England kick off their World Cup campaign today by putting their faith in youth as they take on Tunisia: Gareth Southgate's squad have the lowest average age and the fewest caps won of any of the 32 teams at the tournament. Only three of the squad – Gary Cahill, Ashley Young and Jamie Vardy – had even been born when Gazza’s tears captured a nation’s hearts at Italia ’90. Yet while the team's youth has been the subject of much hype, another factor about this England squad has not captured any headlines: this is the most ethnically diverse squad that England has ever taken to the World Cup.
Eleven of the squad of 23 are black or of mixed ethnicity, compared to six England players who went to the World Cup in 2014, and nine at the last European Championships two years ago. Little or no attention has been paid to this. Why? Because there are now few things more normal, or less controversial, than cheering on a multi-ethnic football team. Yet while the current team's diversity is taken for granted, this is only a relatively recent change.
Until Diego Maradona's 'hand of God' moment in the quarter-final in Mexico in 1986, no black footballer had ever played for England at a World Cup finals. But in the last 15 minutes of that game, John Barnes came on as a substitute and did his best to turn the game around – creating one goal for Gary Lineker and almost setting up an equaliser too. Of course, Barnes wasn't the first black player to win an England cap. That honour belonged to full-back Viv Anderson, who played for his country in 1978. Yet while the talent of either player was not in doubt, Barnes and Anderson's inclusion in the England team was not welcomed by all. When John Barnes scored his greatest ever goal, a mazy run through the Brazil defence in the Maracana Stadium, to put England two-nil up, a section of the England support, infiltrated by the National Front, chanted “one-nil, one-nil” on the grounds that black goals didn’t count.
Others didn't even wait for black England players to take to the pitch to let their feelings be known. The late, great Cyrille Regis, who died this year, wrote in his autobiography about his experience of being selected to play for his country in 1982, and arriving at the West Brom ground to find a pile of fan mail:
'Clearly, someone didn’t approve of my selection, because they had cut out individual letters from a newspaper and stuck them on a sheet of paper to spell out a message that read ‘If you put your foot on our Wembley turf, you’ll get one of these through your knees’. I looked back into the envelope and there was a cotton wool pad wrapped around something. I took it out, opened it up, and there it was: a bullet staring up at me. I’ve still got it to this day. The letter soon got binned, but I kept the bullet as a reminder of the force of anger and evil that some people had within them back then. For the rest of my days, it was also a motivation, a reminder that these people were not going to stop me’
Of course, racism has not gone away. Danny Rose, Ashley Young and other England players have expressed their concerns about the possibility that racism may rear its ugly face on the Russian terraces. Yet back home, thirty years of change on the field has meant that English people, whatever their faith or background, feel proud of their team: three quarters of the general public (74 per cent) and of ethnic minorities (74 per cent) say that the England squad is a symbol of the country that belongs to people of every race and ethnic background, according to a Survation poll for British Future. That means there is a higher level of support for England's football team than for the St George’s flag or a St George’s Day party.
England does not expect our team to bring the trophy back home from Russia this year, though a couple of good results against Tunisia and Panama would see fans start to believe that we might progress to the quarter-finals, or even possibly further. In 1996, Baddiel and Skinner sang about ‘thirty years of hurt’. Yet while England have failed to match their success in 1966, the acceptance of England's richly diverse squad shows that English football isn't all doom and gloom. The trophy cabinet might be relatively empty, but thirty years of change has given us an England team that belongs to us all.