The England shirt on your back and how we used it to reveal fans' diversity

The England shirt on your back and how we used it to reveal fans' diversity

We reimagined the England football shirt to reflect the diversity of the nation and celebrate the fact that every England fan has a different story and a rich heritage.

Ahead of the Euro 2020 tournament, creative agency The Wild set out to celebrate the rich diversity of England supporters from a multiplicity of backgrounds, to unite all who make this country what it is today. 

Putting multiculturalism at the heart of England’s national identity, The Wild collaborated with my agency, Word on the Curb – which specialises in ethnic minority insights – to highlight the need for greater inclusivity in football and to reimagine the national shirt that so many felt disconnected from. 

As part of the "We are England" campaign The Wild has produced custom England shirts that have been redesigned to feel more representative of their owners' diverse backgrounds (pictured above)

A "First XI" of influencers, including Jemel One Five, Joelah Noble, Robbie Lyle, Ms Paigey Cakey, Obayed Hussain and Denz & Renz, has joined the campaign. Each has received a one-off shirt painted by artist Mark Johnson, who used DNA testing to glean an understanding of who the wearers are, and to celebrate that heritage alongside their support for England – to give them a shirt that represents all of who they are, that they can feel proud to wear.

The campaign is also giving the public the chance to have a custom England shirt of their own, reflecting their individual heritage. A competition is being run on the campaign's Instagram page, whereby 11 winners will be offered DNA tests to explore their own heritage, which will then be incorporated into custom shirts by artist Mark Johnson. 

The recent racial abuse targeting members of the England squad demonstrates just how much further there is to go to make society more inclusive.

“If I score I’m French, if I don’t I’m Arab.” Karim Benzema, footballer for Real Madrid and France

“I’m a German when we win but an immigrant when we lose.” Mesut Özil, footballer for Fenerbahçe and Germany

I’ve often found that a celebration of multinationalism/culturalism strictly goes hand-in-hand with achievement, and England’s devastating penalty shootout loss to Italy has unfortunately demonstrated this. 

“You’re an English boy, until you mess up. Then you become the English-born Nigerian,” my mum always used to warn me. 

Up until the 2018 World Cup, this harsh truth was a big factor in why I refused to support England at major tournaments, and I wasn’t alone. Even in the run-up to this year’s European Championships, I found myself debating with friends, in the numerous football-dedicated  WhatsApp groups I find myself, about the divisive conversation of "Are you going to support England?"

“Look at the way the media treats Sterling, and you expect me to get behind that?” 

“This is the same country that boos making a stand against racism. No chance.” 

“I’d love to see the team get booed all the way to the final, Rashford to score the winner and take a knee in front of the racists.” 

As a 10-year-old going to watch QPR with my brother, I remember queuing up for a burger at half time and hearing a man in front of me describe centre back powerhouse Danny Shittu, as a “lazy, black, c***”, simply because he had conceded a penalty. 

His friend interrupted the tirade to point to me and my brother. Rather than take issue with the remark, he took issue with the fact that we were in the vicinity of the conversation, so at an early age, it made me question whether going to football games was something I wanted to do with frequency. 

Heading into the Euros, reminiscing about these experiences and those of my friends, is what, as co-founder of Word on the Curb, I wanted to explore in more detail. 

In collaboration with creative agency The Wild, we wanted to understand the nation's sentiment behind supporting the side, pride in the shirt and what needed to be done to make football feel comfortable for all to watch. We did this via a dual research study with YouGov and Curbsights, the ethnic minority specific sample community we have at Word on the Curb, and launched the "We are England" campaign.

As per my experience at age 10, issues often start with feeling unwelcome. Sixty-five per cent of the Curbsights community felt more needed to be done to make all people living in England feel welcomed to support the England football team. This compared with 54% responding with "yes" in the YouGov study. 

A similar difference in result came from an exploration of pride in the shirt, with 64% of the Curbsights panel strongly agreeing with the statement: “I would not feel a sense of pride while wearing the England football shirt.” This was in comparison with only 35% of the YouGov poll strongly agreeing with the statement. 

"They are still deporting our grandparents for them to die on the streets of islands they ain't been to in decades."

“Pride for what... they probably don’t want me here"

The imperial history of Britain is one that has made ethnic minority communities struggle to feel proud of the fact they live or were born here. 

That being said, the most interesting – and perhaps surprising – finding was in the fact that 60% of the Curbsights panel said they would be following and supporting the England national team during Euro 2020 in comparison with 47% of YouGov’s panel. 

“You don’t need to be white to support your country. I’m black but I was born here, so I’m supporting my country.  Also there are many black English players.” 

While in the end football didn’t come home, for the past five weeks this England team has ushered in a new age of the fan; supportive of the team’s fearlessness in taking a stand against racism despite a public backlash. Supportive of a team that isn’t made up of egos, but young men who are willing to embrace and act upon the role-model persona that comes with being a professional footballer. And supportive of how the team represents modern-day England, and Britain, better than previous sides in terms of diversity.  

Much has been said about the fact that seven of England’s starting 11 in the final had parents or grandparents born overseas, the idea that this England team doesn’t exist without immigration is a truthful one.

Multinationalism is the fabric of this country. We can’t call ourselves a multicultural society when we only celebrate multiculturalism when we’re winning. We need to emulate the spirit and unapologetic inclusivity of our national football team in all areas of society.

Ndubuisi Uchea is the co-founder of Word on the Curb

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