Football is not coming home, but racism inevitably extends its stay

Image credit: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash.

Over the course of this summer, the English national football team made its way to the country’s first ever appearance in a European Championship final. In the 6 games en route to the final, numerous players demonstrated their world-class talent, with the likes of Raheem Sterling scoring three goals, Luke Shaw providing three assists, and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford keeping 5 clean sheets, the most in the tournament.

Not only did England’s performances justify their place in the final, but the personality and values held by the squad was a further merit to their achievement. In an open letter to the country, manager Gareth Southgate wrote “This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves” as he further described England’s footballers as role models with a profound impact on society and a group that stands up for each other. Southgate had also previously described his England team as a diverse and young group “that represent modern England” at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

England began the Euro final brilliantly, scoring within 3 minutes courtesy of Luke Shaw. However, after an Italian equaliser and 30 minutes of extra-time, penalties would decide the outcome. Ultimately, England were defeated, as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka all missed their penalties.

Every England player had done an incredible job to reach the final, whether it be scoring goals, creating chances, making saves or even providing moral support to other teammates. But for some fans, this was not what they took away from the tournament. Almost as soon as Saka’s penalty was saved and Italy were crowned champions, all three players who had missed were subject to significant racial abuse online. The people who directed this horrific abuse did not see what these players had done for the country, nor did they even see that they were human beings. The only thing that they now considered was that Marcus, Jadon and Bukayo were Black.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Black players have been racially abused in football. In fact, it has almost become a normality that headlines often read that another game of football has been overshadowed by racism. Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling was racially abused in December 2018, forcing him to speak out against the issue. Sterling was again the victim of racism along with other England players in a match against Bulgaria in 2019. The list of examples could go on: as long as football has been played, racism towards non-white footballers has existed alongside it.

Although every instance of racism is totally unacceptable, this case after the Euro final was particularly poignant. After a month of brilliant football and lifting the nation’s spirits, fans who had cheered on these players were now hurling racist abuse at them. Were it not for Raheem Sterling, England may not have even made it out of their group as he scored the team’s 2 goals in the group stage. However, this is beside the point. No matter a player's contribution to the team, there is no excuse for racism. No one should have to be an outstanding citizen or be a top athlete in order to be exempt from racist abuse.

Despite this, some football fans continue their hateful campaign of racism against footballers. This latest case of horrific abuse has led organisations such as the Professional Footballers Association (PFA) to call on social media companies to do more in order to prevent racist abuse.

The British government has also responded to the racism towards England’s black players, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemning the abuse. Alongside this, the government promised that they will work on the Online Safety Bill to ensure that racism online is clamped down on harder.

However, the response from the government came with criticism. Defender Tyrone Mings, who was part of England’s Euro 2020 squad, called out Home Secretary Priti Patel as she expressed her disgust at the racist abuse towards Saka, Rashford and Sancho. In response to Patel, Mings wrote “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens.”. Mings referred to the fact that Priti Patel, along with many other Conservative MPs, had demonstrated her disapproval of footballers taking the knee, something which she even said England fans have the right to boo.

The words of Tyrone Mings highlighted the hypocrisy of Patel, who seems to miss the connection between her encouragement of booing an anti-racist message and the continued racial abuse against Black footballers. This comes just months after a government report suggested that there is no systemic racism in the United Kingdom. The Sewell Report, also known as the Race Report, described the UK as “a model for other white-majority countries” in regard to racial equality.

Various organisations that advocate for racial equality, such as think tank Runnymede, expressed their concerns about the report as it was published. Runnymede stated that those involved in writing the report “had no interest in genuinely discussing racism” further adding that “The very suggestion that government evidence confirms that institutional racism does not exist is frankly disturbing.” The report worryingly concluded that “we no longer see a Britain where the system is deliberately rigged against ethnic minorities”, a finding that holds a similar tone to those of the Scarman report, which was commissioned after the Brixton riots in 1981.

If the Home Secretary does not condemn fans who boo players when they take the knee, and if a government report suggests to the public that institutional racism does not exist in the UK, is there much surprise in the fact that black players were met with racism for missing a penalty?

Moreover, there is not much in the form of deterrents against racist abuse from football fans. After Bulgaria fans racially abused England players in 2019, Bulgarian football was handed a £65,000 fine and a one-match stadium ban by UEFA, Europe’s football governing body.  In December 2019 a Manchester City fan made monkey gestures and noises towards three black Manchester United players, and was subsequently fined £500 and banned from all UK football stadiums for three years. In comparison, Danish footballer Niklas Bendtner was fined £80,000 by UEFA in 2012 for revealing Paddy Power underwear during a match, and the English Football Association was fined just over £25,500 after a fan pointed a laser pen at Danish goalkeeper Kasper Schmeicel on 7th July this year. With these contrasting severity of fines, do football bodies such as UEFA suggest that the case of improper marketing is more of a serious issue than the racial abuse experienced by numerous footballers?

Despite the lack of thorough support from footballing bodies and government officials, the response from the general public demonstrates optimism. After England’s Euro final loss, a mural of Marcus Rashford in Manchester was left defaced. The offensive graffiti was covered up, yet the local community went a step further and littered the mural with messages of love and support for Marcus. This was later followed by an anti-racist demonstration with hundreds of people attending. Moreover, as Bukayo Saka returned to training earlier this month, he was presented with a wall of messages from fans who once again showed their support for the England forward.

The majority of football fans, and the British public as a whole, will have been outraged by the racism directed towards these three young men. However, as long as footballers are racially abused simply because of their performances on the pitch, then a serious problem still remains in the game. This is something which various groups such as Kick It Out have been campaigning against, and until the issue becomes resolved, the campaigning and disgust will continue.

It has also got to be considered as to why so many people are comfortable with racially abusing footballers both online and at games. Do they look at the rhetoric from politicians as well as the weak punishments administered for racism and think that what they do is somewhat acceptable, something that comes with little repercussion? Perhaps the most direct solution in addressing racism in football is to hold governing bodies accountable to ensure that appropriate punishment is put in place, and more should be done to confront politicians such as Priti Patel when they publicly encourage fans to boo players who take the knee.

Recent developments surrounding racism in football show that not only do fans need to be held to higher accountability, but that organisations, government officials and notable figures must be treated with the same level of scrutiny.