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Euros 2020 racism against footballers
Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, and Marcus RashfordIllustration Callum Abbott

Black football fans won’t let racism stem their love of the beautiful game

England’s Euro 2020 defeat amplified the racism rife in football culture – here, Black fans talk about preserving passion and staying resilient

I have to admit: I’ve spent a lot of time bantering football Twitter and their incessant angry complaining. I used to be the very annoying and dismissive “it’s just a game” person who had no idea that, in fact, it’s not just a game – it is quite literally life. I’d see the chaos in Wembley, men crying in pubs, fighting, riotin, and general football hooliganism, and I just couldn’t connect to it. That is, until Euro 2020. Now I get it. I, too, have never felt so inclined to pour a pint of beer on my fresh braids and roar in my local pub. Following this year’s tournament was an exhilarating experience; I feel reborn, and I now understand that being outraged by football is indeed a substitute for a personality – I won’t hear otherwise. 

However, the joy from the game is also coupled with the almost expected racism from ‘fans’, players, the media, and even politicians. The speed with which joy and camaraderie in football can turn into divisive racism and discrimination can almost give you whiplash, and it’s because of this that my newfound love of the sport feels so awkward. In light of the abuse directed towards Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka after England’s defeat to Italy on Sunday (July 11), I had to understand how Black fans continue to support the sport despite the racism.

Although I’m somewhat of a late bloomer when it comes to finding interest in football – for me, it was a couple of weeks ago – for many fans, teams were essentially assigned at birth. Aaron, a 27-year-old Manchester United fan, has been a fan since the wee age of nine. “The 2002 World Cup was my earliest memory of football; it was when I lived in Germany. I fell in love with the game as soon as I could walk,” he tells Dazed. 

For 29-year-old Gillian, it was even earlier. “Football is a relationship I’ve maintained better than I have with any other man,” she says. “I started watching football at around age five or six. It has always been a part of my family; everyone supports a team. I think I fell in love with winning, and Manchester United was successful at the time, so I went with it.” 

Tifé, a 23-year-old Manchester United fan, had similar feelings. “I fell in love with (football) – after my dad explained the offside rule to me – because I’ve played sports all my life, and there’s no better feeling than following your team through their ups and downs and eventually seeing them pick up a trophy,” she shares.

For many Black football fans, growing up with a love of the beautiful game means growing up with a hyperawareness of the racism that comes with it. Long time fans like Aaron knew exactly what would happen when Rashford, Sancho, and Saka missed their penalties during Sunday’s nail-biting evening. “Within minutes, social media was on fire. My second thought was to message all of my Black friends (urging them) to get home safe, because I knew we were going to be targets from that point on,” he says. “I’ve lived in Germany for 13 years, Belgium for ten years, and I’ve been in the UK for nearly five years. I’ve never experienced that much racism in my life.”

The racism and abuse that players face is felt by everyone that has any kind of stake in the game. “On Monday, my nine-year-old nephew cried in the morning when he saw on the news that players had been racially abused,” Gillian tells Dazed. “He looks up to players like Rashford, and I really struggled having to explain to him that this happens based on the colour of his skin. He's only nine, and of course he wants to be a footballer like every other kid.” When players were booed for taking the knee – a move propped up by both the home secretary and the media – it revealed that there’s still not enough interest in making football a space for Black fans, and this was disheartening.

In a defiant stand against racism and a display of solidarity with England’s Black footballers, thousands flooded Rashford, Sancho, and Saka’s social media accounts with messages of love, pride, and support. A mural of Rashford in Manchester, which was defaced an hour after the Euro 2020 final, was covered with heart-shaped post-it notes and England flags, all containing touching tributes to the footballer and wider England team.

Even before the grim aftermath of the game, on Sunday night, my pulse and blood pressure were through the roof. During the penalties I could almost fist-bump God – that’s how close I was to simply passing away at any moment. I felt like the anxiety of the match gave me more of a workout than the players on the pitch. I woke up with a hangover without drinking any alcohol whatsoever, and then faced racism across social media – it was all too much. 

“My nine-year-old nephew looks up to players like Rashford, and I really struggled having to explain to him that this happens based on the colour of his skin” – Gillian

The levels of stress that peak in nail-biting matches or ensuing racist tirades certainly can’t be healthy for Black people to confront regularly. So, how do fans stay resilient? “You have to remember that it’s just a game,” says Gillian. “I know that’s easier said than done, but truly, these lot are doing a job like the rest of us.” She does admit, however, that this perspective takes practice. “It is something that comes with years of watching and years of heartbreak.”

Aaron says he exercises self-care by staying off social media during the game. “I gradually went from being super active on socials during the match, to not being active at all and just enjoying the game,” he explains. “I’ll maybe give an opinion online the next day, but I’ve received abuse for my opinions on Man United, and sometimes it goes as far as getting threatened to be attacked if I turn up at Old Trafford, which I think is ridiculous.” 

For Tifé, reliving the joy of former glory is key. “After a crap game, I like to watch football highlights on YouTube of 40-yard screamers. I often reload videos of that bicycle kick from Rooney just to feel something,” she says. “The thing about football is that you win some and you lose some. All you can do is take the loss and go again next week!”