flag was used on the battlefield in Britain as well as across Europe and the Middle East. While any lions that may have lived in Britain had died out by the creation of the flag, the lion was and still is a symbol of strength and bravery. If we then fast forward to 1872 when the first international football game is held between England and Scotland (BBC Home).

The English Football Association need to find an emblem that represents true ‘Britishness’ and decide on the three lions. The football logo also bears ten roses, reminiscent of the Tudor rose, another statement of British history. The use of British symbols in the England teams’ logo isn’t something unique to the team in football, or sport in general. Most sports teams use something unique to their place of origin for their logo. Several other teams in football alone also use a lion in their team logo, such as the Dutch national football team. 

Euro 2020

The England football team made it to the final of an international tournament for the first time in sixty years. This drew comparisons to the 1996 tournament when the team made it to the semi-finals of the Euros. Then, it was Gareth Southgate who missed the penalty, blinding England's place in the final. While Southgate received criticism in ‘96, many were concerned about his mental health and how he would surpass the mistake.

The year when England lost the championship due to penalties, the hate that Marcus Rashford, Raheem Sterling and other members of the team received was explicitly racist and cruel. The incredible racism that these players faced may have only been from a minority of football fans, but the hate almost drowned out the support the team received and thanks to social media. It felt like the barrage of hateful criticism was spiralling.

For Gen Zedders (my generation), the three lions don't hold much significance. Personally, I knew the logo of the English football team was three lions. International championships aren't exactly the English football teams forte. It wasn’t until the team began to have some success that I began to have an interest in the team or the sport.

While the world was battling a global pandemic, Marcus Rashford took on the challenge of providing three million British children with free meals after the government voted against it. Rashford’s campaign raised £20 million by June of 2020, and the government soon repealed their decision. Other players such as Jack Grealish and Jordan Pickford also grew in popularity over the pandemic on social media during the Euros but did not receive the same amount of backlash as other members of the team.

The Issue

Racism has become more overt in the football community and the famous crest has become a staple of extreme nationalism. Many players who are people of colour have experienced racial harassment online. Data shows that 10% of football games in the 2019-2020 season had a reported racist hate crime (Sky Sports)

Racism isn’t only directed at the players, but football fans too. In 2015, a black passenger was pushed off a train in Paris by white fans. Who were chanting ‘we’re racist, and that’s the way we like it’ (Chrisafis, 2017). This was one of the first times I saw and understood how much racism existed in the football community. It’s because of actions such as these that the three lions have taken on a new meaning, In particular, younger people are being put off supporting football due to its hateful actions (Sky Sports, 2021).

Looking at social media after Euro 2020 games, I’d see a mix of offensive messages. And support posts teaching tactics to protect from racially motivated attacks. It’s no surprise considering we’ve seen other English symbols become connected with racism and extremism, such as the English flag. The historic red cross on a white background, was adopted by the English Defence League, a group based on islamophobia. The meaning of these symbols have negatively evolved, but it may be too late for the three lions to revert.

Culture Shifting

Culture Shift asked readers what the three lions mean for them. For David Chambers, the three lions has always been a hostile image. To the point that he hasn’t wanted to own an England football shirt. He felt as though footballers haven’t always helped prevent negative behaviour. ‘Footballers have been notorious for skirting their responsibility, socially’ David told us.

Some readers find the logo less linked to sport, it’s still ‘just a logo’, says Hiren Mehta (2021), wherever the three lions and similar symbols are seen in sports. If the logo was on a shirt, Hiren said he ‘wouldn’t feel a particular way about it.’ This new team along with Gareth Southgate have been stepping up to fight against racism in the sport. And small actions are beginning to evolve the meaning of the three lions as we see it. For Jamie Baker (2021), the symbol used to represent coming together in the football world - ‘we join under one force’ when players come from different teams across the UK and other cities.

Despite this coming together of players under the three lions, the logo now has a darker meaning for Jamie. Sports fans and the rest of society can’t unite on social issues such as Black Lives Matter meaning discrimination continues. Questions arise such as the fact Harry Kane and Harry Maguire, who both scored their penalties, are white men. As usual, the three men of colour who missed: Damon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, and Marcus Rashford faced more criticism. What would the responses have been like if it was the other way round?’ Jamie knew what social media would look like after the game even before looking.

What Needs To Be Done?

During the Euro 2020 tournament, we could see how football has the potential to be an inclusive and diverse community for a wide range of people. Both the male and female teams depend on people of colour, those from a variety of backgrounds and cultures.

As well as anti-racism campaigns that we have seen in the past year, there has also been a ‘Three Lions Pride’ campaign (Sky Sports) in support of players and fans in the LGBTQ community. The campaign gained support and many football players have worn rainbow laces to support the players and fans.

These are important steps forward for football but the fans must stand up and start challenging themselves. Those fans who continue to partake in racist or homophobic behaviour turn the game sour for all. It will take time, but following in this direction there is potential that the football community will change its tune.

Image Credits: Sky Sports

The racism we see in the football community mirrors that in everyday life. Although it is easier for everyday racism to be hidden in ‘jokes’ and offhand comments and not just blatant acts. Conversations and protests have forced many to confront how systemic racism benefits some people, while negatively impacting many others. Unfortunately, the fact that these conversations are now taking place doesn’t mean that much has changed anywhere.

Footballs Potential

Despite how it may seem, there is still the potential for the football community to turn a corner. Since Euro 2020, some fans who racially abused players online are facing charges, others face bans from football games. But there are still groups of fans who continue to commit racist and abusive actions against players and other fans of the sport.

This group may be small but still manage to steal the attention from those fans who act appropriately and even deter people like me who don’t watch football as regularly. However, football doesn’t have to be doomed to remaining a hostile community. We can make changes by standing up to the racist and hateful messages pedalled by a minority within football fandom. As the climate outside football changes, there’s hope that the culture within the football community will follow suit.