Despite the dramatic penalty shootout defeat to Italy in the final of the European Championship, England, their players and fans, should have been able to emerge from Wembley with their heads held high.
While anybody with a desire to see England finally lift an international trophy for the first time in 55 years would have rightly been upset at the outcome on Sunday night, there should have been a sense of pride for getting far closer to the big prize than many expected.
Of course, the emotional nature of football and its associated support meant that anger and frustration were understandable but when that resulted in England fans abusing the perceived culprits of the shootout, a line had been crossed.
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Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were always bound to come in for flack after their failed efforts from 12 yards, even if just by a minority, but beyond merely being criticised, each player, as well as Raheem Sterling, were bombarded with racist abuse online.
Within minutes of Gianluigi Donnarumma’s decisive save from Saka, his social media account was flooded with monkey and banana emojis, as well as frequent use of the n-word.
Sancho, Rashford and Sterling – not for the first time – all received the same treatment in what would have been a feeling of inevitability for many.
Tension would have been high among supporters as the full time whistle blew in extra time, however, for black and minority England fans, there was an added fear.
‘Please. Don’t let a black player be the villain’ would have been a thought racing through many minds and while, if that isn’t you, you can dismiss it as paranoia, the outcome has shown those fears to be entirely justified.
For many ethnic minority football fans in this country, simply seeing a St George’s Flag has long brought fears of violence and being targeted for not being seen as ‘English’ enough. Or at all.
England’s national team and its supporters has long had an issue with race. John Barnes, having scored a sensational goal for the Three Lions in 1984 against Brazil in the Maracana was told in no uncertain terms by fans on the flight home that ‘a goal from a n****r didn’t count’.
Beating Turkey 2-0 in 2003, supporters at the Stadium of Light chanted “I’d rather be a P*ki than a Turk”.
In 2013, following the high profile dispute over the racist abuse by John Terry towards Anton Ferdinand, brother Rio was targeted while representing his country by fans who had chosen to back Terry over the incident.
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There are of course a number of other incidents involving fans, both at home and travelling abroad causing trouble and rampant hooliganism and links with far-right politics that has earned England an unwanted reputation across the world.
But as time has worn on, the country, and the world for that matter has seen far more in the way of the movement of people and, in sport especially, far more inclusive representation at all levels.
The England team of today is a kaleidoscope of players of different backgrounds. Led by the progressive Gareth Southgate, the team has developed a purpose to better represent the country both on the pitch and off it.
In the face of events such as Brexit and a government driving a hard-line immigration policy among other things, it has almost been left to the footballers to act as unexpected revolutionaries of sorts.
Rashford’s political activism is well-known, while members of the team have also spoken out in favour of LGBTQ+ rights and of course, against racism – leading to the players making a point of kneeling in protest against racial injustice in light of the murder of George Floyd in America last year.
While this led to consternation from some among the fanbase, it had largely appeared to be welcomed, perhaps highlighting the fact that the demographic of England supporters, just like the team, is more diverse in its make up than it has been in the past.
With England actually winning football matches too, the sport seemed to almost look as though it was uniting the country. Those fearful of attaching themselves to England before were now fully paid up members of the club.
For a few weeks, people were happy as Southgate’s side edged closer to glory.
After the win over Denmark in the semi-final, Wembley had a carnival or festival atmosphere, with 60,000+ fans belting out ‘Three Lions’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’ as the triumphant players danced joyously on the pitch.
However, ahead of the final, old problems resurfaced with a return of the type of anti-social behaviour and fundamentally, loss of civility, that saw fans virtually tear up their own city and many storm Wembley trying to access the game without tickets.
WATCH - Fans storm Wembley despite not having tickets
The videos which have been shared paint a grim and disturbing picture of England supporters and this barbaric behaviour, fuelled by drink and - reportedly - drugs, was certainly not unrelated to the racist reactions towards the unfortunate Saka et al following the defeat.
Equally, the suggestion that those involved in either or both the lawlessness and racism are ‘not real fans’ or a 'minority' is nonsense. The fact is many of those involved are more committed fans than most. Those who dedicate their lives to supporting the team over and above anything else.
The unsavoury and depressing fallout from the match was a reality check that these problems exist beyond the game and it was a mistake to think that football in this country was making that much of a difference in bringing people together.
One hopes the likes of Rashford can continue to represent the country with distinction but when even reaching a historic final can’t stop bringing out the worst in people, then there is still a long way to go.
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