After England’s loss to Italy in the 2020 UEFA European Football Championship (commonly referred to as ‘the Euros’), racism towards the team’s black players ensued, raising significant questions about England’s prized national sport within the context of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Played in London’s Wembley Stadium, the final of the Euros proved especially poignant for English fans, who had been anticipating a win for the first time since 1966. However, the team lost to Italy during penalties; three shots were missed by black players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka. A number of fans consequently targeted these players through social media.
This targeting accompanied additional hostility shown towards black players who performed symbolic actions, like taking a knee, throughout the tournament. Considering that football and the English team are widely regarded as sacred national symbols for England, the negative and racially motivated attitudes shown towards the black players on the team by a few English fans throughout the UEFA European Football Championship demonstrate the clash and lack of cohesion between a nationalized symbol and its surrounding international context, in this case, Black Lives Matter.
RACISM IN THE 2020 EUROS
Cases of racially motivated comments, as well as outright racism, towards England’s black players throughout the 2020 Euros took many forms. For example, the booing of players who took a knee before and after matches and over 120 instances of racist social media abuse not long after England lost to Italy. The hostility and abuse were acknowledged by national authorities, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson condemning the racism and promising to ban the offenders from football matches. The London Metropolitan Police also launched an investigation into the online comments making five arrests.
English player Marcus Rashford released a statement on Twitter in response to the racist abuse hurled at him. An excerpt from his statement reads:
“I will never apologize for who I am and where I come from. I’ve felt no prouder moment than wearing those three lions on my chest…”.
Rashford’s response brings focus to the typified England player, who wears the symbol of the three lions on his chest. Yet, abuse against his race, based on his performance in the match suggests that he is regarded as undeserving of this label.
FOOTBALL AS ENGLAND’S NATIONAL SYMBOL
Racism towards England’s black players echoes a longstanding discourse about English football as a national symbol. Elements of this symbol can still be perceived as rooted in ‘whiteness’, ‘Englishness’, and nationalistic ideals.
These nationalistic ideals focus on ‘England‘ as an identity, and, therefore, the people who uphold this identity. These ideas also center on wanting England to dominate other nations. Black players on the team were targeted through social media for preventing a national victory and were deemed unrepresentative of England. Cleland’s (2014) study of online football message boards raises this issue of social media racism as a “presentation of whiteness and national belonging“. The abuse black players faced was quickly ascribed to their race, setting them apart as the ‘other’, from the team’s white players.
In the bigger picture, football serves as one of England’s symbols which, as Butz (2009) indicates, cultivates an attachment to the nation. Such a symbol serves as a representation of the nation’s membership, hence, some portions of English football fans have opinions as to what kind of membership their national team should have.
It is when these opinions become aligned with racist attitudes about what the English team should be that the symbol is used as a method to single out certain players over others based on their race. Attitudes of belongingness are further heightened by events like the Euros. The tournament can be categorized through Butz’s (2009) notion of a practice that infuses nationalistic sentiment, hence it becomes an event where there are especially prominent displays of “flag-waving”, which, in turn, causes “explicit psychological reactions”.
THE ERA OF BLACK LIVES MATTER
The global Black Lives Matter movement remains prevalent in players’ gestures of protest, such as taking a knee. This mirrors the actions of other black athletes, such as American football player Colin Kaepernick, who, during games, refused to stand for the American national anthem. In their evaluation of this protest, as well as other forms of activism by African-American athletes, Mower, et al. (2018) note that this is a symbolic gesture that brought Kaepernick to BLM, which brought more attention to the movement. Such gestures can be attributed to events like highly publicized police violence and race-based discrimination.
Just as Kaepernick’s actions have evoked negative reactions from spectators, who have deemed him unpatriotic and un-American, so have the actions of the English players during the Euros. The hostility of these actions has evoked a negative response to the inclusion of BLM within the football tournament, unearthing that there is a conflict between this internationally organized movement and a national phenomenon.
The keen preservation of this phenomenon suggests, as Mower et al (2018) have raised, a “possessive investment in whiteness”. This especially aligns with notions of national belongingness when considering the post-match racist social media posts and comments. Hence, black athletes who are already regarded as un-belonging are further singled out through their ‘acts of defiance’, which are assumed to threaten the phenomenon.
- Considering the potential for the Black Lives Matter movement to fuel racism further, would England’s black players have faced less internal hostility had there been no preceding BLM protests in the country?
- To what extent has the surrounding international context influenced national attitudes?
- As racism against England’s players was most prominent after the team’s loss, can notions of football as an English national symbol be separated from nationalized racism or do they go hand-in-hand where football is concerned?
Cleland, 2014. Racism, Football Fans, and Online Message Boards: How Social Media Has Added a New Dimension to Racist Discourse in English Football. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 38(5), pp. 415-431.
Mower, R. L., Bustad, J. J., Andrews, D. L., 2018. Confronting America: Black Commercial Aesthetics, Athlete Activism and the Nation Reconsidered. In: P. Dolan, J. Connolly, eds. Sport and National Identities.