Racist football
Racist abuse directed at England players after Euro 2020 final defeat has been widely condemned Image Credit: Seyyed Llata/Gulf News

The irony. Just before their final against Italy, the England football team took a knee on the field, a symbolic gesture that many other teams had also earlier replicated during the tournament to take a stand against racism.

But barely hours after England lost, three of its young players were the target of the most vicious racist attacks, both on social media — there are reports that almost 2000 abusive tweets were posted after the game, and offline.

The mural of Marcus Rashford, one of the players to have missed a penalty in the final was defaced and an MP had to apologise after her message saying the player should have focused on perfecting his game rather than playing politics — she was referring to Rashford’s high-profile campaign for free meals for poor students in schools last year, was leaked.

“My penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in, but I will never apologise for who I am and where I come from,” the 23-year-old Rashford was forced to tweet, adding that the missed penalty was playing over and over, in his head.

Defending your identity

Here is a young man who has tirelessly worked for the upliftment of children from low-income families, fighting his own demons and yet having to come out and tragically defend his identity.

Along with Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka also missed penalties and their fate has been equally abusive. Just a couple of days before the final, Gareth Southgate’s squad was being hailed as a ‘celebration of diversity’ with parents or grandparents of seven of the eleven players who started against Denmark in the semis, born overseas.

The nimble footed Raheem Sterling too moved from Jamaica when he was a child and became an MBE for campaigning against racial injustice.

But this pride in a new British identity didn’t last long because when push came to shove, it dissipated into violence and abuse.

The signs were already there- some would say the signs have always been festering and not necessarily beneath the surface- when fans at Wembley Stadium booed the national anthem of the Danish team in the semi-final and shone a laser on goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel’s face just before Harry Kane took a penalty.

Former England player Gary Neville had then defended the crowd booing saying it was simply fans trying to unsettle the opponents and whether it was “really bad and disrespectful?”

Enabling racist behaviour

In the final, there was more of the same when the national anthem of Italy was played out. Incidentally Neville immediately spoke out against the racism attacks, admitting that issues exist but his dismissal of the crowd behaviour earlier is also an enabler of where the British society finds itself today.

Critics say those at the top have to shoulder a lot of the blame for this outpouring of racism. They are referring to Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel — both of whom have been accused of not supporting the team’s gesture of taking a knee before matches.

Patel who was herself born to a Ugandan-Indian family had earlier dismissed the action as nothing but ‘gesture politics’ saying England fans had a choice to jeer players doing it.

“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our antiracism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” lambasted footballer Tyrone Mings.

Normalising vandalism, hooliganism 

The racist abuse came after the world had already witnessed images of ticketless British fans attempting to break their way into Wembley, most of those who booed the national anthem, though likely had tickets. Then came visuals of men drunk on much more than alcohol, vandalising whatever came in their way and reportedly even jumping off street lamps.

What is it about England football fans that has normalised such hooliganism, there are some comments on social media dismissing the violence as just a part and parcel of the game. No, it isn’t and should never have been allowed to reach this point.

Many British women have spoken out on Twitter about how English football is but a patriarchal drunk fest where any big game allows the men to lose control of which, their own women are sometimes the target.

I shudder to think what it would have been like if the team had actually won. On the other hand, it is dystopian to think that in the same country a Wimbledon tournament was also taking place.

So, it didn’t come home but what it did bring home to the world was that there is something rotten in the state of England and that the country needs to dig in deeper especially its politicians with their casual enabling of racism.

In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing and the sensitivities, their behaviour at the start of Euro seems an arrogant dismissal of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. No tweet in support of the players can change what they allowed to happen.

Tokenism, not inclusion

Football is a beautiful game and its strength also lies in the diversity on the field at any given time. Unfortunately the behaviour of some British fans has discarded that inclusion and replaced it with mere tokenism.

The support for the players though has been heartening but unless the country clamps down hard on racism and hooliganism, everything will seem a mere pretence — just an advertisement before the game.

England’s wonderful quest for its first major title since the 1966 World Cup has unfortunately been overshadowed by events outside the field. Will this impact the UK-Ireland bid to host the 2030 World Cup?

Perhaps it is time to think if the country really deserves to hold international football matches till it sets its house in order, the action of some have unfortunately tarnished the innocent many. But perhaps that’s the only language racism and violence will understand.