In his fascinating book How Soccer Explains the World, journalist Franklin Foer argues that soccer is much more than a game, or even a way of life. For him, the game is a ‘perfect window’ into underlying currents in society ‘with all its joys and sorrows’.
This perspective has been highlighted once again in the build-up to, the playing of and the follow on from the Euro 2020 final recently. We have observed the highs, the lows, the best and the worst, the joys and the sorrows not just of the game but also of the individuals and societies most directly impacted.
The vile abuse of England’s three black penalty takers has been widely and roundly condemned for what it represents, the singling out of individuals for attack because of their colour. The response to this by the rest of the team, the manager and large cohorts of English society (including children) has been uplifting.
But the entire event has once again highlighted the deep undercurrent of prejudice, bigotry and racism that characterises many in the sport and in society writ large. This is true not only of England but of many other societies Malta included. This reality was recognised in advance by Gareth Southgate in his remarkable open letter to football fans.
The fact that he penned this letter prior to any penalty being missed is recognition that a deep problem exists, a problem that has more than one, race-focused axis. Other dimensions of the problem were also on display across a broad range of British tabloid newspapers in the days preceding the games especially the semi-final and the final.
Such papers are fully aware that jingoism, primitive nationalism and the mangling of history goes down well with a core strand of their readership. In turn it also fuels and whips up emotions and prejudices which we witnessed spill over.
The damage done to the individuals singled out for abuse, the game they profess to love and the society they claim to represent will never be fully measured. The stain remains despite the whitewash.
As ever there is another deeply negative dimension, the attempted (and failed) use of the game to promote a particular brand of populist and right-wing politics. Exemplified in the debate around ‘taking the knee’ as a symbol of solidarity (or ‘gesture politics’ as asserted by Home Secretary Priti Patel) which was ridiculed prior to and during the tournament.
Such ridiculing encourages and emboldens those who booed the players and the anthems of other teams, hurled jingoistic chants and ultimately abused those black players themselves. It fed directly into the dark underbelly of right-wing politics and was consciously intended to do so.
So much so that it sparked a spirited and forthright response from so many including Conservative peer Sayeeda Warsi who sent a public message to Patel, challenging her and others to reflect on their role in feeding this ‘culture in our country’.
Those who gave vent to jingoism, primitive nationalism and racist bile have once again pointed to their need to ‘big’ themselves up while simultaneously revealing their own inherent fundamental weaknesses
The sense of solidarity within the England team became fully evident in the forthright and public support given to the abused by the Captain and by a host of other members. Defender Reece James tellingly posted: ‘We learn more about the society when we lose, far more than we learn when we win.’
But perhaps the most dignified and telling response came from Marcus Rashford who stated ‘I will never apologise for who I am’. ‘I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else, I have that.’
This sorry football saga highlights the evil of racist storytelling, the futility of the ‘us and them’ view of life and the hypocrisy of many, including self-serving politicians who fuel it. But flipped on its head, it also reveals the strength and the determination of the alternative ‘we’ perspective on life, based instead on respect and acceptance.
As elsewhere in the world, those who gave vent to jingoism, primitive nationalism and racist bile have once again pointed to their need to ‘big’ themselves up while simultaneously revealing their own inherent fundamental weaknesses.
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