by ZACH ROBERTS
The excitement going into the weekend of the Euro 2020 final was palpable. This was England’s first major final in a men’s competition in 55 years, alongside the fact that our current team was one of the youngest and most exciting of the tournament. All that anticipation, however, was overshadowed with a nagging feeling of dread once 19-year-old Bakayo Saka stepped up to take England’s final penalty.
Not because our hopes of winning rested on the teenager, but the fact that he is a black footballer, and people knew the potential consequences if he missed.
Sadly, people’s suspicions came true, and we all know what followed, a barrage of racist abuse and threats all aimed at the three England players who missed their penalties: Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and the aforementioned Saka. All black footballers.
Meanwhile London and other regions reported various outbursts of racially motivated acts of violence and abuse, just showing how conditional the acceptance of minority groups still is in English society.
However, this is by no means an isolated issue within England, with former Germany and Arsenal midfielder Mesut Özil dramatically quitting the national team after the 2018 World Cup claiming he had been scapegoated for Germany's poor performance, saying: “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose,” while France and Real Madrid striker, Karim Benzema, made similar comments in 2011 that he is brandished an ‘Arab’ when he doesn’t score for France.
The debate in England goes on about how to fix the problem of bigotry in both football culture and wider society, with fingers pointed at both social media companies as well as political figures.
The issue with social media is that it provides a protective platform for bigotry, allowing it to become wide-spread. The views of racists and bigots are validated as they are met with similar comments from like-minded individuals, while the ability to remain anonymous online provides a barrier of protection that many take advantage of. Even then, the punishments and regulations on offensive messages let too many posts slip through the gaps all too often.
Obviously, change must occur through social media companies, but the issue of racism is more than just the platforms through which abuse is spread. Racism is a cultural issue and requires change within our society, and that must come through those in charge. Politicians must be held accountable and must actively participate in the fight against racism. How can anyone be expected to promote values of acceptance and equality when we have a Prime Minister who has spent his whole career getting away with doing the exact opposite? Boris Johnson has a mass backlog of offensive comments made towards various minority groups across both his journalistic and political careers, which does not give much hope that a solution can be found within his own government.
Additionally, Conservative MPs, including the Home Secretary Priti Patel, have made various negative comments around the anti-racism efforts of the England team throughout their championship campaign. The squad’s choice to ‘take the knee’ was booed by England fans in multiple pre-tournament friendlies, prompting Patel to defend the fans’ right to boo, saying that she agreed that taking the knee was a form of unnecessary ‘gesture politics.’
Her tweet on Saturday night calling out the racist abuse towards the England team was thus called out for its hypocrisy, with many claiming that her earlier words had validated the opinions and actions of racists before the Euros. Defender, Tyrone Mings, furiously responded saying that she had "stoked the fire" by failing to criticise the booing fans while others have pointed towards her immigration policies and proposed crime bill which many feel will limit one's right to protest on pressing issues, including that of racism and the now world-renowned Black Lives Matter movement.
Other Conservative MPs had their say, with Natalie Elphicke saying that Rashford should “stick to penalties not politics” in reference to his charity work and campaigning for free school meals, while Andrew Rosindell told Mings to “focus on football not politics” in response to his tweet exchange with Patel.
The idea that footballers should stick to football and politicians to politics is a ridiculous suggestion. Politicians represent the views of the people, and by shunning the views of individuals just because they have another high-profile occupation is absurd, especially when so much of what our current England squad are saying is so profound and accurate. England and Chelsea right back, Reece James commented that: “We learn more about the society when we lose, far more than we learn when we win”, and this couldn’t be more true. We may say that England is a tolerant and accepting society, but times like this demonstrate just how fickle this acceptance can be from too many people.
Images of hundreds flooding to a mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester to not only cover racist graffiti that had been painted on it, but to overwhelm the area with messages and gestures of support and solidarity with minorities, did at least suggest that hope is not lost. But there is a long way to go in combating bigotry within football culture, let alone in wider society.
Racism is by no means an exclusively political issue, it is an everyday one, and one where every effort should be made to fight it. Politicians can learn a thing or two from this England squad, by how they have united the nation through their sport, but more importantly, by uniting them with their words and their actions.
Image: Unsplash (Ellen Kerbey)