LONDON - Black players in the England soccer team have been subjected to a storm of online racist abuse after their defeat in the final of Euro 2020, drawing wide condemnation from the squad's manager Gareth Southgate along with royalty and politicians.
Marcus Rashford, 23, Jadon Sancho, 21, and Bukayo Saka, 19, were the targets of the abuse after they missed spot-kicks in a penalty shootout with Italy which settled Sunday's final after the game finished as a 1-1 draw.
The comments have prompted a police investigation and wide condemnation, although critics accused some ministers of hypocrisy for refusing to support a high-profile anti-racist stance the players had made during the tournament.
"For some of them to be abused is unforgivable," Southgate told a news conference. "Some of it has come from abroad, we have been told this, but some of it is from this country."
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The England team have earned praise for their stand against racism, while a number of players have also campaigned on other social causes. The multi-racial make-up of the squad had been hailed as reflecting a more diverse modern Britain. The team had highlighted the issue of racism by taking the knee before all their matches — a protest made by American footballer Colin Kaepernick and followed by the Black Lives Matter movement last year — saying it was a simple show of solidarity against racial discrimination.
However, some fans have booed the gesture, with critics viewing it as a politicization of sport and expression of sympathy with far-left politics.
Some ministers have been accused of hypocrisy for refusing to criticize those who booed and using it as part of a wider "culture war,” often portrayed as a rift between those wanting to protect Britain's heritage from a "woke" youth, who see their elders as blocking moves to end racial and social injustice.
"This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media," Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Twitter. "Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves."
While Johnson himself said the team should not be booed, his own spokesman had initially declined to criticize the fans over the issue when asked last month.
Interior minister Priti Patel had also said she did not support players taking the knee because it was "gesture politics" and that it was a choice for the fans whether to boo players. On Monday, she joined those who denounced the abuse. The opposition Labour Party said Johnson and Patel were guilty of hypocrisy.
"Leaders' actions and leaders' words and leaders inactions have consequences," Labour leader Keir Starmer said. "The prime minister failed to call out the booing so whatever he says today rings hollow."
While the social media feeds of the players also showed huge levels of support and gratitude from fans for the tournament, the abuse overshadowed the positive messages. Britain's Prince William, who is president of the Football Association, said he was sickened.
"It is totally unacceptable that players have to endure this abhorrent behavior," Queen Elizabeth's grandson said on Twitter. "It must stop now and all those involved should be held accountable."
The Football Association said fans who exhibited such "disgusting behavior" were not welcome and urged the authorities to hand out "the toughest punishments possible.”
European soccer governing body UEFA also condemned the abuse and called for the strongest possible punishments.
London Police said officers were aware of the offensive and racist comments, and would take action. A mural of Rashford, who had campaigned for poor children to be given more support during the pandemic, was also covered in abuse. A lawmaker in Prime Minister Johnson's Conservative Party also apologized after a private message in which she suggested Rashford should have spent more time perfecting his game than "playing politics" became public.
The issue of online abuse of players led to British soccer authorities briefly boycotting social media platforms prior to the tournament. A Twitter spokesperson said they had removed more than 1,000 tweets and permanently suspended a number of accounts, saying the "abhorrent racist abuse" had no place on the platform.
(Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Simon Evans and Manasi Pathak; editing by Alistair Smout, Kate Holton and Angus MacSwan)