Nothing of course quite like winning, but now that England lost the final of the European Cup football, it might have been a good loss had it been just tragic. But moments after that final missed penalty, that loss was buried under the ugly barrage of a racist outbreak.
As it happened, the three England players who missed their penalties were all non-white; the two who scored were white. This should have been so very incidental to have become by now backward to note even if no one would fail to notice. But abuse poured on the three players as fans poured angrily out of Wembley stadium, and it multiplied as only virtual wildfire can.
Marcus Rashford, born in Manchester in 1997, has been a star forward for Manchester United, and for England. He scored on his England debut in 2016. He has over the last couple of years become a hero of social campaigning in Britain, particularly over homelessness and child hunger. His grandmother was born in St Kitts. Now, all that has turned against him. Against Italy, he found the goalpost in the penalty shootout.
Jadon Malik Sancho, 21, was born in London to parents from Trinidad & Tobago. He’s gone on to do well in football. He signed up last season with a German club for a fee upwards of 10 million dollars. These are not poor non-white players by any means. But he failed to score. Both Rashford and Sancho were brought in late through extra time with just penalties in mind. Coach Gareth Southgate wasn’t expecting to pay a penalty for that.
The third and final miss that saw England out came from the 19-year-old Bukayo Saka, who has Nigerian parents. They moved to London as economic migrants. At 19, he’s now a millionaire many times over. He will now be the face that ended the England dream – and England haven’t quite dreamt like this for a couple of generations now, nor come this close to winning a major football final after their World Cup win in 1966.
England scored through captain Harry Kane and Harry Maguire. The colour coding of success and failure in the penalties had immediate consequences.
The abuse that poured forth from fans walking out of the stadium was fulsome, and unquestionably unprintable. It quite changed the mood of an inclusive spirit among fans earlier who included many black and other non-white people. Again something that should never have been taken note of were it not for the invectives that followed the end of the game.
The level and the extent of the abuse stripped away within moments most assumptions of a multicultural Britain that was thought to be past all this. Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the abuse “appalling”.
“This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media,” he said. “Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.” The Metropolitan Police in London said they are now investigating the abuse, and “it will not be tolerated.” Some prosecutions at least are expected to follow.
Britain’s Football Association condemned the episode strongly. “We could not be clearer that anyone behind such disgusting behaviour is not welcome in following the team. We will do all we can to support the players affected while urging the toughest punishments possible for anyone responsible.”
The FA added: “We will continue to do everything we can to stamp discrimination out of the game, but we implore government to act quickly and bring in the appropriate legislation so this abuse has real life consequences.”
The football final will now be marked as a turning point in quite another direction from what was expected. But the build-up to an expected England win had overtones that concealed a strong undercurrent of racism. Manager Gareth Southgate and captain Harry Kane had been built up as conquerors in the old England imperialist mode. That would have ridden a very English crest had they gone through, and the otherness of the others would no doubt have been lost amidst jubilation.
England needed a win for the sake of victory, and as it now turns out, to keep up a façade of some happily multicultural Britain. The lost moment of glory has now turned into a grim wake-up call.