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England players call out media treatment of Black footballers

The continued scapegoating of Black players has drawn backlash from sporting giants, and set a worrying precedent for a summer of football.

Hopeful Brits will be firing up BBQs and filling pubs over the next few weeks, as the Euros kicks off another summer of football. 

Despite the general camaraderie that accompanies our nation’s favourite sport, this year’s games have already triggered the same vile media coverage that defined 2020’s Covid-delayed tournament. 

Following England’s missed penalties during the last Euros final – costing them the tournament and ensuring Italy were crowned champions – players Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford, and Jadon Sancho faced a storm of racist abuse

This vitriolic narrative was seemingly encouraged by the mainstream media – certainly in the immediate aftermath.

Swathes of public support ensured figures like Rashford, and particularly Saka (who was only 19-years-old in 2021) were defended against racist rhetoric. And it seemed like football as a whole had faced a moment of reckoning.

Awareness around diversity and inclusion in the sport, both on and off the pitch, was growing faster than it had before. But the hope for a better future of football has proven short lived. 

Heading into this week’s tournament, England took to Wembley and played their final warm-up match against Iceland. After 90 minutes of what BBC pundits called ‘boring’ and ‘dismal’ play, Iceland’s Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson scored the only goal and secured a shocking win for Iceland.

The match has triggered intense scrutiny from both the media and the football community at large, with many questioning England’s readiness for a major competition. But the Black Footballers Partnership (BFP) has criticised the English media for scapegoating Black players as part of this narrative.

Despite only playing for 25 minutes as a second-half substitute, Saka became the face of coverage around England’s defeat to Iceland. 

The BFP has said the media’s decision to use Saka’s image beneath angry headlines about the squad’s performance echoes the treatment of Black players that clouded 2020’s final.

Several sports outlets also went after the squad’s youngest player, 19-year-old Kobbie Mainoo, with unfounded opinions about the starlet being unfit to play in midfield. The Gaurdian’s Jacob Steinberg, in particular, has come under fire from England fans.

This kind of scapegoating is both unfair and damaging, and figures across the sporting world have come forward to accuse the media of fuelling racist abuse. 

Lewis Hamilton recently called out the accountability of the media on his Instagram page. 

‘We need to hold the English media accountable for systemically vilifying Black players. The constant scapegoating of Black players needs to stop. This endemic racial discrimination has no place in football, yet countless news outlets suggest otherwise’.

Hamilton’s message was accompanied by a post from media outlet VERSUS, which also called out the media’s use of Saka’s image. 

The treatment of Black British footballers by the UK media is more than just a football issue – it’s a reflection of broader societal attitudes towards race and equality. As we approach the Euros 2024, it is imperative for the media, fans, and governing bodies to take a stand.

The BFP released a song in support of the England team earlier this month, entitled ‘It’s OUR team’. The project was intended to stave off a repeat of what they called ‘the disgusting racist wave that followed England’s exit from Euro 2020’.

‘Here we are, six years after Raheem Sterling called the press out for fuelling racism, with no obvious lessons learnt among our globally respected and influential press’ the BFP said in a statement last week.

‘Black Footballers Partnership calls on journalists, as well as fans, to be unifiers, not dividers, as Euro 2024 begins in less than a week’s time, and to review its hiring practices to increase diversity at senior levels.’ 

Elsewhere, former England and Arsenal player Ian Wright spoke out against the recent headlines, suggesting the public was already being ‘gaslit’ should England fail to win the Euros. 

‘We can all see what’s happening & who’s being set up to be the face of defeat. We are going to be gaslit with explanations & justifications, but those deciding who goes on the back pages know what they’re doing’ Wright told his X followers. 

‘Now more than ever let’s get behind and support these young people.’

It’s true we need to challenge the narratives that undermine the achievements of Black athletes. The media is already perpetuating harmful stereotypes before a summer of football has even kicked off. But if the beautiful game has taught us anything, it’s that collective spirit has the power to incite quantifiable change. 

Collective action and unwavering support for England’s players means calling out the media and questioning the stories we’re fed throughout the Euros and beyond.  

This is a pivotal moment for social change, one that requires collective action and unwavering support for those who represent the very best of British sport.