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Reception of fans ****
Life as a Panjabi football fan
I'm a huge football fan, I have been ever since I can remember and I imagine I always will be. I enjoy watching competition, and my interest extends across different sports (you can read about my experience of American sports here).
Football in England has come a long way over the past few decades. Hooliganism, known in the European continent as the 'English Disease' was rife in football stands of the 1970s and 1980s with certain football clubs creating a reputation for having the largest or most powerful 'firms' or hooligan groups.
This culminated in the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster in which fans of English side Liverpool were involved in an incident with Italian fans of Juventus which resulted in 39 deaths and over 600 injuries to mostly Italian fans. For many, the incident was the inevitable conclusion of two decades of increasing violence during football games involving English sides. As a result, English football teams were banned from global competition for 5 years.
Most often, the hooligans were connected or direct members of extreme racist groups, and so football stadiums were broadly off-limits for black and brown people in our parents and grandparents generation. Even the pitch itself wasn't safe, with early black footballers being subjected to racial abuse, and there still hasn't been a significant south Asian player in the English Premier League.
By the time I was getting to an age where football was becoming a big part of my childhood, the reputation of English fans was improving thanks to more stringiest policing and intervention by the Football Association and governments. However, the concept of going to a game was still a big 'no'. Very few of my brown friends would go football games, and as my dad had passed away when I was 5, there was no way my mom was going to take me.
So I grew up watching from afar, but obsessed with football. I'd spend all my waking moments day dreaming of becoming a footballer, I'd collect football stickers, play football every opportunity that I could, talk about football with everyone, and watch Match of the Day every Saturday night.
I grew up a big fan of Aston Villa, a team that represented the Midlands, while many of my friends were fans of other local sides like West Brom and Wolves, and a few were fans of teams further afield like Manchester United and Liverpool.
But for my mom, it was still a racist sport. When I wanted to join a 'little league' team when I was younger she refused, no matter how many tantrums I threw. And when it came going to games, I didn't want to push it too much either because as a 9 or 10 year old - I was scared of the racists. Even if I wasn't, it wouldn't matter - as a single parent, my mom couldn't afford to buy me tickets anyway.
As I grew older and began to gain confidence, the desire to watch football live kept growing and eventually, as I began to earn money as a teenager, a friend of mine decided to take me to West Brom v Aston Villa. As my friend was an Albion fan, we sat in their end, but I absolutely loved the experience - it was everything I wanted it to be and so much more.
I'm still obsessed with football. I still love Aston Villa. I still spend most of my waking day pretending I could still be a footballer at an age when most footballers are thinking about hanging up their boots. While my mom let me watch football when I was younger, and even bought me a few Villa shirts for the birthdays where she would have cash, her fear of 'racist' football means I've grown up an average player at best - although I still make it a point to play every week with my childhood friends.
I also have more years of experience behind me. I've been to Villa Park regularly since that first experience, watching games and following the team in the Premier League, Europe, relegation to the Championship and back into the Premier League. I've followed Villa to Wembley - I was there when we reached the 2015 FA Cup Final (we lost), I've followed them on the road on occasions, and watched football in countries too.
Has the 'English Disease' been eradicated? It has taken great strides.
I was at Villa Park when Aston Villa met West Brom in the FA Cup Quarter Final, and saw fans ripping chairs out the stadium and throwing them onto other fans, fighting into the street and attacking police cars. I still get stared at by other fans, and I'll sometimes hear whispers and snickering that I know is directed at me. I stand out. But I've never been attacked or overtly abused - when I go to games I show that I belong. I'm loud, I'm confident, and Aston Villa is every bit my club as it is the next persons.
For Sikhs there are still issues. A fan was turned away from the Euro 2021 semi-final for carrying a kirpan, despite British law protecting a Sikhs right to wear a kirpan, and despite Wembley Stadium's own policy explicitly stating that a Sikh is able to freely wear a kirpan to the stadium. I really hope that brother was appropriately compensated, but nothing makes up for missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to watch England in a major tournament at Wembley.
I've seen a lot of improvements, too. Fans of teams with large Sikh followings have their own Sikh or Panjabi chapter - Aston Villa have Panjabi Villans, Derby County have Punjabi Rams, while the largest and most famous is Panjabi Wolves (for the Wolverhampton Wanderers team). We are also beginning to see more young south Asians and Panjabis playing for youth teams and although we still don't have a big name Panjabi player, I'm hopeful the first one is just around the corner.
But as the final of Euro 2020 showed, the 'English Disease' is only in remission, and can come back at the drop of a hat.
55 years of hurt
I know that not all minorities support England because the team doesn't always reflect them, or represents the racist elements of society we all hate. I remember when I was very young I didn't think England represented me.
But as I grew into my teenage years and the tribalism kicked it, I decided England (much like Villa) was just as much mine as it was anyone else's - and I began following the national side. During tournaments in Asia and South America, I would wake up at weird times to watch England games and in 2017 - much, much later than my first club games, I finally went and watched an England game live at Wembley - a World Cup Qualifier against Slovakia. While it lacked the atmosphere of a club game, I enjoyed myself and didn't get any trouble.
The English national side is very strange. It's packed full of talent but tends to underperform on the global stage. Despite inventing the modern game (and Aston Villa played a key role in its development), England have only won one major tournament - the 1966 World Cup. Since then, there have been a few near misses, but England has never reached another tournament final - let alone won anything.
So when they announced that Wembley would host Group Games, Knockout Games and the Final of the pan-European 'Euro 2020' tournament, I was pretty excited - especially as England had missed out on the chance to host the 2018 World Cup.
Since the start of global international tournament football in 1930, England has only ever hosted two major tournaments (the olympics aren't major), the 1966 World Cup and the 1996 European Championship - with a gap of around 30 years between tournaments.
It doesn't take a genius to figure out it could be a once-in-a-generation opportunity.
In the original ballot I managed to get tickets to two group games, and two second round games. With a 1/20 chance of getting tickets, and all of my friends missing out, I was pretty excited to finally win something and shared the tickets out with my friends. We planned ahead for 3 games at Wembley and 1 in Copenhagen, booking the flight and hotel. But then, of course, the pandemic struck and the tournament was delayed.
As a re-arranged tournament approached in 2021, it became clear that we wouldn't be allowed to travel to Copenhagen due to government restrictions on travel. Not only that, but because of limits on stadium capacity, there would be a second ballot with a 1/4 chance of ticket holders retaining their tickets.
I was hopeful I'd still get to attend at least one game.
During the ballot I lost every ticket that I had, and to add insult to injury, a movement in exchange rates in the intervening years meant that I was out of pocket. To really kick someone when they're down, I began to see advertisements from corporates 'giving away' tickets in competitions. I can't tell you how much I detest the greed and corruption of organisers - both UEFA and FIFA.
The greed of organisers, owners and politicians is beginning to ruin a game that I've loved for as long as I can remember, and you can read my thoughts about it here.
But that's a rant for another day.
Throughout the tournament I kept trying (and failing) to get tickets, but with England 1-0 up an hour into a second round match with Germany, I decided to take a risk and purchase tickets for the final - in the hope England would make it there. Despite a nervy semi-final England managed to get to a first final in 55 years, and I became pretty popular for a few days as the guy with two tickets (a childhood friend bought the second).
And so, we were ready for once-in-a-generation.
Understaffed and under equipped
We headed down to London and decided to get to the game a few hours early. We had already seen news reports of a big crowd at Wembley and our tickets had a entry window of 5:30-6pm - a full two hours before the game began.
The entry window, designed to stagger how many people could get into Wembley at once, was one of several poorly designed measures taken by UEFA and the UK Government. This was combined with a restricted capacity of 60,000 (for a 90,000 seater stadium), proof of vaccination or a negative lateral test flow, and compulsory mask wearing inside the stadium, other than when seated.
I had only received 1/2 vaccinations at that time, so completed a lateral test flow and uploaded it onto my app the day before the game.
The trains through central London into Wembley were absolutely packed and people we really getting into it. Once we got out at Wembley Park tube stop we realised the sheer stupidity of any types of coronavirus measures - it took about 15 minutes just to get out of the station as it was so busy.
Once on Wembley Way, the famous walk to the stadium, it became apparent just how poorly this final had been planned. The walk from the station to the stadium seemed like a tornado had just blown through it, and the floor was as sticky as student nightclubs back in the day. I don't know why people trash their own streets in their own country - it's not a uniquely English issue, but it seems to happen a lot more and at a greater scale here than elsewhere when it comes to football.
There might have only been 60,000 tickets available, but there were hundreds of thousands of people. That's not abnormal - for the 2018 play-off final between Aston Villa and Fulham, I had travelled to Wembley despite not having a ticket as I wanted to enjoy the atmosphere and then I moved to a local area to watch the game - so this part seemed normal.
At 5:45pm we headed to the stadium itself during our entrance window only to be caught in a huge crowd of people, over a thousand strong all waiting to get into the game. As the crowd moved forward and we became the centre, the whole coronavirus restrictions seemed to become more stupid.
What was the point in any restrictions inside the stadium if thousands of people are packed in tightly outside the stadium? I wasn't the only one who thought it was stupid as most of the crowd started singing "if you have't got covid, you've got it now". I tested my-self the following week, and had managed to avoid it.
We spent over an hour trying to get into the stadium, packed below the Wembley steps in a crowd of thousands. When we finally made it to the front, there was nothing - no checks, no security - nothing. No one asked to see our tickets, no one asked to see our proof of immunity - in fact at no point during my time there did anyone check proof of vaccination or a negative test.
Worse still, despite the utter pointlessness of restricting stadium capacity when we were all packed together by the thousand for over an hour, the notion of 30,000 free seats incentivised those without tickets to try and get in.
As we got into the stadium at 7pm, we thought we would pick up a programme and head straight in. It was at this point we saw hundreds of kids running from entrance to entrance - I later realised these were the people without tickets forcing their way into the stadium at different disabled access points. Security were allegedly accepting money to sneak people in, while others were forcing their way in. There were fights all around the stadium, although it seemed most happened earlier in the evening as I didn't see any.
As we headed to our gate, the situation with ticketless fans meant more delays and we spent the next 40 minutes trapped in a crowd of about 100 people trying to get in. I'd been to a Wembley Final that was sold out and was much smoother and better organised than this.
It was at this point people started to get annoyed. People started to boo stadium staff and tempers were starting to rise. Eventually at 7:40pm we were allowed to get into the stadium. The only problem was - our tickets (and most of the crowds) hadn't been 'validated' at the entrance - and they hadn't been validated because staff at the entrance decided to stop working when attacked by ticketless fans. I had some sympathy for them, but it was another instance of poor planning.
This was England's first final in 55 years and there was a token police presence, and the bare minimum security guards and volunteers - what did they expect?
After running around and getting everything sorted we were finally inside with 10 minutes to go and we saw the rest of UEFA/government stupidity. The concourse inside the stadium had thousands of people packed together like sardines, shoulder to shoulder, barely space to move in narrow corridors, low ceilings and no ventilation. While UEFA had said masks must be worn at all times when not seated inside the stadium, they also banned drinks from being taken to seats. Everyone was jumping, singing and drinking without masks (and I don't blame them one bit).
What did UEFA think was going to happen? People were going to drink and eat through their masks?
When we got to our seats there were already some people in them. We didn't realise at the time what was going on, told them to jog on, and took our seats. I should have realised then, but looking around the stadium, it was packed. There was no way there were only 60,000 fans and it later transpired that up to 5,000 ticketless fans had forced their way into the stadium.
What were the point of coronavirus restrictions? It was the biggest s*itshow I have ever seen at a game, and I expected nothing less from an incompetent government that has bungled its way through a disaster of a pandemic response, and an organisation like UEFA that constantly puts profit over everything else.
After the game, no one seemed to have planned for a penalty shootout. After queuing over an hour in the rain for the trains, we finally got on one, only to be told the Underground was closed half way through our journey. We completed a journey with a one hour cycle in the rain through the streets of London (which was actually quite fun).
The game itself was enjoyable and for 120 minutes I was in heaven. Within minutes of kick-off, an early England goal made me forget the previous two hours. For the first half an hour, England were playing like a team I didn't recognise, and being a part of historical final was really beginning to kick in.
The atmosphere was electric, surpassing any other game I'd been to. It was the first game where no one sat down - not even for a minute - during the entirety of the game, and we were singing and jumping the whole time (a three day sore throat was testament to that).
The lack of stewards was evident. In the FA Cup Final (with a larger crowd), stewards were picking up on every last thing, including standing for too long - in this game, there was a guy who was doing lines of cocaine during the game and no one picked up on it. I also heard stories where people arrived at their seats only to find ticketless fans who refused to move and so paying people lost their seats - thankfully, a stern look from my friend and I was enough to move our squatters.
After Italy's equaliser, the carnival-like atmosphere of the first hour was replaced by nerves, broken only by the introduction of Aston Villa captain, Jack Grealish. I've watched him play for years and know what he is capable of, unfortunately, coming on so late in the game, he didn't get an opportunity to stamp his authority on the final.
At the end, as it almost always does with England, it came down to penalties. Having seen 5 penalty shoot-put defeats in my lifetime, I wasn't very confident, but the roar in the stadium was deafening with every penalty England scored, and every penalty that Italy missed - when Maguire's penalty when in, I became convinced this was our year. But, as often is the case, three consecutive missed penalties meant another defeat - and perhaps the most disappointing of all given it was at Wembley and in a final.
A reflection of society
Racism exists, I know that because I spent a significant amount of my childhood getting into fights, being shouted at, sworn at, being told to go back home. I've had knives held to my throat, legs cut to pieces with barbed wire and my council house was egged and burgled on more than one occasion.
But racists prey on the weak. Since I grew up and filled out, it's a very brave (or very drunk) person that will try to racially abuse me in an overt way (the passive aggressive, cowardly type happens more often). In fact, I've used my experience to turn the tables on racists, joining together with the local community to run the so-called 'English Defence League' out of my local town on two occasions.
However, with the penalties missed, the racists sensed a moment of weakness and jumped on it. Let's be clear - this isn't the 1980s - most people in that stadium were not overtly racist. When the players took the knee at the start of the game, almost the entire stadium cheered and broke into applause - it was brilliant. At the end of the game, I didn't hear the racism straight away aimed at the players, although I definitely feared the worst. The guy near me, two teeth in his mouth, drunk and coked up, threw his England shirt in a fit anger and started swearing - but not one bit of racism.
I'm not saying there weren't racists in the stadium, I'm sure there were. We've seen the taking of the knee be booed before, and I have seen racism at games before. I'm sure there were pockets of racist abuse at the final whistle, but it was the minority. There were certainly a lot of idiots - fighting amongst each other, and trashing our own national stadium and the area around it.
The real racism was on social media, the type of 'fans' that stayed at home, angrily tapping away at their keyboards. Many of these 'fans' aren't even English or from England, most of the racist abuse I saw was from the Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In fact, the first successful prosecution of racism against footballers on social media was against someone from Singapore.
But that doesn't mean the 'English Disease' doesn't still exist amongst a vocal minority. There were still a sizeable amount of English based comments, from youngsters, to people that should know better, to people with a bit of standing in their community. A mural of Marcus Rashford was defaced in Manchester, but very quickly covered in positive messages from the usually less vocal majority.
And this strange dance between racists and anti-racists is a reflection of society, and not just a problem with football. England has come a long way from exporting industrialised racism in the 18th - 20th centuries, but there's still a long way to go. While it has taken more action than many other countries, there is still that underlying fear or hatred of the 'other'. When you spend a few hundred years taking over other people's countries, you expect everyone else has the same intentions as you. That's not really a problem created by black or brown people - nor should we be expected to solve it.
More recently, the UK government has, it seems, tried to fan these tensions to meet their goals. As they rob the working the class dry (of all colours and backgrounds), they stoke tensions between them, blaming women, immigrants, different religions to ensure the poor stay disunited. A fragmented working class means they will never be in a position to challenge the politicians and the rich who are the source of many issues afflicting white, black and brown people across the country (you can read more about that here).
But again, another rant for another day.
I'm glad people are beginning to really take notice of racism in football stadiums and social media, and I hope they manage to tackle it. I won't hold my breath, they've been trying for decades, and until we fix society, we can't fix these problems.
I feel sorry for the brave players who missed the penalty and were then subject to the most vile abuse you can imagine, Saka, Sancho and Rashford. These are youngsters who stepped forward for this country and deserve our support. I'm not saying we can't criticise their penalties, but to blame it on their race is insane.
As for me, this is my country as much as the next persons and I really enjoyed the 120 minutes of the game before we lost. Some people inherited their place in England through generations and don't appreciate what they have, and it shows. We paid for our place in this country due to the sacrifices of our elders, who spilled blood for this country after this country took their own (and for Panjabis, never gave it back). It means football is just as much mine as it is anyone else's and so is the English national football team.
British Sikh, born in the Midlands, based in London, travelling the world seeing new cultures.