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England’s Euro final defeat brings back into focus football’s troubled tryst with racism

Soon after Bukayo Saka was denied from the spot by Gianluigi Donnarumma plunging to his left, much of the euphoria translated into familiar dismay and later gave way to racist abuse.  

Written by Deeptesh Sen | Kolkata |
Updated: July 13, 2021 1:07:55 am
EuroEnglish fans walk through the litter-strewn streets near Trafalgar Square in London after the Euro 2020 final (AP)

Hours after England fell at the final hurdle, losing on penalties to Italy in the final of Euro Cup 2020, there were reports of racist abuse being directed at the Black players.

The build-up to the match against Italy was beset with ecstasy over England having made it to a final for the first time in 55 years. There was much anticipation in the air as England fans packed pubs and drove to Wembley singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘Football’s Coming Home’. Many hoped that the long wait for a trophy since the World Cup win in 1966 would be over. Southgate’s men were on the brink of history and set to break the jinx — a feat which even the golden generation comprising the Beckhams and Lampards could not achieve.

But the script did not go according to plan and England’s penalty hoodoo came back to haunt them.

And soon after Bukayo Saka was denied from the spot by Gianluigi Donnarumma plunging to his left, much of that euphoria translated into familiar dismay and later gave way to racist abuse.  The backlash on social media was venomous and vitriolic, with England’s three black players who missed penalties— Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Saka — being targeted.

Euro Gianluigi Donnarumma saves the penalty taken by Jadon Sancho (AP)

Much of the initial criticisms that poured in on social media targeted Southgate for not being adventurous enough with his tactics, adopting a more conservative approach and underutilising the attacking prowess of Jack Grealish and Phil Foden. But that soon gave way to racist abuse, with spiteful and rancorous invectives being hurled at the Black players. A mural of Rashford in Manchester — the graffiti had been commissioned in recognition of the attacker’s work to tackle child poverty — was defaced shortly after the defeat.

Ed Wellard, the co-founder of Withington Walls, a community street art project which had collaborated on the mural, was unequivocal in his criticism. “I’ve come out to fix what I could immediately and cover up what I couldn’t and hopefully we will get the artist out to come and fix it…We dared to dream yesterday and our hopes were dashed but to wake up to this is more depressing. Racism seems to be more and more prevalent,” he told the BBC.

Ed Wellard, from Withington, tapes bin liners across offensive wording on the mural of Rashford (AP)

The condemnation of the widespread racism on social media in the aftermath of the defeat has come in from all quarters, with football bodies, the government and even the Duke of Cambridge denouncing the comments.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the racist jibes directed at the players was nothing short of “appalling”. “This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves,” he tweeted.

Queen Elizabeth’s grandson Prince William, who is also the president of the Football Association, said he was “sickened” by the racism. “It is totally unacceptable that players have to endure this abhorrent behaviour…It must stop now and all those involved should be held accountable,” he tweeted.

Criticising the abuse, Labour MP David Lammy tweeted, “This is why we take the knee. Praying for a better future – worthy of the values, beauty and respect exemplified by every single England player.”

The Metropolitan Police in London has said that it would investigate the bigotry and hatred being spread on social media.

In a statement, England’s Football Association (FA) said, “The FA strongly condemns all forms of discrimination and is appalled by the online racism that has been aimed at some of our England players on social media. We could not be clearer that anyone behind such disgusting behaviour is not welcome in following the team. We will do all we can to support the players affected while urging the toughest punishments possible for anyone responsible.”

Euro English fans kick and stand on a litter bin in Piccadilly Circus, London, after the defeat (AP)

The England team also released a statement condemning the abuse. “We’re disgusted that some of our squad – who have given everything for the shirt this summer — have been subjected to discriminatory abuse online after tonight’s game,” the team tweeted.

There have also been heart-warming gestures of solidarity. Left-back Luke Shaw has said that Saka, Rashford and Sancho have the total support of the England team. “He is devastated. But I think the most important thing for us now as a team is to be there for him and give him a big hug and tell him to keep his head up. It happens. It is a penalty shootout – anything can happen, as a lot of people know,” Shaw was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

Southgate has said that the racist abuse directed at the players is “unforgivable”. “It’s just not what we stand for. We have been a beacon of light in bringing people together in people being able to relate to the national team, and the national team stands for everybody and so that togetherness has to continue,” Southgate said, The Guardian reported.

Euro Gareth Southgate embraces Bukayo Saka (AP)

Arsenal also released a statement underlining that the club takes immense pride in “how Saka had represented his club and his country during the tournament”.

Earlier, the hours leading to the kickoff were marked by sporadic incidents of violence. Fans set off flares and threw missiles in King’s Cross and Leicester Square. There were reports of projectiles, including rucksacks, flares, cans and traffic cones, being hurled through the air and aggressive chanting at rival supporters. Drunken supporters thronged places and British Transport Police said flares were set off inside London stations.

At Wembley, fans fought with stewards and many without tickets broke into the stadium. Security barriers were breached, flares lit and mayhem reigned supreme. The FA said it was “entirely unacceptable” and those involved in these actions were “an embarrassment to the England team”.

But as hearts broke at Wembley and the sound of the fans died out, what followed soon after was far more shameful.

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