The Guardian view on Rashford, Sancho and Saka: let down by dog whistles from Downing Street | Editorial

The prime minister should have done more to defend the England team against a racist minority

The country awoke on Monday to greyish July skies and a sense of sporting disappointment. Overnight, the England team Twitter account had published a nicely turned message seeking to capture the sense of national togetherness that grew during Euro 2020. Football, it read, was not just about winning trophies, it was also about solidarity: “It’s community. It’s unity. It’s home.”

These admirable sentiments will reflect the feelings of the vast majority of those who watched the final between England and Italy. Unfortunately, they risk being undermined by an outpouring of online racist abuse directed at Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, the three players who missed penalties in the shootout won by Italy. It also emerged that a mural of Rashford in Manchester had been subjected to racially aggravated damage. The mural, erected close to where Rashford grew up, had been commissioned in recognition of the player’s remarkable campaigning on child food poverty. Taken together with footage of large groups of ticketless fans breaching security and causing chaos at Wembley, and violent scenes in Leicester Square, it all adds up to a depressing end to an inspiring sporting interlude.

There has long been a nasty, vindictive minority among the England national team’s support. In the summer of 1998, when England lost to Argentina in the World Cup, an effigy of David Beckham was hung outside a south London pub. Vile as that incident was, the racial dimension this time round takes it into a different league. And as a Guardian investigation revealed last month, the vitriol, spite and bile is now being magnified a thousand-fold on social media. In April, Premier League teams and other sporting organisations boycotted online platforms for a weekend in protest at the unending torrent of abuse. Twitter said on Monday that it had removed more than 1,000 posts and suspended some accounts, but social media companies need to devote far greater resources to dealing with hate speech on their platforms.

The buck doesn’t stop there, though. Boris Johnson rightly described the abuse of Saka, Rashford and Sancho as “appalling”. But the prime minister helped enable this squalid postscript to a wonderful few weeks. On the eve of Euro 2020, Mr Johnson refused to condemn spectators who booed the players for “taking the knee” before games. His home secretary, Priti Patel, also defended the right to boo, and expressed her personal hostility towards “gesture politics”. As the most ethnically diverse England team in the country’s history progressed all the way to the final, Mr Johnson swiftly donned an England shirt and hopped on the feelgood bandwagon. But given the consistent efforts made by players such as Raheem Sterling to highlight issues of racial inequality and abuse, the prime minister’s dog whistles revealed his true colours. The mood music from the top of government gave cover to a racist minority, some of whom seized their moment in the aftermath of defeat.

There are plans on Tuesday for a “solidarity meet-up” at the defaced Rashford mural in Manchester. How dispiriting that, after a national occasion that showcased so much that is positive about England in 2021, such an event should be necessary.

Contributor

Editorial

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