LONDON — In the hours after England lost in the final of the Euro 2020 soccer championship and Black players were subjected to a flood of racist comments, officials condemned the abuse almost as fast as the offensive comments had rolled in.
But athletes and others have lashed out and accused senior politicians of helping create the conditions that allowed for the open expressions of bigotry.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, in particular, came under attack after she tweeted that she was "disgusted" by the abuse faced by three Black players — Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho — who missed decisive penalty kicks on Sunday.
“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” tweeted English soccer player Tyrone Mings.
Last month Patel said in an interview with GB News that she didn’t support people participating in what she called “gesture politics,” referring to players taking the knee before a game. She also said that fans booing players “is a choice for them.”
In a request for comment on Mings' criticism, the Home Office referred back to Patel’s original tweet, which said that racism “has no place in our country,” and said that her comment about the booing fans expressed her belief that people have the right to express themselves.
Other former players joined Mings in calling out the government for hypocrisy, singling out Patel in particular.
“You can’t make this stuff up…. How dare you write this message when you and your peers said it’s OK for people to boo the taking of the knee,” tweeted former soccer player Anton Ferdinand in response to Patel’s tweet.
Saka, Rashford and Sancho have received an outpouring of support from players, fans and school children both on social media and in real life. A mural of Rashford that was defaced in Manchester was quickly covered in paper hearts and letters to the player.
In a message on Twitter, Rashford apologized for missing his penalty kick, but said he “will never apologize for who I am and where I come from.”
Last year, the Manchester United player became known for more than his soccer skills after he forced the government to an embarrassing reversal on providing free school meals for kids in low income households.
The pushback against the government is no surprise given the ethnic makeup of Britain and the direction society is moving in, according to Sathnam Sanghera, author of “Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain.”
“We are as a nation getting more diverse, tolerant and progressive,” said Sanghera, who was a spectator at the match on Sunday.
“The fact that players are taking on the government shows you that things are beginning to change. There’s a long way to go, there’s a long bloody way to go.”
‘If you blow dog whistles’
It’s not only athletes criticizing the government for stoking a culture war in the U.K. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham, a member of the opposition Labour Party, said Mings was right to call out politicians.
“If you blow dog whistles, the dogs start barking,” Burnham said on GB News, adding that the government has been stoking culture wars.
“Over the last decade, we've had leaders, particularly in the U.S. and here to a degree, that have just allowed stuff to happen when they shouldn't have.”
Prince William, who is president of the Football Association, has also come under fire for his condemnation of the racist abuse, with some saying that he should have been more supportive of his sister-in-law Meghan, after she complained of racism during her time as a senior royal.
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“Prince William if you had led by being sickened, vocally and visibly against racist abuse at your sister-in-law #MeghanMarkle, for years, your words would have legitimate credibility right now,” wrote Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, the author of “This Is Why I Resist: Don't Define My Black Identity.”
Britain’s notorious tabloids are also being targeted for playing a role in fueling the racism that the players faced. The hashtag #dontbuythesun, one of the U.K.’s most popular papers, was trending on Twitter on Tuesday afternoon.
The paper's front page on Tuesday read, “We’ve got your back,” and featured photos of the three Black players who faced abuse. But some on the social media platform pointed out the paper's previous front pages, which have at times criticized Black soccer players for their tattoos or spending habits.
The furor over the racist abuse, as well as the comments of political leaders, has highlighted the ugly culture war going on in British society and the need to find a new way forward, according to Patrick Vernon, a social commentator, cultural historian and the co-author of “100 Great Black Britons.”
"It raises the big issues of ongoing systemic racism, what Britain will do about it, and what politicians are going to do about it, especially if they were in denial about it in the first place," he said.
"Football is the No. 1 premier sport in Britain, and sports bring people together, irrespective of who you are."