The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) Euro Football final was held on June 11 in Wembley stadium in London between Italy and England. Football is by far the most popular game in the world though it is not so in India. Certainly, in Europe its popularity is unmatched by any other sport. The Euro championship is held every four years—it was delayed by a year this time around because of Covid—and national teams compete. It excites great national feeling and football fever grips Europe when it is on. It was so during this tournament too. But this time around some special features were witnessed in the final which went beyond sport and national sentiment into the realm of social prejudices.
Italy won the final 3-2 through a penalty shoot-out.
The three English players—Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka—who did not net their shots are persons of colour. English fans are notorious for their rowdyism. On this occasion too, after their side lost, they indulged in unruly behaviour on the streets of London. However, some people also took to the social media to post racist and hateful messages targeting Rashford, Sancho and Saka whose Instagram account was pasted with monkey and banana emojis. Also, a mural of Rashford in Manchester was defaced. These actions brought to the surface existing racist attitudes in English society even as it is changing through the growing number of coloured people who have taken British citizenship and others who are living and working in the country.
British prime minister Boris Johnson tweeted against the racist social media messages. He wrote “This English team deserve to be lauded as heroes. Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves”. Prince William, grandson of Queen Elizabeth who holds the ceremonial position of President of the country’s Football Association tweeted that he was “sickened” by the racist abuse against the English players. He demanded that those who those who were involved in this “abhorrent” and “unacceptable” behaviour should be held to account. While it was appropriate for both William and Johnson to condemn racial abuse, some commentators pointed to the way the Royal family has treated Meghan, wife of William’s brother Prince Harry. Some others have also pointed to Johnson’s past controversial comments which were tinged with racism and his defence of celebrated British personalities who profited from slavery or exhibited racist attitudes during the colonial period.
The fact is that prejudice and discriminatory attitudes against those who do not belong to a group is inherent in all societies and has been so during the course of human history. The problem gets compounded when it is not criticised but upheld as correct and is justified. This was so during the period of European colonialism which was based on the theory of the superiority of white races and the inherent inferiority of people of colour. Thus, racism was one of colonialism’s founding principles. Indeed, the colonising countries proclaimed that they had taken on a burden of ruling other peoples—in Africa, Asia and elsewhere—for the benefit of the colonised! The truth though is of course different. The colonies were completely exploited and looted and the prosperity of Europe today has its roots in the capital it accumulated through colonialism.
The process of decolonisation began after the second world war in 1945. India was one of its leaders. This was not surprising for the Indian freedom movement was both a quest for political liberation as it was for social equality and economic regeneration. It was founded on the principle of equality and a full rejection of racism. It took more than two decades after the end of the war for all colonised countries to be independent. During this period, it also became clear that institutional racism within countries was also unacceptable; countries could not shield themselves behind their sovereign status and continue with racist policies. Changes in legal doctrines occurred in the United States to abolish the pernicious practise of segregation in public places in the country’s southern states. The concept of ‘separate but equal’ was thrown in the dustbin of history. The leaders of the American Civil Rights Movement were inspired by Gandhiji’s doctrine of non-violence.
The main struggle in the second half of the last century occurred in South Africa where a white minority regime oppressed and exploited coloured people. It seems astonishing now but it is true that for economic and geo-strategic reasons the West, led by the US, did not act effectively against the obnoxious South African regime for decades. It only made condemnatory statements. But the coloured people of South Africa inspired by leaders like Nelson Mandela who was incarcerated for 27 years and supported by the decolonised countries finally threw out the apartheid system.
The international community is formally committed to work against racism in all its manifestations since the coming into force in 1969 of the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. There has been progress in the past fifty years against legalised institutional structures based on racism. The expression of racist sentiment is no longer formally, politically acceptable. However, the racist abuse against Rashford, Sancho and Saka show it has not been rooted out even in technologically advanced societies. The only way to remove these deep-seated social prejudices is through. as the Convention notes “effective measures particularly in the fields of teaching, education, culture and information…”.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts, analysis, assumptions and perspective appearing in the article do not reflect the views of GK.