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These children are learning about an issue long considered taboo in Britain

By Sana Noor Haq, CNN

This year’s Euro 2020 tournament has become a national talking point in the UK — but not just about football.

Before England lost the final to Italy in a penalty shootout, London’s Wembley Stadium had hosted seven Euro 2020 matches, an advantage that helped convince English fans “football’s coming home,” referencing the chorus to the “Three Lions” song, written when England hosted the European Championships in 1996.

Both before and during the tournament, England’s players took the knee before each game’s kick-off, an act Gareth Southgate’s team repeatedly said showed their support of anti-racism.

The gesture was booed by some fans, notably in two friendly matches before Euro 2020 and also during England’s opening fixture against Croatia. It was a sound all too familiar to Premier League footballers, who had received a similar reception ahead of the FA Cup final in May between Leicester City and Chelsea, when players also took the knee.

In June, UK Home Secretary Priti Patel accused the national team of engaging in “gesture politics” by taking the knee. She told GB News that fans had a right to boo players, adding, “that’s a choice for them, quite frankly.” UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, along with other lawmakers in his government, also failed to condemn such fans.

But when Italy defeated England in that penalty shootout, some fans’ hostility resurfaced in the form of online racist abuse targeted at England players Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho, after they each missed penalties.

Patel tweeted she was “disgusted” by the abuse, only for England international Tyrone Mings to call out the UK Home Secretary.

“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” the 28-year-old wrote on Twitter.

Patel and the Home Office declined to comment on Mings’ post when CNN reached out, instead pointing to her tweet and her comments in the House of Commons on Monday condemning the racist abuse directed at the England players.

Johnson and his cabinet now find themselves embroiled in a culture war, which potentially has political consequences.

READ: Germany’s Olympic soccer team walks off the pitch during friendly match over alleged racial abuse

‘Undeclared war on woke’

And Johnson may find himself on the wrong side of history when attempting to use culture wars to cement his grip on power, according to political analyst Tim Bale, who told CNN Sport that the Prime Minister, Patel “and some other government MPs did misjudge the situation right from the start.”

“They’re so concerned not to get on the wrong side of their culture war warriors, that they refused to condemn those who were booing England players taking the knee, and I think in so doing, actually misjudged the national mood on this,” said Bale, who is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

“It’s easy to see why they did it because they themselves are prosecuting a sort of undeclared war on woke,” he added.

The opposition Labour Party has argued that the government’s initial inaction served as inspiration for the continued racist abuse targeted at players.

“Let me be clear. The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary gave license to the racists who booed the England players and are now racially abusing England players,” Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner said in a tweet.

“@BorisJohnson and @pritipatel are like arsonists complaining about a fire they poured petrol on. Total hypocrites,” she added.

Likewise, during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions session, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said Johnson had given racism the “green light,” and was trying to “stoke a culture war” over the issue of players taking the knee.

Scottish National Party Westminster leader Ian Blackford went even further, flagging comments Johnson had made when he worked as journalist, namely his previous use of racist language in a 2002 Daily Telegraph column. Johnson has since apologized that he offended people.

“Can the Prime Minister tell us what sanctions he thinks would be appropriate for someone who publishes racist content, and it is shocking even to have to say this out loud, describing Africans as ‘flag waving piccaninnies with watermelon smiles’?” Blackford asked Johnson during Wednesday’s PMQs.

“The legacy of this Prime Minister’s dog whistling has followed him into 10 Downing Street and it is now at the heart of this Tory government,” added Blackford.

“The Prime Minister was clear before England’s first game that he wanted to see everyone getting behind the team to cheer them on, not boo,” a No. 10 spokesperson told CNN on Friday.

“He has also been very clear that people should feel free to show their respect and show how much they condemn racism in this country, in any way that they choose,” they said.

“Racism in any form has no place in our society and that’s why we are introducing tough new laws to force social media companies to clamp down on it,” added the spokesperson.

‘I fear we are in danger’

Even some Conservative supporters have suggested the party has mis-stepped over England players taking the knee.

According to the Guardian, Albie Amankona, a co-founder of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality, sent a letter to party MPs on Tuesday, saying that “too many” had “fundamentally misunderstood the gesture.”

“I’m […] continually surprised by the way that Conservative MPs continue to conflate those who want to take the knee with things like being anti-capitalism, Marxist, anti-police, anti-institution, anti-British. Even after the people that are for taking the knee actually say it’s nothing to do with that at all,” Amankona told BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday.

“We should have listened and altered our stance on things, and maybe not been so stridently against it,” Amankona added.

Meanwhile, the Guardian also reported former minister and senior Tory backbencher Steve Baker wrote in a message to MPs on the Conservatives Against Racism For Equality group, “Much as we can’t be associated with calls to defund the police, we urgently need to challenge our own attitude to people taking a knee.”

“I fear we are in danger of misrepresenting our own heart for those who suffer injustice,” he added.

Football’s new generation

These days a new generation of footballers are proactively using social media as a tool for increased social and political engagement, showing how those in power can be held to account under a much more public spotlight than ever before.

Professor Bale said footballers are “much more socially aware than perhaps they were a few years ago.”

“Anyone who works with young people […] knows that they’re very savvy,” he added. “So it shouldn’t really surprise anyone […] that they’re going to have views and they’re going to express them quite strongly.”

He isn’t wrong. Before England’s young football stars took to the stage at Euro 2020, they had raised awareness on other issues important to them. In June 2020, Marcus Rashford led a campaign against child hunger after the UK said it wouldn’t provide free school meal vouchers for disadvantaged children during the summer holidays. Days later, the government reversed its decision.

The Manchester United forward was subsequently praised by former U.S. President Barack Obama for his work tackling child food poverty.

A year prior, Borussia Dortmund winger Jadon Sancho teamed up with Nike to build a state-of-the-art football pitch in south London, to help young players foster their footballing talents.

In the past week, numerous England footballers, including captain Harry Kane and Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount, have taken to social media to speak out against the racist abuse endured by Rashford, Sancho and Saka.

Before then, Premier League peers Jack Grealish and Jordan Henderson had insisted it was important for the team to take the knee in the fight against inequality and racial injustice.

Responding to the racist abuse he had received, Sancho posted on Instagram, “Hate will never win.”

“I am proud of this England team and how we have united the whole nation in what has been a difficult 18 months for so many people,” he added, saying the positive messages “far outweighed the negative.”

Saka also acknowledged the abuse on an Instagram post, “I don’t want any child or adult to have to receive the hateful and hurtful messages that me Marcus and Jadon have received this week. I knew instantly the kind of hate that I was about to receive.

“There is no place for racism or hate of any kind in football or in any area of society and to the majority of people coming together to call out the people sending these messages, by taking action and reporting these comments to the police and by driving out the hate by being kind to one another, we will win.”

After missing his penalty, a mural in Rashford’s hometown was defaced with graffiti. However, fans and locals alike swamped the portrait with messages of love and support, thanking him for lifting the nation’s spirit and continuing to carry himself with grace.

According to a statement released by Greater Manchester Police (GMP) on Thursday, “While the content of the vandalism is not believed to be of a racial nature, officers are keeping an open mind as to the motive behind defacing the artwork.”

Superintendent Richard Timson, district commander for GMP’s City of Manchester division, said: “On Monday morning when we saw the damage done to the mural in Withington we were all left appalled, and we stand with the rest of the community whose solidarity against this vile abuse ever since has really shown the best of our city.”

“Overwhelmed. Thankful. Lost for words,” the football star posted on Instagram in response.

A microcosm of society

“Sport mirrors or reflects society, its virtues and vices, but, unlike a mirror, it is active; it affects what it is a reflection of,” Jan Boxill writes in ‘The Moral Significance of Sport.’

If the events of the past few months have shown anything, it’s that sport will always be a microcosm of society, reflecting the changing social mores across the electorate.

“We’re long past the days where politicians could demand the sports people and celebrities keep out of politics, especially when they weren’t parroting the line that those politicians approved of,” Bale says.

“They have a direct line to the public through social media. Whether it’s a good thing or not, it’s now inevitable that politics and sport will mix.”

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