The volcanic eruption of racism in English football

Spectators watching a football game
Spectators watching a football game in a crowded stadium (Photo credit: Vienna Reyes)

Before the final Euro 2020 cup final, the England team was regarded by many as the embodiment of unity. After 15 months of lockdowns and restrictions on some aspects of individual liberties, it was time for a national party and the England team was almost regarded as the ideal stimulus behind a feel-good factor across the country. Despite a fairly slow but steady start to the campaign, the England team seemed to grow in confidence, and, above all, beat their arch rival and nemesis, Germany, for the first time in 55 years in a highly competitive match. Following the victory over Denmark, England were in the final. Party time!

In the very last two minutes of a hard-fought contest, Rashford, Sancho and Saka each missed their penalties. The volcano of racist abuse suddenly erupted. But, perhaps, this volcano was never extinct nor dormant, but merely rumbling quietly in the background. Afterall, Bukayo Saka said, he knew instantly of the hate he would receive.

The history of racism in football is not new. Ever since Black people started playing football in the UK in the 1870s and 1880s, they have been on the receiving end of either ‘vulgar’ or racist verbal abuse. Arthur Wharton, regarded as Britain’s first Black professional footballer, was racially abused, constantly, in the late nineteenth century. Tottenham Hotspur’s Walter Tull, who played just before World War 1, also suffered similar abuse. Racism in football in the UK is very much systemic. Who can forget what happened on 14 May 1938 when England played Germany. Before the start of this game the English players, following instructions from their management and British officials, issued a Nazi salute to the crowd. Although the players were shocked and not supportive of this, as the late great Sir Stanley Matthews would later point out, they obeyed instructions. The main reason for the Nazi salute in 1938 was probably to appease Adolf Hitler and his regime.

In the 1970s and 1980s, as more Black players started playing football, the incidents of verbal abuse and banana skins being thrown at Black players were commonplace. In 1997 ‘Kick it Out’ was established to tackle racial discrimination in football. Since then, the level of racial abuse and chanting at football matches has declined considerably. However, this should not imply that the volcano of racism in the game is now extinct. Far from it. It seems more accurate to say the volcano of racism has been quietly rumbling in the background and it was only a matter of time before another major eruption took place. The penalty misses by the three Black players provided a perfect opportunity.  

The players on the England team began each game at Euro 2020 by taking the knee. Despite this action of taking the knee for most of last season, there was actually an increase in the incidence of racial abuse towards Black players. The significant difference between the 1970s and now, however, is that most of the abuse is being done away from the stadiums and through social media. The morning after the night of the cup final, only one headline was being talked about – the racial abuse of three Black England players.

Of course, this is not what had gripped the nation in the weeks leading up to the cup final. This team appeared to be more inclusive and representative than some of the previous squads. For example, only Mason Mount, Luke Shaw, John Stones and Jordan Pickford were English players who started the cup final on Sunday 11 July whose parents and grandparents were born in England. Bukayo Saka’s parents are Nigerian, Jadon Sancho’s mum and dad are from Trinidad and Tobago and Marcus Rashford’s Father is from Jamaica and his mother and grandmother from St Kitts Nevis. It is a pity that what started out as a uniting factor would be the very source of racial tensions. It only took a spark to ignite this fire.

As John Barnes, the Jamaican-born, former England player has said on a few occasions that football cannot solve the problem of British racism on its own. Racism in football reflects racism within the wider British society. The wider society, therefore, needs to work collectively with all the major stakeholders (schools, employers, public institutions etc) to continue addressing this issue and hopefully changing attitudes and minds. Only then can the rumbling volcano become extinct.

Tony Talburt Ph.D. is a senior lecturer in Black Studies at Birmingham City University in  Britain.  

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