Unless you’ve been living under a rock or reside outside Europe you will be aware that the Euros 2020 over the past month has acted as a much-needed balm to soothe the woes caused by the last 18 months. With Brexit, the divided opinions and conspiracy theories surrounding the pandemic - “to vax or not to vax, that is the question?” - the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent discussion around Black Lives Matter, we were a nation divided. But along came the beautiful game and united both football fans and those with zero interest in 22 men kicking around a sack of air for 90 minutes.
Those of us who have lived through England’s footballing disappointments over the years may have hummed the tune but did not believe the fated words, we had accepted football wasn’t going to come home but we’d have fun watching England while it lasted. Even Home Secretary Priti Patel, the woman who loves a deportation, was welcoming a trophy as foreign to British soil as the migrants she turns away. It was fever pitch. As the team got through the group stages and we looked ahead to their potential opponents it started to become apparent there might be a legitimate chance England could actually win this thing. Plus, there was the home advantage. The country appeared to be united in their support for the squad. Key word: appeared.
Cast your minds back to the beginning of the Euros when the appropriateness of players taking a knee before their matches was brought into question. A squad where at least 8 of the players are black or of mixed heritage, had to defend the squad’s decision to take a stand, or rather take a knee, against racism. They were portrayed as troublemakers, with some members of the public and media outlets stating that England (the country) isn’t racist and this was an American issue, an American gesture and the England squad should not partake. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel did not condemn those booing when players took the knee, with the latter going as far as to say fans had the right to boo as “that’s a choice for them, quite frankly” calling taking the knee “gesture politics”.
Enter Raheem Sterling. Scoring England’s first 3 goals of the tournament, seemingly overnight he became a national hero. This young Black British man of Jamaican heritage was the nation’s hero and was England’s hope to carry them through. Only mere days earlier many had been questioning if it was appropriate for him to acknowledge that his life mattered and suddenly the nation seemed in unanimous agreement - while he was scoring goals at least - his life mattered.
So it was all going great. Well, it was all going great until, it wasn’t.
England reached the final, against Italy. The two European countries hit hardest by the pandemic and they had made it to the final to face off at Wembley. The stakes were high, both these teams wanted to do their countries proud and give a little bit of joy to their people after the Twilight Zone we’ve been living in for the past year and a half. Everywhere you went people were singing the unofficial England anthem by Baddiel and Skinner “Football’s Coming Home” they said, sang and screamed. Even the sceptics were starting to believe maybe England can actually do this. There was hope.
So, there we were last night, gathered around screens across the country. The world even. Going into half-time 1 up only to be tied in the second half. Extra time brought no joy but then came the penalties and we all know what happened.
I couldn’t predict the outcome of the match but I was 100% spot on with the racial abuse that followed. That train is never late.
It seemed the racists tolerated the black players when they were entertaining them with goals, but the second the tide turned those same players they had previously been cheering went back to being second class citizens because of their skin colour. The same players who had been the cause of all the hype surrounding England and all the celebrations, literally in the kick of a ball went back to being *insert racial slur here* to those racists. The level of maturity would be considered laughable name calling if it didn’t carry the threat of violence.
England is a country that loves a game so much that when they lose, many of the so called ‘fans’ resort to spewing hatred that effects a vast number of people within that country’s society. A vast number of people who also wanted it to ‘come home’ but were reminded even if they were born in England there are still people who don’t believe it is their home. Hundreds of thousands of Black British football fans were also disappointed in England’s loss but they didn’t blame the players that missed their penalties because of their skin colour.
The whole situation has just been further proof of how racism continues to be a problem in the UK to those who have lived, experienced and continue to experience it and how racist football is as a sport. To allies it has shown how easy the switch gets flipped and it doesn’t matter how successful black people are or how hard they work or how much they contribute to the country there are always going to be people who won’t accept them. Period.
Footballing achievements aside, last year Marcus Rashford raised £2 million to feed children who may have otherwise gone hungry. Many of the children who benefited could be children or relatives of those sending him racist abuse. He has helped thousands of families and without a shadow of a doubt contributed to the country more than many of us do or ever will in our life time, and this is how England shows its gratitude.
Of course, after stoking the fires of racism the PM and Home Secretary were quick to release statements saying how disgusted they were by the racism Rashford, Saka and Sancho were now facing, which in my 100% skeptical and biased opinion seems overtly performative. You can’t give someone matches and firewood and then complain when they start a bonfire. Maybe they should have been disgusted by the booing fans when the players were taking a knee in support of anti-racism/their lives. Perhaps Priti Patel should have openly supported players taking the knee and condemned booing fans instead of saying she didn’t support “people participating in gesture politics”, then maybe, just maybe those same fans wouldn’t feel they have license to racially abuse and threaten these three black men who got them to the final they are so upset about losing.
Was there questionable management by the Gareth Southgate? Probably, but he didn’t make racists racist. He didn’t make racists troll these players sending them racist messages and death threats.
And just like that something that had the potential to be a beautiful unifying thing for a damaged country turned divisive and hate filled, and all the stereotypes of a racist England was brought to the surface like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I work with young people, I have friends who also work with young people and I know of young black men and women who were racially targeted following the game. Young people just going about their business - playing outside on their way to school, sitting on the bus - targeted for being black. They faced abuse and they faced threats of physical violence. All because of a football game.
So where do we go from here? I wonder how many of those booing at taking the knee or those posting racist messages to the three players in question posted black squares last year?
I don’t have a solution. The pessimist in me isn’t even sure there is one. When something is so deep-rooted within people and within a culture it seems an impossible task. A task that is made even harder when those in power don’t show their unwavering support for the cause and end up being part of the problem. Yes, there has been talk of the ‘Online Harms Bill’ which covers a huge range of online content from hate speech to revenge porn. Yes, it is a step in the right direction but it’s not a step far enough. Or quick enough, as it’s already been 2 years in the making. Great, it aims to tackle racism online but racism doesn’t only exist online.
For the time being there are practical things we can do though if we do happen to see racism online - report it. If you see racist comments report them. If those accounts posting race hate are real and public, screenshot, do a quick search on LinkedIn, find their employer and report it to them. It seems petty, but maybe if the stakes were higher for them they would be less inclined to be keyboard warriors.