The Problem Of Racism In England And European Football

Racism is alive and well in European football culture.  If you thought that racism and discrimination was something of the past, you would be wrong.

Most would agree that penalty shootouts that determine the final outcome of a football match are painful and often seem unfair.   There is no one technique that will guarantee that the ball misses the goalkeeper’s grasp.   A striker in this position is under enormous pressure as the stakes are so high.  Penalty kicks are often just a matter of luck, much like a throw of the dice at a Ripper Casino, and they are incredibly fraught situations with the striker often looking at the possibility of elimination.

In the final of the Euro 2020 between England and Italy we saw them go into the penalties and the tense atmosphere that came with it. During the match, Italy had played a little better but there wasn’t much to compare between the teams.  Penalties meant one side would have to deal with the agony of losing so close to victory.

More pressure was undoubtedly on England, playing at a packed Wembley stadium. However, England lost the shootout with Marcus Rashford, and Jadson Sancho and Bukayo Saka missing theirs.  All three didn’t start the final, and two of them having been introduced as expert penalty strikers.

With their missed final kick of the shootout, Italy celebrated their success and it was at that moment that the old familiar racial stirrings began to surface.  What unites all three players is the color of their skin.  It didn’t take long for the “talk” to begin.  Sensing what was about to happen, Jofra Archer, England cricketer, tweeted advising fans not to be racially abusive to the three players.  His tweet proved to be prophetic but unfortunately had little impact.

Moves against racism and discrimination

Many were not shocked by the expressions of racial abuse.  The gesture of “taking the knee”, a statement against inequality and discrimination, and used to highlight systemic racism, and used by many athletes, was not taken up wholeheartedly by the England team – concerned about public reaction. Southgate for example, felt the need to assure the press that they were not promoting any particular political agenda on the sports field.  So, when players took the knee and England fans began booing and hooting it did not come as a surprise.

England did go on to have a great tournament and when things are going well, so it is easy to rally behind the players.  However, when things turned, that old ugly behavior began to surface again.  Gary Neville, the former England and Manchester United defender spoke to Sky News following the final.  He expressed his anger, underscoring “how deep the rot runs.”  Neville feels that those in leadership positions should be held accountable for in some ways encouraging this type of behavior.   However, Neville too didn’t take a stand when he said there was “nothing wrong” when fans began heckling during the opponent’s national anthem. He said he felt this was just “fans getting charged up”.  Some, like Michael Vaughan, England Cricket captain, felt the same.

This behavior occurred during the whole tournament where some England fans jeered during the anthems of the opposing teams that were playing at Wembley Stadium, for instance Germany and Denmark.  This behavior was widely lambasted and the UEFA was compelled to penalize the England Football Association. Big names like Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker, former English football greats, came out against such behavior.   However, when public figures who are held in high esteem pass off such ugly behavior as mere banter, then is it really any wonder why such behavior culminates in real acts of hooliganism, as was seen when Italian fans were attacked physically.

The cultural environment and nationalism

There is a connection between the physical attacks on fans of the competing team and on the racial abuse of players. At the root is a feeling of nationalistic entitlement and feelings of ethnic and racial superiority. This cultural environment does not bode well for immigrants who are expected to be grateful for the opportunities that they are given.  Therefore, the way in which Rashford, Sancho and Saka faced racial abuse in light of this sentiment can be understood.

Such blatant racism is not that mainstream in England as it is in other European countries, like in Italy where the racism is far more severe. Nevertheless, even in England the situation is serious enough for a Conservative government to condemn the racism in very strong terms.  In Italy, some of the Italian players have been taunted in a horrible and distasteful way by the crowds watching the game.   The situation in Italy is even worse in that even fellow team members fail to stand in solidarity with their teammates.   Not surprisingly, the Italian football federation is one of the most apathetic and ineffective authorities when it comes to dealing with issues of racism and abuse of its players by the crowds.

Everywhere in European football culture you will find examples of racism and discrimination. We saw it in Germany with the Turkish born Mesut Ozil.  Ozil stated that his ethnicity is raised when he doesn’t reach expected standards and these grievances did not get him the expected support of his teammates.   In 2020 we saw France having to deal with racism following Kylian Mbappe, of African origin, missing a penalty which resulted in France being eliminated from the Euro.

This offensive and nasty behavior is pretty commonplace amongst football fans and many try to normalize it as a by-product of passion for the game.  The bad behavior of England fans following their defeat in the final is tolerated and accepted and is the result of feelings of racial supremacy and ethno-nationalism.

Such behavior is followed by the usual words of condemnation in an effort to save face and protect the country’s international image.    This is basically meaningless.  Society needs to root out the problem at its base or it will just keep regurgitating.