Soccer in Britain has struggled for decades with bigotry, class divides and tribal loyalties that sometimes turn violent. But a torrent of online abuse directed at a group of England players this week has raised fresh concerns about the sport’s fan base and led to criticism that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not done enough to address racism in his country.
The abuse began minutes after players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who are all Black, missed their penalty shots during Sunday’s Euro 2020 final against Italy.
Thousands of racial slurs poured on to the players’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, including hundreds labelled with monkey and banana emojis. Another Black player, striker Raheem Sterling, was also targeted – even though he was one of England’s top goal scorers and was named to the tournament’s all-star team.
According to an analysis by anti-racism campaigners Hope not Hate, there were 1,300 tweets containing the n-word and other slurs aimed at all four players immediately after the match – more than twice the number of racist tweets posted during any other game in the month-long tournament. A similar study by the Professional Footballers Association found that “the volume of abuse flagged around the Euro 2020 final, aimed mainly at Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, was higher than the rest of the tournament combined.”
The abuse was not confined to social media. A giant mural of Mr. Rashford in Manchester, where he grew up, was defaced with swear words Sunday night.
Mr. Rashford has frequently spoken out about racism in soccer and other social issues, including child poverty. On Tuesday he issued a lengthy statement that addressed the missed penalty kicks and the fallout from the loss.
“I’ve grown into a sport where I expected to read things written about myself. Whether it be the colour of my skin, where I grew up, or, most recently, how I decide to spend my time off the pitch,” he wrote. “I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in but I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from … I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old Black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that.”
Mr. Johnson and other government ministers have lined up to criticize those who abused the players, and the Prime Minister vowed to raise the issue during a meeting Wednesday with officials from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves,” Mr. Johnson said this week. “This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media.”
Officials from Twitter and Facebook said they removed more than 1,000 racist posts after the game and promised to permanently suspend accounts that violated their rules. London’s Metropolitan Police has also launched an investigation into the online abuse.
Mr. Johnson and other lawmakers, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, have come under fire for failing to take a stronger stand against racism when the tournament began. Both refused to condemn fans who booed players for taking a knee before kickoffs as a statement against racism. In an interview last month, Ms. Patel said she didn’t support “people participating in that type of gesture politics” and declined to criticize anyone who booed. “That’s a choice for them, quite frankly,” she said. At the time Mr. Johnson distanced himself from Ms. Patel’s comments but didn’t openly disagree with her.
This week Ms. Patel said she was disgusted at the “vile racist abuse” aimed at the players after Sunday’s game. That prompted a sharp reply from England player Tyrone Mings, who is Black. “You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” Mr. Mings said on Twitter.
Others have hit back at Mr. Johnson. “The Prime Minister said it was okay for the population of this country to boo those players who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism. It starts at the very top,” said former England player and soccer pundit Gary Neville.
“For too long incidents of race hate, abuse and harassment have been treated less seriously when they take place online, and that needs to change,” added Matthew McGregor, the campaigns director at Hope not Hate. “Political leaders must step up, too. Condemnations aren’t enough when the anti-racism stance of the players was undermined before the tournament.”
The controversy has a bright side. There has been an outpouring of support for the players, and more than £30,000 ($52,000) has been raised to repair the Manchester mural, which has been covered with tributes to Mr. Rashford and the others. Many of the handwritten messages called Mr. Rashford an inspiration and thanked all the players for their passion during the tournament. “There’s been an outpouring of, kind of, love and solidarity, and it’s really heartening,” said Ed Wellard, who co-founded the community art project. “It’s evolved into something really special.”