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In a flood of vitriol as repugnant as it was predictable, three young Black English soccer players were assailed with racist abuse - to get real, a way-too-genteel term for foul swill like "Go kill yourselves nigger monkeys" - after each missed penalty shots in a tied Euro 2020 final Sunday, effectively handing Italy the victory.
In a sport, country, world still deeply and intractably hierarchical, thus did the supremely accomplished Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka learn again, though they likely know it well, that for many "their perceived Britishness is provisional, dependent upon their ability to kick a ball."
Despite the advocacy work of Kick It Out and other anti-racism groups, the longtime abuse by bigoted, swiftly enraged white fans of the world's most watched and played sport - see monkey chants, Nazi salutes, banana peels thrown on the field - has only grown worse in recent years with the rise of right-wing nationalism and the growing diversity of once-all-white European teams, especially when, as the young, newly multi-ethnic British team did, they take a knee before each game to protest that reality.
Dispiritingly, that modest act sparked audible boos from shut-up-and-dribble morons - aka "the fuckwits on this island" - who want to be left in privileged peace to see them perform, and never mind their humanity.
Little wonder, then, that after both Rashford and Sancho and finally Saka, just 19, missed penalty shots to give Italy the win, all three and Raheem Sterling, another black player, were bombarded by almost 2,000 vengeful tweets, some deemed "high risk abuse." Many used the word "nigger." None bear repeating.
EXCLUSIVE: New research shows almost 2000 discriminatory abusive tweets targeting Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Raheem Sterling were posted after last night's game. 167 were considered to be "high risk" abuse. pic.twitter.com/GN8KFFvMhu— Channel 4 News (@Channel4News) July 12, 2021
Gratifyingly, the rest of the world was appalled, dubbing the onslaught "abhorrent," "disgusting," "reprehensible," with many arguing social media platforms must be held accountable with "real life consequences."
"These three young men stood tall and shouldered a massive moment for their country," noted one fan. "They fell short. It happens. To turn against them (because) the result didn't go your way is unforgivable."
Royalty and politicians joined in, though some of their outrage was less than convincing. Many derided the hypocrisy of Boris Johnson, who declined to condemn the boos and has compared Muslim women in hijabs to "letter boxes," and xenophobic Home Secretary Priti Patel, who argued fans have the right to boo "gesture politics," as akin to arsonists yelling 'fire" after they pour the gas.
"We see you," wrote one after Patel huffed racism "has no place in our country." "That's what you say about immigrants."
Others said they were grateful, given her rhetoric, she hasn't deported the dark half of the team.
The abuse was especially devastating to blacks who'd seen the diverse team as a sign of change in a long-racist British landscape.
"Those young men have done more in a matter of weeks for my sense of belonging and pride than this government has done in ten years," wrote one. "They represent the best of us."
"The whole country should stand firm behind every player in this heroic team," wrote another. "Win as England, lose as England."
Still, change comes hard, bitterly noted Ahmed Ali: "When you win, you're English. When you lose, you're black."
Added another, "This is why we take the knee. Praying for a better future."
Perhaps the most venomously targeted was Marcus Rashford, at 23 the oldest in the group and a gifted striker for Manchester United who always took a knee, wore "United Against Racism" shirts and was visible enough in his activism that, after England's loss, nasty MP Natalie Elphicke sniped, "Would it be ungenerous to suggest Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics?"
Of Caribbean descent, he grew up poor and often hungry in industrial Wythenshawe, in, he once wrote to MPs, "a system not built for families like mine to succeed."
One of five kids of a single mom working three jobs, he'd go visit friends "who understood my situation" if there was no dinner at home.
During the pandemic, he began a campaign to feed 400,000 hungry kids in Manchester and, ultimately four million kids across the country, shaming the government into a U-turn to restore free lunches and other subsidized meals, getting businesses to join the effort, and insisting, "These children matter . . . And as long as they don't have a voice, they will have mine."
Within hours of the loss to Italy, a mural of Rashford - "Take pride in knowing your struggle will play the biggest role in your purpose" - was defaced in what police called "racially aggravated" vandalism.
Just as quickly, steadfast locals began swarming the site with hearts, notes, messages of good will declaring Rashford absolute star, role model, wonderful human, King of England.
"You are truly a kind amazing hero," wrote one, and from Reggie, age six, "Thank you for all our dinner."
A moved Rashford sent thanks, apologies, resolve: "I can take critique of my performance all day long, (but) I will never apologize for who I am and where I came from."
By Tuesday, another digital mural honored all three players and Rashford's had become an ad hoc shrine to racial justice.
Street artist Akse restored the image - now awash in notes of veneration and respect - sign-waving crowds held Black Lives Matter rallies, Rashford was "overwhelmed, thankful, lost for words," and the amity kept coming. Samples: "Head up, king . . . We go again, lad . . . We bloody love you, mate. Onwards."
There may yet be hope.
Previously by Abby Zimet:
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