Last Sunday, July 11, was meant to be England’s glorious moment. The moment where, after 55 years of footballing hurt, the nation got its hands on a major international trophy, Euro 2020. It played out almost like destiny; manager Gareth Southgate assembling the best 26-man squad in a generation, blending established pitch generals like Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane with thrilling young bucks like Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Mason Mount. Winger Raheem Sterling, perennially vilified by the British media, excelled as arguably player of the tournament—netting three goals as the team beat Germany, Ukraine and Denmark en route to meeting Italy in the final, their first since the 1966 World Cup.
Belief swept the nation that this team could go all the way. The excitement was palpable. New heroes had emerged. It was coming home! The nervy final would be decided by penalties, with Black players Marcus Rashford, Jaden Sancho and Bukayo Saka assigned as England’s final three kick-takers. All three would fail to convert, but as soon as Saka’s strike was saved—sealing Italy’s Euros win—that national belief washed away, and a sinking feeling would have likely enveloped many Black people in this country. The inevitable was coming and we knew it.
Predictably, we saw vile racist abuse aimed at Rashford, Sancho and Saka—both online and IRL—play out before our eyes. Black England fans were attacked by mobs on their way home, Saka’s Instagram page was inundated with monkey and banana emojis, and Marcus Rashford’s mural in Withington, Manchester, was defaced. The anguish of defeat no longer mattered—we cared for the protection of the players. The ‘togetherness’ cultivated across the nation by the England squad over the last four weeks was suddenly out of the window, and the darker elements of the ‘United’ Kingdom reared their head; the intolerant underbelly that seems to inflate with each passing day. Black people weren’t surprised by the events of that night and beyond, but we were tired. Tired of only being tolerated when we’re successful, but shunted and alienated when we’re not. Tired of certain portions of society hurling slurs at us when we’re walking down the road. Tired of being told by people who are not Black that racism doesn’t exist here.
Hostility towards the Black community in Britain is a tale older than time itself, but football’s strength has always lied in its unifying power—that ability to bring different colours and creeds together around one common passion. Or, at least, so we thought. Because the same ‘fans’ that relied on Black footballers to deliver their Euros triumph were the first to hurl racist abuse when it wasn’t delivered. This ‘togetherness’ was all an act, their contempt hidden underneath their England shirts, never too far away.
The hypocrisies of our nation’s leaders are in plain sight, fanning the flames of hatred even towards a group of players that helped bring the country to its highest high in over fifty years.