BURTON-ON-TRENT, England -- What should be the perfect opening to England’s European Championship campaign — in its home stadium on a scorching summer afternoon — instead carries an element of trepidation about the reception the players will receive from their own fans.
When players took a knee before both Euro 2020 warm-up games, the response from sections of England fans was booing.
The disregard of the reasons for performing the anti-racism gesture has created a disconnect with many soccer fans viewing it as a political act.
Ahead of England’s Group D opener against Croatia on Sunday at Wembley Stadium there has even been a intervention, albeit delayed, from Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office.
“The prime minister wants to see everybody getting behind the team to cheer them on, not boo,” the message said.
The England team appears to be frustrated for continually having to explain why they want to take a knee, as they have done in the Premier League for a year as part of calls to eradicate racial injustice following the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“Honestly, it’s something I didn’t even really want to speak on,” England forward Raheem Sterling said at the team’s St. George’s Park team base. “If you can’t understand the meaning behind it and the cause behind it, then it’s a real disappointment to see that.”
During team meetings, England players have remained unwavering in their determination to take a knee.
“We believe in that,” said defender Luke Shaw, who is white, “and we won’t stop.”
Last year, center back Tyrone Mings helped the English Football Association create a code to increase gender and ethnic diversity in coaching and senior leadership positions by setting targets for recruitment.
“Whether that message gets through to the minority or not is something we should not ever give up on,” Mings said. “I will speak about it until the day that I pass away. I am a strong advocate for trying to educate people who might not understand issues they have been subjected to.”
There is no unified public position from the fans jeering their own players, but some have tried to link taking a knee with a political agenda.
Yet the England games — like those against Austria and Romania in Middlesbrough, where players were booed for taking a knee — also see the line “No surrender” inserted by a large section of fans during the national anthem, a dated reference to the conflict endured for generations that saw Britain hit by Irish Republic Army terrorist attacks.
“If you are booing an anti-racist gesture in England then you do stand accused of being racist,” said Piara Powar, executive director of the anti-discrimination group Fare network.
“This argument they there are booing the Black Lives Matter movement organization doesn’t wash really," Powar said. "They don’t like the fact the identity of England is changing and the gesture such as taking a knee, which actually is a sporting gesture, has made its way into football.”
It was also booed by Hungary fans when Ireland players kneeled during a friendly match on Tuesday — a move defended by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.
“Politics has no place in sports,” Orbán said.
The Scotland team had initially decided not to kneel during games at Euro 2020 but on Friday said it would when it goes to Wembley next Friday for the second group game against England.
“Our stance is that everyone, players, fans, teams, clubs, federations, governing bodies and governments, must do more,” Scotland captain Andy Robertson said. “Meaningful action is needed if meaningful change is to occur. But it is also clear, given the events around the England national team, taking the knee in this tournament matters as a symbol of solidarity.”
Kick It Out, the English game’s anti-discrimination group, and the Football Supporters’ Association have called on fans at Wembley to drown out any booing with cheers.
“Fans who turn up to support the England team and make their first act after the referee’s whistle booing their own team’s stance against racism, should be ashamed of themselves,” FSA chief executive Kevin Miles said.
England coach Gareth Southgate has made clear his players won't “just stick to football” if their platform can be used to achieve change in society.
“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate," Southgate wrote in a letter to fans published by The Players' Tribune.
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