Such pressure on a young player was unenviable, but Saka missing would go beyond personal and team tragedy. Knowing how deeply pervasive racism is in soccer, we knew a miss would inevitably lead to attacks from English fans and the English press. England’s chance at glory was on the line as he stepped up, but so was the dignity of Saka and the other Black players on the English team.
Saka missed the penalty, England lost, and, sure enough, the expected happened. The social media accounts of the Black players were immediately flooded with racist comments and a mural of Rashford was defaced. Not only did the players have to bear the weight of their misses leading to England’s failure; they were also then dehumanized by the same people they were representing.
Social media tends to be more extreme than the outside world, but the online attacks were a mere extension of the offline treatment of the players. It’s almost a running joke and rite of passage for Black English players at this point that the English press will write stories painting them as spoiled, arrogant and flashy.
Raheem Sterling suffered through it. Rashford dealt with it before and after he challenged the British government to feed children. Mason Greenwood faced a mountain of criticism after footage emerged of the Manchester United striker playing around with laughing gas. And Saka found himself in the crosshairs recently because he bought a new house for his mother.
A story of a footballer buying an expensive house or car or even going grocery shopping seems innocent enough, until one notices the pattern of who is always the subject of those stories and the contemptuous and condemning tone of the articles. The comment sections of those English papers where people feel safe to voice their bigotry are not much different from the comments about and mentions of the players after the final match.
As the tournament began, English players continued kneeling before kickoff, as they had done in matches before, as a gesture against racism. Rather than supporting them, their own fans booed them. The booing was backed by several Conservative politicians, including Home Secretary Priti Patel and Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who both defended the backlash as valid frustration from the fans. The players and their manager, Gareth Southgate, were quick to explain the meaning of their gesture — that they were doing it as a protest against racism — but that simple and clear explanation still was not enough to placate the fans.
The English team continued to do well and progress through the tournament, and a drastic change happened. Once it became obvious that the team could potentially bring glory to the country, the same people who were against them suddenly started cheering them on. The nationalist pro-Brexit politician Nigel Farage, who was a vocal supporter of the players being booed, even shamelessly posted a message before the final in support of the team. Standing against supposed Marxist ideology disappeared when fans, politicians and newspapers saw that they could link themselves to the team’s potential success.
The bigoted reactions after the loss in the final, then, were not anything surprising, but a return to the norm. The players were looked down on before they were cheered on for their wins, and when the last win didn’t come, they were looked down on again.
The feeling of dread before Saka took his penalty betrayed a truth about the relationship between the Black English players and members of their country. The wish for Saka to score in order to avoid racist abuse only reveals a deeper truth: that respect for him as a person and recognition of his dignity is only possible if he and the other Black players keep making the people who hate them happy. A conditional respect of a person’s humanity, which means that it’s no recognition at all.
When the players speak up against racism or fail to win the championship, they’re reminded that they’re supposed to be voiceless automatons, there to entertain and be used by the people. They’re made aware that they’re not regarded as dignified human beings.
It was heartening to see some fans, teams and politicians push back against the bigotry by showering the players with love and support. A group of people decorated the defaced Rashford mural with hearts. Yet, while the players surely appreciate the support, and hopefully will one day have a chance to have success at the highest level, it’s not hard to imagine that they will never forget that many of their supporters see them as sub-human — and no level of sporting achievement will change that.