A tale of two Englands: Racism is a much bigger problem than hooliganism in English football

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July 18, 2021 6:00 AM

In January last year, figures put out by the United Kingdom’s Minister of State (Home Office) Susan Williams showed that reported racist abuse incidents rose from 98 to 152 between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 football seasons.

Street artist Akse P19 repairs defaced mural of UK soccer star Marcus Rashford after England lost the Euro 2020 soccer championship final match to Italy. (Photo by AP)Street artist Akse P19 repairs defaced mural of UK soccer star Marcus Rashford after England lost the Euro 2020 soccer championship final match to Italy. (Photo by AP)

Looking through the prism of football, it’s a tale of two Englands – good and bad, love and hate. Love eventually outweighs hate, but the haters are making their presence felt big-time.

The England football team is a credit to their nation. The players in the team have challenged racism, fought against food poverty, called out homophobia and gave donations to the National Health Service (NHS). Unlike Memphis Depay (Holland forward) for example, who once turned up at a Manchester United training session in a Rolls-Royce and got ticked off by then club captain Wayne Rooney, the England lads aren’t bling-obsessed.

Three of those players missed penalties at the shootout in Euro 2020 final against Italy and England lost. Vile racist abuse followed on social media, targeting Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, aged 23, 21 and 19 respectively, who had the courage to front up in a high-pressure situation. In Withington, south of Manchester where Rashford was born, a mural of the footballer was defaced with racist graffiti. Rashford, Sancho and Saka put out statements condemning racist abuse but they also apologised for their missed penalties. Why? Have you ever seen a cricketer apologising for a dropped catch or a tennis player doing so for serving a double fault? All part of the game. What the skin tone of a player has to do for on-pitch errors? Or is it that it’s OK to be black until you make a mistake?

Racism at the moment is a bigger problem than hooliganism in English football. Ticketless fans who stormed Wembley before the Euros final, allegedly bribing stewards, had all but forced the cancellation of the title showdown. Police failed the Wembley test. Thugs who attacked Italian fans after the final gave English football a bad name. Still, what happened in London last Sunday was virtually nothing compared to the mayhem post the 1996 Euros semifinal, which England lost to Germany on penalties. Trafalgar Square looked like a war zone that day. A young England fan was stabbed, for the hooligans mistook him for a German. Over the past two-and-a-half decades, English authorities have managed to control hooliganism through different measures. Racism, though, is on the rise.

In January last year, figures put out by the United Kingdom’s Minister of State (Home Office) Susan Williams showed that reported racist abuse incidents rose from 98 to 152 between the 2017-18 and 2018-19 football seasons. The Guardian reported that more than 150 football-related racist incidents were reported to police during the 2018-19 season. Daily Mail reported last week that England players were targeted with 12,500 hate messages on social media during the Euro 2020.

The apparent inaction by social media giants has been aiding the racists. Social media companies are largely self-regulating and although they claim that they have an internal mechanism to fight racism and/or any type of discrimination, a lot of people are far from convinced. “If you’re banned from a football ground for racism, you’re out for life. But if you’re banned from Twitter, you’re back ten minutes later,” said racism expert Sunder Katwala, director of the British Future think-tank, as quoted by The Sun.

Footballers are rightly hitting out at the tech companies for failing to tackle abusive posts. Manchester United captain and England centre-half Harry Maguire spoke on behalf of every footballer when he urged a clampdown on social media organisations, calling for the law to be changed. “Something needs to be done. The companies need to verify every account,” Maguire told The Sun, adding: “It is too easy to troll and abuse. To be racist is just too easy to be done and get away with.”

Yes, the racists are in a minority but they are a powerful minority and their hate appears to be pretty deep-rooted. When Portsmouth academy players allegedly racially abuse England stars, it doesn’t portray English football in a good light. It feels like there’s a sharp division at the moment; two Englands coexisting and the bad part is damaging the reputation of a football-crazy country.

Of course, racism is not only English football’s problem. It’s a social problem, which is affecting the whole continent. On many an occasion English players have been subjected to racist abuse from the stands during their matches in different parts of Europe. Only about seven months ago, a Champions League match between Paris Saint-Germain and Istanbul Basaksehir had to be suspended after a match official allegedly used racist language toward the assistant coach of the Turkish side. Coming back to England, the question is about whether the authorities are failing the footballers…

The UK Government and the British Royalty, along with the Football Association (FA), were unequivocal in their condemnation of the racist trolls on social media following the Euros final. And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has now said that racists will be banned from football matches. Then again, when the England players were taking a knee before their matches at the Euros, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel sided with the booing fans and accused the England team of engaging in “gesture politics”. So after the final, when Patel expressed her “disgust” at the racist abuse of the three players, Aston Villa and England defender Tyrone Mings called her out.

Right-wing populism has gained ground globally and the tolerance level has decreased considerably. Football racism is a by-product of the fractured environment. Amid the chasm, Gareth Southgate’s boys represented unity in diversity at the Euros, through their multicultural roots and team bonding. It was a heartwarming tale of good England.

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