Football’s home truths

Inevitable. And no –  I don’t mean a tournament exit on penalties for England. However, as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka bravely stepped up for their spot kicks, one thing was on my mind. “Please, please don’t miss.” 

But not for footballing reasons. 

It’s always easier to remember the good times. And boy were those knockout rounds good – Germany? dispatched. Ukraine? Humbled. Denmark? Slayed. Euphoria? In overdrive. Let’s remember how the European Championships began though. 

Gareth Southgate: a manager, a leader, an ally, who so eloquently and empathetically penned an open letter to the nation on the eve of the Championships explaining why our players would continue taking the knee and more importantly, why some sections of England fans were so far off the mark by choosing to boo the gesture of solidarity against racism. 

Fast-forward through the good times and here we are again. 

As each of the brave young players stepped forward and unfortunately missed, the knot in my stomach tightened. 

But still, not for footballing reasons. 

The game we call ‘the beautiful’ one has many ugly sides. At the best of times, online abuse is equal parts disgusting as it is rife. We all knew what was coming. 

3 missed penalties, by 3 black players. It was like watching a really disturbing film that you’ve seen many times before. But this is our reality. 

The love is always conditional, and the abuse is only ever one kick away. 

Talk of the fantastic work Marcus Rashford did during lockdown as a reason why he should’ve been exempt from the vile abuse doesn’t quite sit right with me if I’m honest. As though he should only be excused because he’d served a purpose to the nation, not for fact that he’s simply a human being. 

Same with Raheem Sterling. The very same publications that have spent close to a decade vilifying his every move suddenly decided he’s now worthy of praise because of his contribution on the pitch, also, does not sit right with me. 

When things are good, we’re English too. When the good times stop, we’re back to being immigrants. Black Lives do Matter. Just not all the time. 

I so badly wanted England to win. For the players that have tirelessly dedicated themselves to their craft. For a manager, who, whether you agree with his tactical decisions or not, has put together a group of players who represent a modern society so fittingly. 

But for a group of fans, who will cheer our black players in one breath, and racially abuse them in the next, this was never for you. 

To Marcus, Jadon and Bukayo, this is in no way your fault. This goes far deeper than football. Scoring those penalties would’ve sparked jubilation but if we’re honest – would have only papered over the cracks. 

Racism is still rife – a part of me believes it always will be too. So, while the answer will never be a simple one, the message to those players is: after over a year of feeling pretty empty, thank you for making us feel something again. 

You might be feeling like you’ve let the country down but the truth is, it’s very much the other way around. 

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