How the beautiful game turns brutal
Marvin Bartley, captain of Livingston FC – Photo: Stuart Bramley
It has been disheartening and depressing to hear many England football supporters booing as their team took a knee before the warm-up matches for Euro 2020, and again as the tournament got under way. Those same so-called “fans” were no doubt amongst the most demonstrative in punching the air and screaming “Yes!” as black players, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, slotted home winning goals in those matches.
Perhaps even more disturbing, but somehow predictable, was learning that home secretary Priti Patel believes that fans have a right to boo the players for taking the knee to protest against racism, saying about the boo-boys in a television interview, “It’s a choice for them, quite frankly.” She went on to condemn previous Black Lives Matter protests and added, “I just don’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics.” Perhaps the home secretary has forgotten the frequent television images of Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his then partner, Carrie Symonds, now Mrs Boris Johnson, standing outside 10 Downing Street, enthusiastically applauding NHS workers along with the rest of the nation during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Was that not “gesture politics”, home secretary?
Regardless of the results, the title winning and relegation battles, the team and individual standout performances, racism, and the calling out of racism, was arguably the most significant aspect of the domestic football season. Players, past and present, publicly and bravely shared their experiences of the racism they suffer on a daily basis. Former Arsenal forward, Ian Wright, in a televised piece with Alan Shearer, showed his fellow former striker a vile text he had been sent that very day, which concluded with the words “Black lives don’t matter”. Wright said these messages made him feel “dehumanised”. Stirling and Rashford are among the leading current footballers to have revealed details of the abuse they receive, mainly on various social media platforms.
Rashford, 23, whose campaign to get school meals for underprivileged children outside of term time, has raised a staggering £20m and forced changes in government policy. He is the youngest person ever to top the Sunday Times’ Giving List and deserves to be the person of the year, let alone the sports personality. But not even this incredible effort and dedication to his charitable cause has exempted Rashford from a constant stream of racial abuse.
After his club, Manchester United, lost in the UEFA cup final to Spanish team, Villarreal, he had received at least 70 racist texts by the following morning, with one of his abusers apparently a maths teacher. And it isn’t just elite black players who suffer racist victimisation. Marvin Bartley, 34, who currently captains Livingston in the Scottish Premiership after spells with Bournemouth, Burnley and Leyton Orient, told BBC Sport he laughed recently when he was racially abused because he was expecting it. “I knew it was coming,” he said, “because it’s coming for every player at this moment in time. I wasn’t surprised at all.”
Nor is the issue restricted to men’s football – women players, too, and other women in the game, have spoken about the abuse they receive. In April, many clubs, various footballing authorities and players boycotted social media for a weekend, highlighting the issue and reminding social media platforms that they, as well as the police and the courts, need to do more to tackle this plague affecting the game and society.
England and Liverpool midfielder, Jordan Henderson, has said that white footballers must speak out to show their support for their fellow players, and has described racism as “assault with words”. England manager Gareth Southgate backs his squad to the full and has joined the team in taking a knee. He has stressed the importance of demonstrating the national team’s solidarity and commitment to battling racism, saying, “It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch. I’ve never believed players should just stick to football.” Southgate thinks that we are heading for “a much clearer and tolerant society”.
Hopefully, in wider society that might be true, but in football at this time I remain unconvinced. The current England squad contains black, white and mixed race players, but how many black faces did you see amongst the Wembley crowd for the opening match? And then there was the shameful whistling and jeers ringing around the stadium as the Croatian anthem was played. Racism is not restricted uniquely to skin colour.
This is not just an English problem, racism continues around the world but, despite what some politicians here would have you believe, it is an extremely serious – and increasing – problem in the UK. Priti Patel believes that rather than make our protests heard we should be “learning from our past, learning from history.” Given Britain’s colonial past and history that view in itself is worrying.
I was talking to a friend recently about the issue of racism who said, “It would be interesting to come back in three or four hundred years to see how they eventually sorted it out.” She’s right, they will one day resolve it, but we can only hope that it doesn’t take them three or four centuries.
Tough call was way out of court!
Naomi Osaka – Photo: Andrew Henkelman
Elite sport stars dedicate most of their young lives to reaching the pinnacle of their discipline. Then they attempt to maintain those heights for as long as possible in their relatively short careers. First and foremost they are sportsmen and women, fabulously talented and totally committed and, depending on the sport, rich beyond the dreams of most through that talent and commitment. With a few notable exceptions – John McEnroe for one, who was always great for a laugh or a caustic comment – they are not natural television performers. They leave their performances on the pitch, or the court, or on whatever surface they play their game. They are entertainers, yes, but sporting ones, not stand-up (or sit-down) telly entertainers or performers.
The Japanese tennis player, Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam winner who is currently ranked at number two in the world, doesn’t like doing post-match press interviews. She announced on social media that she wouldn’t be doing them at the French Open, citing mental health reasons.
Her announcement provoked a furious response from the tennis Tour big shots. Firstly they fined her £10.5k, which presumably wouldn’t have worried her bank account unduly. Then they reminded her sternly of her contractual obligation to undergo press interviews, and finally they threatened her with expulsion from the tournament if she didn’t go through with those interviews. The 23 year-old, who has said that speaking to the media gives her “huge waves of anxiety”, then decided to withdraw from the tournament before her second round match.
French and Grand Slam Tour officials consequently backtracked on their hardline approach saying, “First and foremost, we are sorry and sad for Naomi Osaka,” before wishing her “the best and quickest possible recovery”. It sounds as though the Tour officials should be taking another look at those contracts before accusations of bullying come flying over the net.
Rigby’s Sports Shorts
Champ a contender
Boxer Josh Taylor made himself a contender, or even an odds-on favourite, for every end of year sportsman/personality award when he became Britain’s first undisputed world champion in the four-belt era, beating American José Ramírez in a light-welterweight unification bout in Las Vegas. The undefeated 30-year-old Scot retained his IBF and WBA titles and added the WBO and WBC belts to his trophy cabinet with a unanimous points decision, scoring 114-112 on all the judges’ cards.
Ukraine upset neighbours Russia with their brand new football shirt for the Euro 2020 championships. A slogan on the back reads, “Glory to Ukraine” while emblazoned on the front is a map of Ukraine, including Crimea, which was annexed by Russia – some would say pinched – in 2014. Russia considers the Crimean peninsula part of its territory, a claim rejected internationally. A Russian MP described the move as “political provocation”, but European football’s governing body, Uefa, was happy to give the Ukrainian kit its full approval.
Oldies still goldies
Never mind those young pretenders, a few sporting golden oldies are demonstrating that advancing years don’t necessarily mean the glory days have gone for good. Phil Mickleson made golfing history in becoming the oldest Major champion when winning the USPGA title at the age of 50, while in Spanish top-flight football, Real Betis captain Joaquín, 39, and Real Madrid midfielder, Luka Modrić, 35, have signed new deals. So get out your clubs and dust off your boots – there’s hope for us all!
Robert Rigby is a journalist, author and scriptwriter. His sport-themed fiction includes the novelisations of the “Goal!” movies and the four official London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics novels for children