Bukayo Saka was inconsolable.
After England’s 19-year-old prodigy missed a decisive penalty in the EURO 2020 Final defeat to Italy on Sunday night, his teammates formed a bubble around him, comforting him in despair, and protecting the devastated Arsenal winger from view.
But they could do little to stop what was to follow: an onslaught of online abuse and racist slurs. Saka was one of three Black England players to miss a penalty in the first major final for the English men’s side since winning the World Cup in 1966, alongside Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho.
Immediately, the stars were subject to a series of disgusting racist insults on the internet.
There were racist comments on Saka’s Instagram page, vicious insults posted across Twitter, and in Manchester, a mural honouring Rashford was vandalised overnight. In addition, there have been unverified videos doing the rounds on social media of violence allegedly targeting ethnic minorities around London.
The racist posts were condemned by public figures, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the Duke of Cambridge, and leading figures from the football community and beyond. On Monday morning, England football manager Gareth Southgate called the abuse “unforgivable.”
“It’s just not what we stand for,” Southgate said.
“We have been a beacon of light in bringing people together in people being able to relate to the national team, and the national team stands for everybody and so that togetherness has to continue.”
“We have shown the power our country has when it does come together and has that energy and positivity together,” he added. “We heal together as a team now, and we’re there for them, and I know that 99% of the public will be as well.”
Barely three months after players and clubs boycotted Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for four days to protest inaction on behalf of social media companies, and as the debate continued to rage over the England team’s insistence that they would continue to take the knee to protest racial inequality, racism has once again taken centre stage in world football.
But we can’t dismiss the signs of progress. This England team symbolises a more modern, diverse, representative nation — one that finds strength in courage and compassion. It’s filled with players that believe in being good citizens, boldly speak to their own experiences of inequality, and don’t think twice about lending their voices to fighting systemic injustices.
It’s a new identity that could help us heal. And in the face of such vile abuse, there are so many examples of it standing strong across the country. Here are some moments of solidarity we’ve seen rise up in defence of decency, moments that give us hope for England yet.
1. When Southgate comforted Saka.
A lot has been said about Southgate and his leadership. He stood by his players when they took the knee, praised those who have used their voice to champion equality, and accepted full responsibility for the selections of the penalty takers in the shootout.
“I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions — as we should — but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress,” he wrote in the Players Tribune on June 8.
But above all, he’s just a man with a tremendous capacity for empathy. Southgate himself infamously missed a penalty in a EUROs semi-final for England in 1996, and immediately went to console a devastated Saka after Sunday’s game. It was a beautiful, bittersweet moment that foreshadowed the tsunami of support still to come.
He’s been there and he’s done it. Gareth Southgate knows what Saka, Rashford and Sancho will be going through and knows how important support and reassurance is in those dark times. England are in good hands with him in charge 🏴 #Euro2020Finalpic.twitter.com/qHpikCa18e— Nile High (@GoTheExtraNile) July 11, 2021
2. Fans rushed to Instagram to drown out racist posts with positivity.
When the game finished, there were reports of some fans going to Instagram to leave abusive comments on Saka, Rashford, and Sancho’s pages.
So a counter-movement began: to flood their comments with waves of love and support. If you go to Saka’s latest post, all you can see is people backing him up — with many people gathering online to systematically report all the trolls.
“Hey it’s okay bro you're still my favorite player", one said. "We’re all behind you Bukayo," another posted. And rapper AJ Tracey commented: "keep shining bro."
Nah but genuinely this is so lovely to see 🥺 keep this energy up pls! pic.twitter.com/zT2D5aEE1M— Zing Tsjeng (@misszing) July 12, 2021
get in girls, we’re spending the night reporting the disgusting comments on Saka’s Instagram— Cassie (@Cassiesmyth) July 11, 2021
3. People were shouting about their charity work.
Everyone knows about Rashford’s work fighting food poverty.
But while one Conservative MP reportedly said in a Whatsapp group that he "should have spent more time perfecting his game and less time playing politics", most people continued to revere him as a hero for his work off the pitch, with many also hailing the less publicised stories of Saka and Sancho’s activism.
Like how Sancho helped build a state-of-the-art football pitch for hundreds of kids in south London. Or when fellow Arsenal player Hector Bellerin invested in Forest Green Rovers — the “world's greenest football club” — and he told Saka about deforestation, the teenager’s response was simply: "How can I donate?"
Can we remember...— Imogen Davies (@_ImogenDavies_) July 11, 2021
Marcus Rashford is 23, raised £200m for kids to eat last year.
Jadon Sancho is 21, opened up new football pitches for those in the suburbs of London.
Bukayo Saka is 19, a voice for the youth of football today & helping local communities. #StopHate#ENGITA
4. The importance of taking the knee was emphasised.
Both England and Italy took the knee before kick off to protest racial injustice. In the aftermath, many people went online to express pride in that moment of solidarity — and to criticise the double standards many perceived in UK leaders such as Priti Patel and Boris Johnson, who while criticising more overt forms of racial discrimination, previously refused to condemn fans who had booed the gesture.
And on Monday, former England international Gary Neville went on morning television to call out the racial abuse, and those in the UK government that he believes encourages it.
“The prime minister said it was OK for the population of this country to boo those players who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism,” Neville said on Sky News. “It starts at the very top.”
Well done, Gary Neville, for calling this out pic.twitter.com/tyGUqwaIim— Ian Fraser (@Ian_Fraser) July 12, 2021
5. Hearts on Rashford’s mural.
The racist graffiti on Rashford’s mural in Withington, Manchester, was promptly taped over.
But as the nation was waking up on Monday morning, locals were pictured sticking red love hearts onto the tape, with beautiful epithets praising Rashford scrawled onto them: “conqueror”, “hero”, “role model”, and “adored” were among those stuck to the mural.
Below the hearts, sticky notes continue to hold up the characteristics that strike at the heart of the kind of identity that this England team is built on: “gentle”, “thoughtful”, “kind.”
A local resident in Withington, Manchester places love hearts over the area of the Marcus Rashford mural that was defaced after England's Euro 2020 Final loss, last night ❤️ pic.twitter.com/oFnlHfGj3u— SportsJOE (@SportsJOEdotie) July 12, 2021
6. A unified voice against racism.
Despite the actions of the few, many online spaces are overflowing with empathy, love, and furious condemnations of institutional racism in all its forms right now. The hashtag #SakaYouDidGreat has been trending on Twitter all day, while people are still posting about their national pride.
Here’s a few more tweets that underline that strength of feeling. Saka, Rashford, Sancho — we’re with you, we’ll always be with you, and we’re all so proud.
A huge well done to Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka and Jadon Sancho 🖤— gal-dem (@galdemzine) July 12, 2021
To people of colour impacted by racist responses, remember that our humanity and value to society is not determined by our accomplishments. Respect is the bare minimum of what we deserve. pic.twitter.com/CuzFv7p23t
Rashford, Saka and Sancho.— Sadiq Khan (@SadiqKhan) July 11, 2021
Three Lions. 🦁🦁🦁
I don't understand why there is still room for racism and discrimination. We will never tire of fighting against any form of discrimination. Instead of being applauded for having the courage to take the penalties, these young men are attacked with racist insults. I am speechless.— Erling Haaland (@ErlingHaaland) July 12, 2021