Euro 2020 showed us the best of football, but off the pitch, something far more grim is taking shape. The abuse and hatred so many of England’s players are facing keeps building and is only getting worse. Having a go at players for missed shots and fumbled balls is part of the great tradition of English football and of any sport, fans criticise as deeply as any expert analyst because they love their country or their club. It is now so much more than this.
The appalling racism and aimed squarely at three young black players for their part in the final match was totally and completely unacceptable. They played hard, and they lost, as a team and we can all respect that. A zero-tolerance attitude to racism in football, or any sport, is the only solution. I do not want young Black, Asian or White kids growing up to think that is just part of football, I don’t want them thinking I have to tolerate this to play, or if we lose I will be verbally or even physically attacked. We already see far too few young Asians joining football teams, and the horrible abuse Yan Dhanda revealed he had suffered shows us why too many say no to a career in football.
Sadly, this all comes from on-high. The Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, at the helm of this Tory government that has been around since 2010 is part of the problem. When our incredible team took the knee, he and Priti Patel derided it as gesture politics - well that so-called gesture politics means a hell of a lot to millions. It means publicly saying no to racism, it means publicly showing yourself as an ally and it means saying enough is enough. Booing that and abusing players on the pitch and on social media, is not acceptable, and to tacitly approve of booing that brave and visible act of anti-racism is making division in our country greater. The time for lip service has well passed, statements on paper and well-meaning organisations stuffed with talking heads will no longer be enough. We need practical action and legal remedies to address racism in football, online and everywhere.
Former England great Gary Neville said, just the other day, promoting equality ‘starts at the very top’, and I couldn’t agree more. This Prime Minister, and this Government in office for more than a decade, deserves to take the blame for much that is wrong here after so long in power. Whether it is the Prime Minister comparing Muslim women in burqas to letterboxes or talking about Johnnie Walker in Sikh Temples he has set a tone of intolerance and racism that many have decided to follow. His mealy-mouthed distancing from the worst racial abuse of the last 48 hours doesn’t undo the cover he has given those same people for years. What we need now is a concerted effort by those running the country, and community leaders everywhere to bring people back together, and stand against divisive behaviour and language designed only to split communities. Italy may have won the football and taken home the cup - congratulations to them for that; we can win something else, football without the hate and the racism, if we say no and our leaders take their responsibilities seriously. And, just to say, clearly, it should have been a red card for Chiellini.