Football Racism: Did British Home Minister Priti Patel Stoke the Fire?

·5-min read

When England won the World Cup back in 1966, the team was entirely white. The first Black football player to pull on an England shirt was Viv Anderson twelve years later.

Fast forward to last Sunday, when England came within a penalty kick of winning an international competition for the first time since '66, and the team was as diverse as the nation that cheered it on.

More than half the players in the England squad have a parent or grandparent born outside the United Kingdom. Harry Kane, the captain, is a white working class Londoner of part-Irish descent. Raheem Sterling, the other main goal-getter, was five years old when he came to England with his mother from Jamaica.

The entire team took the knee at every game as a statement of intent to root out the racism that still lurks within England's national game. That racism has resurfaced this week, prompting bitter criticism from a prominent Black footballer directed at one of Britain's most powerful Indian-origin politicians.

Also Read: Taking the Knee at Euro 2020: England Championing Anti-Racism Cause

Italy Celebrated, England Got Busy with Trolling, Racism & Abuse

At Sunday's final, the team equipped themselves well on the pitch. A win would have been nice - but a defeat on penalties against a team as impressive as Italy was no disgrace. Through the summer, the hugely-better-than-expected performance of the England team has brought the nation together after a miserable year-and-a-half of COVID and lockdowns.

But as so often happens in the past, some supporters soured the party.

Several hundred drunk and violent fans pushed and punched their way past crowd barriers and security guards on Sunday evening to get into the stadium without tickets. After the defeat, the three England penalty takers who failed to score, were trolled and mocked on social media.

All three players are black: Marcus Rashford's grandmother is from St Kitts in the Caribbean, Bukayo Saka's parents are Nigerian, and Jadon Sancho's family is from Trinidad and Tobago. Much of the online abuse they faced was racist.

A huge mural of Rashford in his home city of Manchester was defaced by abusive graffiti. "When Black players are playing brilliantly, they're English", one Black British writer lamented. "But when they slip up, they are Black."

This shameful racism has taken the shine off a glorious English summer of sporting success. The chorus of condemnation of the abuse included Prince William, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Football Association, and, of course, the England manager Gareth Southgate. The team manager has won wide praise not simply for his team's performance, but for his leadership qualities and for protecting his youngsters from the sometimes cruel glare of the spotlight.

Also Read: Euro 2020: Boris Johnson, Archer, Stokes, FA Hit Out at Racist Abuse on Players

Priti Patel's Response to Racism

Some England footballers, however, were unimpressed by the support they received from the top levels of government. Both PM Boris Johnson and his home minister, Priti Patel, failed initially to condemn those fans who booed when the team took the knee.

Patel had even indicated disapproval of the team's very visible demonstration against racism. So, when she expressed her 'disgust' at the online abuse of Black footballers, one of the England team took her to task.

Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel during a rally event as part of the General Election campaign, in Colchester, England on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019.
Britain’s Home Secretary Priti Patel during a rally event as part of the General Election campaign, in Colchester, England on Monday, Dec. 2, 2019.

'You don't get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as "gesture politics"', tweeted defender Tyrone Mings, '& then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we're campaigning against happens'.

The Political Fallout of the Racism Row

The political row then exploded.

In Parliament on Wednesday, the opposition leader, Keir Starmer, tore into the prime minister, insisting: "Mings is right, isn't he?" Johnson responded with a resounding defence of his home minister, saying that Patel "had faced racism all her life of a kind that he can never imagine".

Johnson presides over the most diverse government in Britain's history. Of his three most senior ministers, two - Patel and finance minister, Rishi Sunak - are of South Asian origin. So are two other prominent cabinet members, the newly-appointed health minister, Sajid Javid, and the attorney general, Suella Braverman.

Also Read: British PM Johnson Backs ‘Fantastic’ Priti Patel Amid Bullying Row

That's done little to make communities of African or Caribbean heritage feel better represented at the top table.

Opinion polling suggests members of ethnic minorities are much less likely than white people to feel pride in their English identity.

There is a silver lining to this dismal tale of hate and intolerance.

When Marcus Rashford's mural was defaced, hundreds of local people came spontaneously with flags, banners and hand written messages of support to cover up the abusive graffiti. Young and old, black and white, United fans and City fans, joined together against racism. 'We stand with you', one scrawled note read. 'Love will always win.'

(Andrew Whitehead is former Editor of BBC World Service. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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