Euro 2024: For England's black players, football better come home

Euro 2024: For England's black players, football better come home
England's faltering progress in Euro 2024 has reminded black fans of the awful racial backlash that all too often accompanies defeat, writes Richard Sudan.
5 min read
02 Jul, 2024
Racial abuse of England's black players almost always follows defeat, writes Richard Sudan [photo credit: Getty Images]

Despite an uninspiring group stage and a last-gasp win against Slovakia in the round of 16, the England football team has reached the quarter-final of Euro 2024. 

Yet the spectre of racial scapegoating continues to loom large over England's black football players. The painful memory of the Euro 2020 final still lingers for England's black players after Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka faced a torrent of racial abuse for missing three penalties in the final against Italy.

The three black players were subjected to heinous online racial abuse within minutes of the defeat, from monkey emojis to banana references. Social media became a hotbed for racial abuse and, for days after England's defeat, our timelines time travelled back to the 19th century and the era of scientific racism when we were told black people were closer to monkeys than human beings. 

This pattern now threatens to repeat, casting concerns over Euro 2024. It also raises critical questions about the wider battle against racism in football. It's clear the dial hasn't moved.

Fast forward to Euro 2024 and the British media's role in perpetuating anti-black racism in football remains a big factor and it cannot be overlooked. Following England's defeat to Iceland in a warm-up game, media outlets disproportionately featured Bukayo Saka — who was only on the pitch for 20 minutes — on the back pages of newspapers, painting Arsenal's star boy as solely responsible for England's defeat with shocking headlines like "Black Ice".

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The online abuse directed towards England's black football players is a symptom of a larger, systemic problem in football. The sport, celebrated for its unifying potential, is all too often blighted by racial discrimination.

During Euro 2020, the England team's decision to take the knee before matches — surely a move of solidarity against racism — was instead received with boos.

Racism in British society harks back to the country's leading role in the slave trade and colonialism. Now its chequered history has impacted England's culture and the country's most treasured sport, football. 

It's also unfortunately affected the rest of Europe. English football hooliganism spread to Europe via infamous media coverage and European football tragedies in the 1970s and the 1980s. And fascinated by the rebellious English fans, local groups across Europe began copying their behaviour with the fall of communism in Eastern Europe further fuelling the problem of football violence.

For example, in Serbia, football hooliganism mixed with various nationalist sentiments during the breakup of former Yugoslavia, adapting to the different socio-political conditions to create a tribal, violent, and exclusionary culture. 

We're seeing this influence in Euro 2024. UEFA is currently investigating allegations of racist chants by Serbian fans during England's 1-0 win in their opening game. Additionally, a recent survey highlighted an increasing attitude among German football fans, with some expressing a desire for more "white players" in the national team

Racism has tarnished football for far too long. While other forms of societal racism aren't tolerated, anti-black racism continues to persist. Legislation and enforcement is one key way forward — like any other part of society.

Media outlets must be held responsible for their role in racial scapegoating. Ethical journalism is important. Newspapers that run racist and sensationalist headlines like "Black Ice" should be held accountable for their actions and be boycotted. We've seen that with the Hillsborough Disaster and The Sun in Liverpool, we need to expand this to include anti-black racism too. 

Football clubs and associations must rally around players who suffer abuse. Many clubs have taken these steps. But it has to become more of the norm, and more of the norm than the racism we see in stands and online.

England: One rule for football, another rule for racism

In this current tournament, however, it’s clear that we have a long way to go, and black players stand to pay the price for these failures.

Despite numerous statements of condemnation and solidarity from football associations, governments and high-profile individuals, including police investigations and arrests, the question remains: is enough being done to root out racism in football? Online platforms might have taken steps to remove abusive content and suspend offending accounts, but these measures are too little too late and happen after the damage is done. We need to be proactive.

As the 2024 Euro tournament progresses, the spotlight on England's black players will grow ever brighter. The fear is not just about losing a game but about the potential racial backlash that follows. This tournament should be an opportunity to champion unity in sport and should not be a bitter reminder of society's failings.

Regarding the media, football legend, Ian Wright, a former England international, spoke powerfully on the media's tactics, warning of the gaslighting that follows racial scapegoating. His demand for solidarity and support for the players echoes the sentiments of many who believe that football, at its best, can bring people together. At its worst, it can reflect the ills of society.

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Brutality against women and domestic abuse is another elephant in the room which needs to be addressed if the game is honestly going to tackle the problems at its root and for the game to be all-inclusive.

Experts have continually highlighted that domestic violence incidents often spike during major football matches when emotions run high and alcohol is consumed. The traditionally male-dominated, hyper-masculine football culture can sideline women and normalise aggression as well as violence against black and non-white people. This country needs to lead the way in challenging this reality.

At its best, we hear about how the game of football unifies. At its worst, it’s a sober, powerful reminder of just how far we have to go in bettering society.

The hope is that football will come home and that we can celebrate as one nation. But if history repeats itself, and England falls short, we have to be vigilant.

The players on the field, especially the black players, our black lions, should not bear the brunt of societal racism. Those young men must not experience a repeat of 2020. For fans, there's a collective responsibility to ensure that the beautiful game remains beautiful for everyone.

Richard Sudan is a journalist and writer specialising in anti-racism and has reported on various human rights issues from around the world. His writing has been published by The Guardian, Independent, The Voice and many others.

Follow him on Twitter: @richardsudan

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.