As this year’s football season reaches a close, the nation once again finds itself gripped by football fever. Yet while it remains to be seen who will lift the Premier League Trophy, Leicester City FC have now confidently played their way to the top of the Championship. Fans across the City were jubilant as Vardy fired home a fifth goal against Southampton, securing a much-awaited return to the top flight. But the frenzied celebrations that followed also encapsulated much about the powerful role that football can play in bringing us together.

Leicester is one of the most diverse cities in the UK by ethnicity and faith: where one in four are Christian, another quarter Muslim, one in five Hindu, and others hold no religion. Though relationships across communities are largely peaceful, the city has also struggled with growing fractures and – at flashpoints – unrest in recent years. However, those troubles felt a long way off as fans and local residents cheered their players across a parade through the city centre. This was a moment of shared pride, in the team and the club, that had helped put the city on the world map.

As the country’s favourite sport, football can play an important role in connecting us and forging common ground. This has been the theme of a new ‘Shared Goals’ research report out today, authored by British Future and funded by Spirit of 2012.

It finds that football lives up to its nickname as the ‘universal language’ with a uniquely broad appeal across the public. A majority of us in England and Wales (57%) support a football club, while nearly four in ten (37%) support our local team. Crucially, football’s audience also spans most of our diverse society. This includes broad interest across all ethnic groups (with 55% of Asian respondents and 70% of Black respondents supporting a team), social classes, ages and between men and women. Clubs’ fanbases also span people with different political views and with differing attitudes on issues of immigration and race.

This matters, particularly in an increasingly fragmented and individualistic society, with fewer community institutions to bring people together. It provides clubs with a distinct potential to create connections across our divides and differences, in a way that few other institutions can match. Indeed, the report finds that a large majority of us (71%) agree that football clubs ‘bring people from different backgrounds together in the cities or towns where they are based, around a shared pride in their team’.

Clubs also build shared ‘more in common’ local identities that can break down ‘them and us’ barriers in polarised or segregated communities. A majority (80%) of those who attend live games see their local professional football club as an important part of their local identity, and nearly four in ten people (37%) who don’t regularly attend games agree.

The Shared Goals research highlights that football as a sport must meet certain conditions to realise its potential to connect diverse communities. Importantly, instances of prejudice – often spread online by a toxic fringe toward players and fans – show that ongoing efforts are needed to ensure an inclusive atmosphere and welcoming culture in the terraces. The sport has come a long way in pushing hatred to the margins over the past thirty years but polling reveals a public appetite for further progress. In particular, more people from ethnic minority backgrounds feel racism and discrimination gets too little attention (40%) than feel it gets the right amount (27%) or too much (8%). Three in ten ethnic minority ‘armchair fans’ (30%) also say they would be interested in going to watch more live matches at their local club, but that they worry that the atmosphere is not welcoming to people from different ethnic, faith or social backgrounds.

Yet where clubs do visibly and proactively look to welcome people from all walks of life, and emphasise their stadiums as places where everyone can belong, this can help to change hearts and minds: both those of their fans and the wider population in the towns and cities where they are based. Shared Goals sought to test this with two clubs: Brentford FC in West London and Huddersfield Town AFC in West Yorkshire. British Future partnered with the two clubs and consulted fans and local people from different backgrounds, to produce campaigns that encouraged social connection and a shared, inclusive pride in the clubs.

These campaigns were evaluated and shown to harness the power of a club’s identity to create a sense of local pride that everyone could feel a part of. The videos were tested in a split-sample survey with fans, where half of survey respondents were shown the video, and the other half not. In both cases, those shown the video were more likely to agree that people of different ethnic and faith backgrounds in their area share an inclusive sense of local identity, compared to the control group. In Huddersfield, the more segregated of the two areas, the video also helped improve attitudes towards immigration and led to a modest positive shift in attitudes to diversity.

This research has shown what’s possible from clubs, to harness their powerful local profile to connect communities. However, there is now a role for other clubs and league bodies to learn from and build on this. The report points to upcoming opportunities on the horizon that can harness football’s audience. In particular, the 2028 Euros, hosted by the UK and Ireland, fall neatly in the same year not only of Windrush 80, but also the 50th anniversary since Viv Anderson became the first black player to represent England. Shared Goals calls for a major campaign to mark this occasion, to celebrate the contribution of England’s Black players to the sport, involving efforts from clubs to recognise the stories of their own players and fans over the years. Those interested should contact the Windrush 100 Network to learn more about upcoming plans.

Our society can often feel more divided  than any of us would want. Yet this increases the value of those wonderful parts of our culture that connect and enthral us across our differences in background and political opinion. Above all, football teaches us the importance, through successes and defeats, of sticking together as a team.  Shared Goals looks at the lessons that this sense of togetherness can bring for sport and society, and the steps that clubs, leagues and policymakers can apply to forge more common ground through ‘the beautiful game’.

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