Fans boo footballers for anti-racist stance

(Un)friendly game: England won the Euro 2020 warm-up match 1-0. © Getty

Should footballers of all nations take the knee? Yesterday, the world of sport rushed to defend the England team. For some, the jeers are proof that all players must act now to fight racism.

The atmosphere at Middlesbrough’s Riverside Stadium was jubilant.

For the first time in 563 days, English football fans were back in the stands again, ready to watch their national side in action. As they waited for Wednesday’s friendly game against Austria to begin, the crowd chanted and sang in eager anticipation.

But suddenly, the mood changed. Just before kick-off, players from both teams took the knee to show support for anti-racism campaigners. Immediately, the sound of boos and jeers filled the stadium.

The booing was eventually drowned out by another sound – applause. But for the England players, it was not the return they had been hoping for.

Manager Gareth Southgate was quick to defend his team. Taking the knee is not a political act, he insisted, but a stance against racism. “I think some people aren’t quite understanding the message,” he said.

Yet for journalist Tom Goodenough, footballers’ decision to take the knee is nothing more than a “sanctimonious display of moralising”.

“Football fans pay to be entertained, not preached at. They don’t really care who you are or where you’re from, they care whether you can kick a ball and score a goal.”

“Racism is not the problem in football that it once was,” he added.

Many people bitterly disagree. Last week, Manchester United star Marcus Rashford reported more than 70 abusive messages to the police after the side’s defeat in the Europa League. One of the messages had even come from a teacher.

“I’ve been playing this game from the day I could walk,” Rashford declared. “I’m built for criticism of my performance but I can’t accept the ape, monkey, baboon, banana, jungle talk.”

Rashford is not alone. Last year, a survey of Premier League players found that 43% had experienced racist abuse on Twitter.

Black footballers are even treated differently in the media. Analysis of more than 1,000 comments of praise by BBC and ITV commentators during the 2018 FIFA World Cup found that Black players were praised most often for their perceived physical prowess, whilst White players were praised for their intelligence and character. Study co-author Dr Paul Campbell, a sociology lecturer, believes the difference has clear links to social Darwinism.

The problem is not confined to English football. In January 2020, Italian side Lazio was fined nearly £17,000 after their fans racially abused striker Mario Balotelli.

And in 2018, German midfielder Mesut Özil said he no longer wanted to play for his national team following “racism and disrespect” from fans. “I am German when we win, an immigrant when we lose,” he said.

But is taking the knee the best way to tackle racism? In September, English side Queens Park Rangers announced that its players would stop the gesture before games.

“The message has been lost,” argued director Les Ferdinand. “It is now not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge.”

Should footballers of all nations take the knee?

Red card to racism

It is not the answer, say some. The vast majority agree that the culture surrounding football needs to change. Racism cannot be tolerated in any sport. But taking the knee is an empty gesture that divides more people than it unites. In February, Premier League player Wilfried Zaha said taking the knee felt “degrading”. Instead, footballers should “stand tall” against racism.

Definitely, say others. Gareth Southgate is right. Taking the knee is not about politics, but about sending a message against racist abuse. Footballers have a huge power to change attitudes. The 2018 World Cup was watched by 3.57 billion people – nearly half the population of the entire globe. Players in every country must use their influence to make the world a better place.

You Decide

  1. Does sport unite people or drive them apart?
  2. Is taking the knee a political act?

Activities

  1. In pairs, write a diary entry from the perspective of an athlete or sports star who has decided to take the knee.
  2. England’s Football Association is considering making a film explaining to fans why footballers take the knee. In groups, make a storyboard the FA could use to shoot the film.

Some People Say...

“Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.”

Albert Camus (1913 – 1960), French philosopher, author and journalist

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that taking the knee began when American Football quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to sit on a bench during the US national anthem to protest against police racism in August 2016. Later, he chose to take a knee rather than sit because he was advised it was more respectful to the military. In the UK, football teams began taking the knee before games following the death of George Floyd in May last year.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate surrounds how to tackle racism in football effectively. Some believe that national governments and UEFA, the European football body, must do more to punish teams and supporters for racism. Others, like Portuguese journalist Manuel Carvalho, believe that ultimately, fans are responsible for eradicating the problem. Sociologist Les Black argues that racism goes beyond fans – the problem exists because managers, coaches and top officials are still predominantly White.

Word Watch

Sanctimonious
Making a show of being morally superior. It originates from the Latin word “sanctus”, meaning holy.
Marcus Rashford
The 23-year-old English footballer is also known for his campaign to end child food poverty.
Europa League
An annual football club competition organised by European football body UEFA.
FIFA
The International Federation of Association Football is the international governing body of football, beach soccer and futsal, a game played on a hard court.
Social Darwinism
A pseudo science from the 1800s. It falsely suggested that White people were more evolved in terms of intellect, morality and character while Black people had to rely on physical strength.
Mesut Özil
Nicknamed “The Assist King”, Özil’s grandfather emigrated from Turkey to Germany.
Queens Park Rangers
The West London football club plays in the EFL Championship, the second tier of English football.

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