This time last week, there was a feeling of excitement and anticipation in the air.
The England Senior Men’s football team were due to face Italy in the final of the Euro’s that evening. The game would be the first final in a major competition the England team had played since their epic World Cup win in 1966.
Despite a stunning opening goal from Luke Shaw within the first three minutes of the game, the Italians pulled one back and took the game to extra time and penalties.
What ensued next broke English hearts, and not just because of the result.
Penalty takers three, four and five for England either missed the target or had their penalties saved. Not unusual for England, admittedly. We’ve never been a nation known for our penalty taking. What stood out the most about the three penalty takers, was the colour of their skin. They were all black.
Now to a large percentage of the population, this wouldn’t matter. You could equally blame the players for being young, or for Southgate choosing relatively inexperienced penalty takers over more experienced players.
Yet as soon as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka missed their respective penalties, the racist abuse began.
As Saka missed his penalty, my boyfriend, who I had watched the game with and who is black himself, stood up, with his hands on his head, and said ‘Shit! All the black players missed’.
My initial reaction was dismay. Why bring race into this? But in our heart of hearts, we both knew what would happen next.
Sure enough, before we had even turned off the tv that night, screenshots of racist abuse aimed at those three young players were being circulated.
As we went to bed that night, there were so many mixed emotions. I felt proud of the team for getting as far as they had. I felt heartbroken for the young players who had missed their penalties, and I felt sad and angry knowing that we still live in a day and age when people find that kind of behaviour acceptable.
When we woke the following morning, those feelings deepened further. Seeing the impact the comments had on my boyfriend, despite the fact he hadn’t been the target of the abuse, I felt helpless. How could I even begin to understand how he was feeling and the emotions he was going through, let alone the players involved?
Racist comments aren’t just something that happens to our professional sportsmen and women. Sadly my boyfriend himself has been the target of online racist abuse recently too.
In last week’s Mindful Gingernut newsletter, I described the emotions experienced in the aftermath of the final as similar to those you go through when dealing with grief.
Whilst experiencing grief, we go through several emotions that can include:
- Shock and numbness
- Overwhelming sadness
- Tiredness or exhaustion
Throughout the last week, I think it’s safe to say that both of us have felt all of these emotions to varying degrees. The level of emotion experienced following the defeat to Italy and the resulting racist abuse is very different to the grief we experience when we lose a loved one. However, many of the emotions we’ve been through have been the same.
We need to recognise that discrimination isn’t just something that happens in England. Discrimination is rife around the world.
In fact, many of the abusive comments aimed at Rashford, Sancho and Saka after the England game were from people outside of the UK. Even closer to home, those who were sending my boyfriend racist abuse were not British either.
So how do we even start to find a solution to the problem of racism in 2021?
The government believes we need to ban those found guilty of posting racist abuse from our football grounds. However, my gut feeling is that not every person who posted abuse is a football fan. I think these sad, uneducated idiots are just some of life’s scum and are waiting for any given moment to let rip.
Other people believe that education is the answer. But who do we educate, and how? Those making the comments aren’t going to have their views changed anytime soon. Which probably means we need to focus on educating our youth in the hope that we can eradicate discrimination in years to come.
Where do the social media companies fit into all of this? When so much of the racist abuse has been online, should companies such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram be doing more to put controls in place to ban the people who make these comments?
What else can the rest of us do in the fight against discrimination, whether it’s to support those who are on the receiving end of racist abuse or to step in and help fight against it?
From where I’m standing, there are no clear answers. Yes, we have to educate people, and yes, there is more the social media companies could be doing. We need to continue to educate ourselves, even if we would never dream of using racist language.
Despite starting the week feeling angry and sad, I ended the week feeling more optimistic. The support shown towards Rashford, Sancho and Saka, from their fellow players and football fans worldwide, has been incredible. The majority of fans recognise that all three players are young and have their whole futures ahead. We’ll be seeing all three of them take part in tournaments for years to come.
I also get the sense that more people are starting to call racist comments and behaviour out. Calling out this type of behaviour is essential if we are ever going to stamp out discrimination. If we are going to target young people through improved education, we need to make sure they feel empowered to speak out about it too. Otherwise, we will be no further forward in years to come.
We have so much young, fresh talent coming through the England team, and I feel incredibly proud of the team Gareth Southgate is shaping. The World Cup is only 16 months away and will give the team another opportunity to shine. Whether we have joy in Qatar or not, let’s hope we get to remember future tournaments for the quality of the football rather than racist abuse.