LONDON: Political leaders and footballing chiefs in Britain expressed disgust yesterday at racial abuse targeting England stars, including three black players who missed penalties in the Euro 2020 final against Italy. But as Facebook vowed anew to look into abuse on its Instagram platform, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself came under stinging criticism for earlier refusing to condemn fans who had booed English players’ campaign against racism.
England manager Gareth Southgate said the online invective was “unforgivable”. “Some of it has come from abroad, we have been told this, but some of it is from this country,” he told reporters. “We have been a beacon of light to bring people together and the national team stands for everybody.”
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, the three players whose penalty shootout misses handed victory to Italy at Wembley on Sunday, were the victims of a stream of abuse on Instagram and Twitter – many apparently from foreign trolls and bots. While some people identifying as England fans used racial slurs in blaming the trio for the defeat, other offensive messages were accompanied with “forza italia” hashtags.
“This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media,” Johnson wrote on Twitter. “Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.” England’s players have made a strong stand against racism at the tournament, taking a knee before their games including the final.
But Johnson and others in the Conservatives’ “anti-woke” government had initially defended the freedom of speech of England fans who booed the players, before backing the team later in the tournament. Former Manchester United player Gary Neville accused the prime minister of having “promoted” racism, noting one notorious past comment by Johnson likening Muslim women who wear the veil to “letterboxes”.
Former Conservative party chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi urged the government: “It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division. “Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations.” Johnson’s official spokesman pushed back against Warsi and said of Neville: “I’d utterly reject that claim. The prime minister is explicit in his condemnation of any racist abuse in any circumstances,” he told reporters.
The Downing Street spokesman also noted that new UK legislation coming up will mandate tougher action by social media companies. Facebook said it had “quickly removed comments and accounts directing abuse” at the footballers. “No one thing will fix this challenge overnight, but we’re committed to keeping our community safe from abuse,” it added.
London’s police force said it was aware of “a number of offensive and racist social media comments”, promising an investigation. The Metropolitan Police also said it was probing scenes of mayhem after some ticketless fans forced their way into Wembley Stadium. Greater Manchester Police in northwest England said they were treating as a racist incident the defacement of a mural in the city in honor of Rashford. Obscenities and Saka’s name were daubed over the artwork.
England player Raheem Sterling also received a stream of racial abuse after social media users accused him of cheating to win a penalty in England’s semi-final win over Denmark. European football’s governing body UEFA said it “strongly condemns the disgusting racist abuse” and that “we stand by the players and the English FA’s call for the strongest possible punishments”.
The Football Association said: “We’re disgusted that some of our squad – who have given everything for the shirt this summer – have been subjected to discriminatory abuse online after tonight’s game. “We stand with our players.” Prince William, the FA’s president who attended the final with his wife Kate and son George, said he was “sickened” by the abuse. Despite the abuse, the overwhelming majority of messages were in support of the players, who have been praised throughout the tournament for helping bring together a nation hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. – AFP