When Marcus Rashford curled in a dead ball outside the Welsh box for England’s first goal, a roar of English faithful heaved a sigh of relief. Rashford then scored the third for his country as well and guaranteed the Three Lions a calm ascent into the Round of 16.
In their first win over Iran, five of the six goals came from the boots and heads of black players. A year and a half ago though, it was a very different time in British football.
Gareth Southgate’s wards made it to the Euro 2020 (played in 2021) final which was held at Wembley. In the final, England succumbed to an Italian team against whom they drew 1-1 in normal time and then lost on penalties.
Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho all missed their penalties.
What followed was a predictable deluge of racist online chants and threats towards these three players. It prompted the then British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Prince William and a deluge of other British personalities to come out and denounce the vitriolic comments that these players were subjected to days after missing their penalties.
A few days after the final, Saka made a statement on his social media on the disappointment of missing out on a major trophy and said, “I can promise you this… I will not let that moment or the negativity that I’ve received this week break me” is not a threat – it’s a promise.”
He then added, “To the social media platforms @instagram @twitter @facebook I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me Marcus and Jadon have received this week. I knew instantly the kind of hate that I was about to receive and that is a sad reality that your powerful platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages.”
Following the 3-0 win against Wales, England manager Gareth Southgate spoke about how he had a chat with Rashford during the summer.
“It’s been a challenge for him (Rashford),” Southgate said. “I went and saw him in the summer and had a long chat with him. He had some clear ideas on things he felt he needed to think about and to do. You can see at his club there’s been happiness in his performances this year. That’s shown itself on the training ground all the time with us.
“We’ve got a different version completely to the player we had in Euros last summer. He’s managed to produce those moments tonight. He could have had a hat-trick with the chance in the first half and the one at the near post towards the end. But it’s great for him and it’s great for us.”
In the build-up to the Euro 2020, studies revealed that Chelsea winger Raheem Sterling was subjected to 74% more online abuse than captain Harry Kane – and 54% of that abuse was racist. There is also the question of how to tackle racism when current mechanisms simply aren’t adequate enough. After the Euro 2020 final, the UK Football Policing Unit said that there were 600 reports from across the country and 207 of them were criminal in nature. Out of those 207, 35 accounts were based in the UK while 123 accounts were based out of Britain and therefore out of their jurisdiction.
After that turbulent time in the England camp, these three players returned back to their respective clubs. With both Manchester United and Arsenal doing well in the league, the spotlight of racist chants towards these players lessened in the cocoon of their clubs. Now at the World Cup, both Saka and Rashford have performed to the standards they’ve been playing at their clubs and have transformed this England team into genuine heavyweights at this World Cup. Come the quarterfinals, should England move past Senegal, they are likely to face defending champions France.
There are clear correlations between rising online abuse against players and hooliganism in football which used to be the norm in the 1970s and 1980s.
Sociologist Dr Jamie Cleland, who has researched the matter for years, told the Guardian: “Through the generations, football has historically turned boys into men. Whereas once they proved themselves by engaging in violence, now it’s about proving their worth online as a fan. That person might not have a high level of capital in their everyday life. But this gives them a sense of worthiness. They want someone to bite. They feel alive,” Cleland said.