LONDON – Frenzied media coverage, patriotic fervor and… boos from the fans?
The English men’s soccer team normally dominates the country’s psyche in the days leading up to major tournaments, like this week’s European Championships, which started on Friday.
But a decision by England players to kneel before matches to draw attention to racial injustice is drawing boos from fans, who recently returned to the stadiums after a year marked by the pandemic and protests.
The feud that followed was fueled in part by the reaction of Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who, while launching a charm offensive for a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’, stoked a burgeoning national cultural war with distinctly American echoes.
Johnson “would like everyone to line up behind the team to cheer them on, not to boo,” a spokesperson said on Friday, hours before the tournament kicks off with Italy facing Turkey in Rome.
This followed a week in which the prime minister did not explicitly condemn the boos. His spokesperson told NBC News that when it comes to kneeling, he “believes in taking action rather than just gesturing.”
Johnson’s political opponents on Friday criticized the PM for what they called a lack of leadership by being slow to explicitly condemn boos at the kneeling national football team.
Johnson’s stance and the mixed messages from his government officials have also been criticized as cynical, “Trumpians” and the latest example of his attempt to tap into a larger cultural debate over identity – dubbed the “Awakening Wars” by British tabloids.
Conservative politician Brendan Clarke-Smith said in a Facebook post that he would turn off his television when gamers kneel, adding that the Black Lives Matter movement had “sinister motives,” such as “crush capitalism, fund the police, destroy the nuclear family. “
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“There is a sporting problem as well as a cultural problem,” Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, told NBC News.
“The reason they are diving is because it fits well with what they perceive to be their base,” he said of supporters of the ruling Conservative Party and those who voted to quit. the European Union.
He added that Johnson’s government was only capitalizing on a nationalist sentiment that had been building for years.
Defending an “anti-wake-up agenda” in sports, museums and on college campuses allows leaders to attack those on the “liberal left,” Westwood said, but also to deflect other pressures, such as the pandemic. and economic fragility.
“It is the politics of division and polarization,” he added. “There are kinds of echoes from Trump’s playbook. “
The reputation of English football fans often precedes them – loud, loud and sometimes responsible for hooliganism abroad.
But England’s official governing body, the Football Association, as well as the Free Lions, a group of supporters in England and Wales, both spoke out against the boos, saying they came from a ” minority of the English crowd ”. ”
England coach Gareth Southgate also wrote an open letter on Tuesday urging the country to reflect on the matter.
“I never thought we had to stick to football,” Southgate wrote. “Everyone has a different idea of what it really means to be English. “
Football author and writer Henry Winter applauded Southgate’s missive as being patriotic and progressive, but said racism in the sport was nothing new and had been a bane of the game for decades.
But that is changing, Winter added.
“This is a fairly autonomous generation of players… They have a good conscience,” he said. “They just decided enough is enough. “
The majority of football fans in Europe are in favor of kneeling, with the highest support in Portugal, Italy and Spain, according to a YouGov poll released on Thursday. He found that just over half of England football fans (54%) supported the gesture.
Leon Mann, co-founder of Football Black List, a UK-based network that champions diversity in the game, said it was “extremely disappointing” to see fans booing their own players for kneeling down.
Budapest fans this week also booed the Irish national team for kneeling ahead of a match in Hungary, and the Scottish players have said they will also kneel down in a unique solidarity demonstration ahead their European Championship match against England in London. .
Mann said he was concerned that serious conversations about racism could be “hijacked” and subjected to “dangerous manipulation” by those who benefit from social divisions. He called on the government to explicitly amplify the anti-racist message promoted by the players by kneeling.
“For me, government interventions have been massively unnecessary, to say the least,” he added.
English cricket, a traditionally distinguished sport that includes breaks for tea and cucumber sandwiches, has also become an arena for a wider debate on identity and culture this week after England player Ollie’s historic tweets were recast. Robinson, in which he made fun of the appearance of Asians. and denigrated women and Muslims.
“I am embarrassed by the racist and sexist tweets I posted over eight years ago,” Robinson, 27, said in a statement. “I deeply regret my actions and am ashamed to make such remarks. “
He has been suspended from all international cricket pending the outcome of a disciplinary investigation, the England governing body said in a statement, adding that the sport was “better than this”.
He said on Twitter that while he did not tolerate Robinson’s posts, they were “a decade old and written by a teenager.” The teenager is now a man and has rightly apologized, ”Dowden said. He added that the governing body had “crossed the line by suspending it and should think again”.
Dowden’s political intervention was announced by Nigel Farage, right-wing Brexit activist and also supported by Johnson.
But for Mann, sports stars using their platform to protest injustice always attract a larger audience than politicians who criticize them.
“Sport can show the way,” he said.