In the penalties that saw Italy defeat England in the UEFA Euro 2020 final, goalkeeping skills were overshadowed by the perceived failure of English players who missed shots. Three young players – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – have been subjected to torrents of racist abuse against blacks.
One of the worst things about this racism was how predictable it was. Racism has long been found in European sports and intensifies when black players are put in the spotlight during major international competitions. tweeted in response to harassment he captures this phenomenon: “When you mark, you are English. When you make a mistake, you are an immigrant.”
It wasn’t just the English players who suffered this treatment during the tournament. French player Kylian Mbappe suffered abuse online when Swiss goalkeeper Yann Somer successfully defended his penalty in the second round clash that sent the blues home. Racist abuse constantly resurfaces.
The massive increase in the visibility and popularity of sport over the past century, thanks to television, radio and the Internet, has intensified the way fans relate to players as local and national representatives. Athletes become the face of a nation, and many of us place patriotic hopes, fears and frustrations upon them. Read this often quoted quote by historian Eric Hobsbawm about the power of football to capture national sentiment: “The … imaginary community of millions feels more real as a team of 11 named people.”
When visibly different teams win the World Cup, it is seen as an anti-racist triumph. It’s one of the reasons South Africa’s victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup was so symbolic, coming so soon after apartheid collapsed. The French men’s soccer team inspired waves of pride in French multiculturalism following their 1998 and 2018 victories. This was symbolized in the slogan Black-Blanc-Beur (Black-White-North African) – a riff on bleu-blanc -rouge (blue, white and red) the colors of the French flag.
But the idea of achieving racial harmony through different sports teams has sparked controversy. Historian Laurent Dubois detailed how the national joy of winning a tournament glosses over difficult stories of racism and exclusion in his book on the French “football empire”.
Also, the festivities only last as long as the victory. Research has shown that when visibly different teams lose, existing undercurrents of racist nationalism and exclusion rise to the surface, manifesting as denial of black players’ membership in the nation. If the team is not “us”, then “we” have not lost. It was not the nation, or “my” people that failed, it was this intruder.
This can take different forms in nations where whites are not the majority, but the underlying vitriol is the same. For example, Indian Muslim sports stars have been subjected to such abuse in their own countries, as have Japanese players with black heritage.
Racism and reality
Such abuse is a particularly nasty mix of grief, fandom, patriotism, anger and a scapegoat. In the case of the English players, it denies the reality of their birth, citizenship and cultural education in England – and the history that made the country, and Europe more broadly, a deeply mixed and ethnically diverse space.
When fans engage in racist abuse, they target players because they are seen as “not belonging”. Perhaps rejecting them is safer than rejecting people who share an imaginary “genuine” white national identity and reinforces a sense of superiority. Doing so requires both oblivion and reinvention and suggests a deep insecurity about one’s identity.
More generous was Lilian Thuram’s assessment of racism received from so-called “fans”. As Dubois wrote,
Sociologists, historians, art critics, anti-racist activists and media scholars would agree with Thuram on the scale of the problem. There is a long, deep and pervasive tradition of designating black players in Europe as “other” than the norm and as more “physical” or less “strategic”.
It is no coincidence that only 3.9% of the coaches in the 14 major European leagues have an ethnic minority background. Researcher Irene Blum and anti-racist activist John Oliveira noted that this replicates centuries-old historical patterns of black workers and white landlords supported by scientific racism, slavery and colonialism.
Could we, then, move beyond the abusive denial of history to a more mature and joyful fandom and national pride? A mural by Marcus Rashford – defaced by racists and then transformed by fans and supporters into a moving place of honor and respect – testifies to this potential.
It remains to be seen whether – and how – the government will act. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has suggested that fans who spread racism online could be banned from matches. His critics accused him of hypocrisy, saying Johnson helped fuel such responses by refusing to condemn the boos on players who got down on their knees.
Perhaps this latter ugliness will achieve a similar transformation from scientific reports and political documents to structural actions and changes. This would require engagement from (social) media, funders, coaches, players, training academies and even fans. It may take penalties to reach it, but it’s a noble goal.
Author: Rachel Anne Gillett – Assistant Professor in Cultural History, Utrecht University