Football and racism

Football tournaments form part of the collective memory of nations. For Brazil, the World Cup winning team of 1970 is still a symbol of the nation at its dazzling best. The Danish team that won the European football championships in 1992 was greeted by the largest celebrations in Copenhagen since the end of the Second World War. This week, it is Italy’s turn to celebrate triumph in the European championships – a victory that will taste all the sweeter after a year of pandemic and recession. For the losers, England, however, the news coverage makes much tougher reading. Rather than celebrating a first tournament victory in more than fifty years, the headlines are about racist abuse of England players who missed crucial penalties in the shootout that decided the final. The black players have been victimized. Sadly, in defeat, the evil demons that have stalked English football for decades – racism and hooliganism – have resurfaced. The ugliness of the social media reaction was so bad that both the prime minister and the heir to the throne felt compelled to speak out. Such bile must not be downplayed.

Yet, the very fact that it has captured attention in both conventional and social media is paradoxically a sign of progress in both English football and the wider football world. In the past decades, racist barracking was routine at English football grounds and was, shamefully, largely ignored by the football authorities and by television commentators.

Black players, including those who represented the national side, were expected to react uncomplainingly. Today, rightly, there is a public outcry – one championed by the England team and its manager, Gareth Southgate. A new generation of black players, led by the team’s star, Raheem Sterling, no longer hesitate to call out abuse. All the England players – black and white – knelt before games to protest against racism. The team’s decision to ‘take the knee’ was booed by some England fans. The racism surrounding the Euro 2020 final shows that the battle against racism in football will be long. Taking a knee before matches is a good initiative, but it’s not enough. The football governing bodies will have to moot more drastic measures to fight racism.