Political leaders and footballing chiefs in Britain expressed disgust on Monday at racial abuse targeting England stars, including three black players who missed penalties in the Euro 2020 final against Italy.
But as Facebook vowed yet again to look into abuse on its Instagram platform, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself came under stinging criticism for earlier refusing to condemn fans who had booed English players’ campaign against racism.
England manager Gareth Southgate said the online invective was “unforgivable”. “Some of it has come from abroad, we have been told this, but some of it is from this country,” he told reporters.
“We have been a beacon of light to bring people together and the national team stands for everybody.”
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, the three players whose penalty shootout misses handed victory to Italy at Wembley, were the victims of a stream of abuse on Instagram and Twitter—many apparently from foreign trolls and bots.
“This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media,” Johnson wrote on Twitter.
“Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.”
While some people identifying as England fans used racial slurs in blaming the trio for the defeat, other offensive messages were accompanied with “forza italia” hashtags.
England’s players have made a strong stand against racism at the tournament, taking a knee before their games including Sunday’s final.
Johnson and others in the Conservatives’ “anti-woke” government had initially defended the freedom of speech of England fans who booed the players, before backing the team later in the tournament.
Former Manchester United player Gary Neville accused the prime minister of having “promoted” racism, noting one notorious past comment by Johnson likening Muslim women who wear the veil to “letter-boxes”.
“It starts at the top. What do you think is going to happen underneath in life? The parents do something, the children follow,” the pundit told Sky News.
The former chairwoman of Johnson’s Conservative party, Sayeeda Warsi, weighed in, asking the government to reflect about its role in “feeding this culture in our country”.
“If we ‘whistle’ and the ‘dog’ reacts we can’t be shocked if it barks and bites,” she wrote on Twitter. “It’s time to stop the culture wars that are feeding division.
“Dog whistles win votes but destroy nations.”
Prince William ‘sickened’
Social media companies faced calls to enforce tough action against those responsible. Facebook said it had “quickly removed comments and accounts directing abuse” at the footballers.
“No one thing will fix this challenge overnight, but we’re committed to keeping our community safe from abuse,” it added.
London police said they were aware of “a number of offensive and racist social media comments”, calling it “totally unacceptable” and promising an investigation.
The Metropolitan Police also said it was probing scenes of mayhem after some ticketless fans forced their way into Wembley Stadium.
Greater Manchester Police in northwest England meanwhile said they were treating as a racist incident the defacement of a mural in the city in honour of Rashford.
Obscenities and Saka’s name were daubed over the artwork.
“This is disgraceful behaviour and will absolutely not be tolerated,” said chief superintendent Paul Savill.
UEFA said it “strongly condemns the disgusting racist abuse” and that “we stand by the players and the English FA’s call for the strongest possible punishments.”
England player Raheem Sterling also received a stream of racial abuse after social media users accused him of cheating to win a penalty in England’s semi-final win over Denmark.
“We’re disgusted that some of our squad—who have given everything for the shirt this summer—have been subjected to discriminatory abuse online after tonight’s game,” the English Football Association tweeted.
“We stand with our players.”
Prince William, the FA’s president who attended the final with his wife Kate and son George, said he was “sickened” by the abuse.
“It is totally unacceptable that players have to endure this abhorrent behaviour. It must stop now and all those involved should be held accountable,” he tweeted.
Despite the abuse, the overwhelming majority of messages were in support of the players, who have been praised throughout the tournament for helping bring together a nation hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.