Updated: July 13, 2021 8:06:32 am
BEFORE COMING up short in the penalty shootout against Italy Sunday, Gareth Southgate and his men had won the hearts of their country during England’s run to the European Championship final. But what happened before, during and after the title clash — on the streets, in the stands, and online — bared the English game’s ugly underbelly.
There was a time in the 1980s and 1990s when there was just one word to describe the average England football fan — hooligan. Incidents of rowdy behaviour came down in subsequent decades, but London on Sunday proved once again that frenzy for the game can often bring out the worst in football followers.
It was England’s first major tournament final in 55 years, and tickets were limited. So, a large number of fans took matters into their hands and stormed Wembley. The security apparatus was grossly outnumbered and couldn’t prevent ticketless fans from entering the venue.
Then, Marcus Rashford, 23, Jadon Sancho, 21, and Bukayo Saka, 19, became the targets of racial abuse after they missed spot-kicks in a penalty shootout. The comments have prompted a police investigation and wide condemnation.
“This England team deserves to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter. England captain Harry Kane supported his young teammates by saying: “If you abuse anyone on social media you’re not an England fan and we don’t want you.”
Offline, too, the behaviour of fans was deplorable. BBC Sport correspondent Alister Magowan quoted a fan as saying: “Complete failure to police and steward a big event. There was no security perimeter, no ticket checks, no policing and barely any stewards about. I effectively got into the stadium without a ticket. I had one, but my ticket didn’t get activated on my phone because the stewards just gave up doing the Covid check. Queues were massive. As my ticket wasn’t activated, I just squeezed in through the turnstiles with my mate.”
According to BBC Sport chief football writer Phil McNulty: “Security was ineffective and it is rare at a major final for supporters to be able to get so close to the stadium without tickets. Inevitably, the situation boiled over into the frightening sight of barriers being stormed by scores of ticketless fans desperate to get inside Wembley, with children left terrified, others knocked to the ground, aisles full and the area reserved for disabled spectators swamped with supporters looking for anywhere to sit. Fans who had legitimately paid to watch England’s first major final for 55 years were left struggling to watch the game.”
If that wasn’t bad enough, the abuse meted out to the handful of Italian supporters didn’t paint a complimentary picture of the average England fan. After the defeat, the hooligans took their frustrations out on Italian fans, often attacking them physically.
Italy supporter Roberta Cuppari said she and her friend had to watch the match crushed in a corner while being sworn at and abused after ticketless fans took their seats and refused to move, according to BBC Sport. “It was the worst thing I have ever seen. There were people urinating, people doing drugs,” she was quoted as saying.
Police initially denied that ticketless people had entered the stadium, but the Football Association has promised a full review of the breach and to work with police to ban anyone who had forced their way in.
After the long wait for a major title didn’t end, the disappointed English legions were looking for scapegoats and they came ready-made in the form of the team’s Black players, Rashford, Sancho and Saka, who missed penalties during the shootout.
While their manager, teammates and the football establishment closed ranks around them, the reactions exposed fault lines at multiple levels.
“For some of them to be abused is unforgivable,” Southgate told a news conference. “Some of it has come from abroad, we have been told this, but some of it is from this country.”
When the England team collectively took a knee before matches to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, some sections of spectators booed. Some politicians also opined, including home secretary Priti Patel, that it was “gesture politics” and the players would be better off focusing on the game.
In fact, after Sunday’s game, when Johnson and Patel condemned the abuse of players, they were accused of hypocrisy.
Deputy leader of the opposition Labour Party, Angela Rayner, said Johnson and Patel had fanned the fires themselves. “The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary gave license to the racists who booed the England players and are now racially abusing England players,” she said on Twitter. “Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are like arsonists complaining about a fire they poured petrol on. Total hypocrites.”
What’s clear though is that as admirably multicultural as the England team is on the turf, there is still a long way to go for these values to become an integral part of the stands. As long as Rashford and Co are winning, they will be feted. But on nights like Sunday, when it goes wrong, they will be the convenient fall guys for people who still hold a colonial idea of what Britain should be like. —With Agencies inputs
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