As Gareth Southgate gave instructions to Manchester United forwards Jordan Sancho and Marcus Rashford on the touchlines in the 120th minute of the Euro 2020 final against Italy last Sunday, the first thought I had was how the coach’s substitutions signaled his tactical readings of a game headed for a penalty shootout. In a match in which England had been, for the most part, content to sit back and absorb the endlessly mounting pressures of the Azzurris, subbing in more offensive players, after the likes of Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka, seemed like a logical thing to do, especially with the score tied at 1-1.
But I did actually fear for Sancho and Rashford as I saw them coming on, given my hunch and prediction on Twitter that any talk of home was in the direction of Rome. As the lads made their way to the pitch mainly for the penalty kicks as it were, I could not shake off the feeling that some very vile people on the Internet, and indeed, a section of the English media, might soon be descending on them.
And with Arsenal’s Saka and the two United players all missing their penalties, my fears were confirmed as Italy replaced Portugal as European champions, winning the title with a 3-2 shootout victory. What followed England’s defeat was a predictable torrent of disgusting and racist behavior, particularly on social media, and by fans who subjected the three Black players to a recognizable history of their country’s racial scapegoating.
This racist abuse that trailed Sunday’s final actually harkens back to years of discriminatory attitudes towards Black footballers in the UK. The fact that Black footballers become singled out for unmerited blame and consequent negative treatment despite their team’s collective performance points to larger and perennial issues of race and culture that have remained, sadly, sedimented in the UK. Race remains messy and often explained away as a performance of victimhood or even discounted by politicians—as in the case of the initial indifference of Boris Johnson when fans booed players for taking a knee earlier in the tournament.
Although Johnson thought this particular England team deserves “to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused,” his condemnation of racism is seen as hypocritical and orchestrating the toxic atmosphere that informs prejudice online. To be selective or merely performative in our denunciation of racism, or silent when players are unjustly called out for enacting symbolic rituals of resistance—like taking a knee is to undermine anti-racist work and condemn English football to its current shambles of identity politics.
Of course, people don’t become racist simply by opposing a strategy adopted by self-proclaimed anti-racists. Wilfred Zaha of Crystal Palace, for instance, has previously refused to take a knee, claiming kneeling has just become a part of the pre-match routine that doesn’t change the persistence of racism. Similar to some military veterans of all colors who have refused to take a knee in the US, Zaha cannot be truly considered racist. But for politicians like Boris, I think anti-racist expectations are ought to be a necessary given.
Sunday’s fallout from the Euro painfully gestured back to Cyrille Regis’s debut about four decades ago, to the 2008 flood of antisemitic emails received by manager, Avram Grant shortly after his appointment by Chelsea, and even to the structural conditions that produce the paltry number of Black football coaches in England. With only about 7 black or non-white head coaches in the top 92 clubs in the English professional leagues, there is definitely a systemic dimension to the factors that limit opportunities for Black sportsmen and generate offensive behavior. Football, as it were, remains a discursive portal into the soul of the English society. Despite its proverbial status as the beautiful game, it embeds a lingering ugliness that is at once traumatic and indicative of what still needs to be done for a more just society and footballing future.
With social media, ambivalently reputed for its depoliticizing logic and amplification of voices, the intensities of online racism against Black footballers become even more endemic. A certain personalization of fandom on social media means players sometimes are easily accessed by fans of different backgrounds and ideologies, including those with ingrained bigotry and chauvinistic sensibilities. An avid social media user himself, Marcus Rashford is undoubtedly familiar with how the platform easily lends itself to harassment. After a 0-0 draw at Arsenal in January, Rashford received racist messages online but refused to take screenshots as it would be “irresponsible” to do so. But the 23-year-old did describe the whole episode as “humanity and social media at its worst.” How apt!
Not even a social media boycott to fight racism by English soccer players some weeks ago has changed anything. Hence, the calls continue to mount, and rightly so, for government to compel social media companies to have more regulatory frameworks for hate speech. But in the light of other deep-rooted problems of racism in society, looking only to social media is mere rhetoric for inaction. But more important is that reliance on tech companies to firm up hate speech protections seems counter-productive, even if it sounds natural. It appears we are surrendering agency to tech companies and asking them to solve cultural problems that society itself has found intractable. This is problematic, reinforces platform power and undermines our complaint that social media companies are too powerful since we still expect them to mobilize that power in addressing hate speech. Rather this ironic surrender, we could do more, including the kinds of actual arrests made by the UK Football Policing Unit.
I have written previously about the implicit prejudice that often surfaces in Western media discussions of Black and African players and the ways in which the language of football commentary confirms the latent bigotry that haunts football. This latest post-match racism follows a similar model; only that in this case, the media is populated by everyday people whose offensive clapback on social media often draws heavily from the unprofessional punditry of media commentators and indeed from indifferent politicians.
Rashford is again, back on social media, after the latest iteration of this inhumane treatment, as well as the vandalization of a mural honoring him in Withington, Manchester. That the mural itself has become some kind of symbolic space that performs positive fandom and racial solidarity might suggest there is reason for optimism, but more needs to happen in response to structural racism. And although Rashford expressed regret for his missed penalty, he was clear about not being apologetic about his blackness and identity. In a very moving conclusion to his statement on Twitter, he says: “I am Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old, black man from Withington and Wytheshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else, I have that.” This powerful message on Twitter has received the necessary support from FA officials, other soccer players and groups, as well as numerous fans from around the world and, yes, from England.
Again, there are millions of English people for whom racism is not a problem and one must abjure the passions of blind essentialism. That said, I really do wonder if we hold white players to the same standards of penance we sometimes expect of players of color. True, most footballers apologize when they sense they have left their fans down, but the circumstances that surround the apologies of Black players sometimes conjure up other politics and provincialist sentiments. You may find here Jordan Sancho’s apology on Twitter to get a sense of the unnecessary pathos of this selective politics.
Clearly, Rashford’s message, along with Jordan’s and Bukayo Saka’s, points to the very conditions that set up our understanding of white privilege and the burden of an apology that stands on the shoulder of Black footballers whenever they perform below expectations on the pitch. There are nonpologies, but there are also unnecessary apologies that tend towards trauma, apologies whose unconscious signal our unwilling capitulation to a dominant cultural system.
It is nothing but mindless utilitarianism to construct Black players as humans only when they are deemed useful and usable in the public space. It should be troubling that the margin for error afforded to their peers is far greater than what Black footballers enjoy. This should not be normalized in an age in which the depathologization of racial identities means something to all progressive societies