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.
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 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.
‘Undeclared war on woke’
“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.
“@BorisJohnson and @pritipatel are like arsonists complaining about a fire they poured petrol on. Total hypocrites,” she added.
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.
“We should have listened and altered our stance on things, and maybe not been so stridently against it,” Amankona added.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.”
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.”
England’s footballers lost the Euro 2020 final. But they might yet win the culture war