If you were in viewing distance of Westminster Bridge last night, you may have seen them: 100 or so women, LGBTQ and trans footballers enveloped in clouds of red and white smoke against the spires of the Houses of Parliament. Their words, printed in red capitals on a 20-metre white banner hanging from Westminster Bridge, sent a powerful message: “Rashford, Sancho, Saka, we stand with you”.
Of course, the banner was a response to a conversation dominating this week’s headlines in the shadow of England’s loss in Sunday’s Euros final. That of how to address the racist online abuse targeted at England’s three black players who missed penalties against Italy: Marcus Rashford, 23, Jadon Sancho, 21, and Bukayo Saka, 19.
Since the remarks were made on Sunday night, the three players have come out with statements, saying they will never apologise for who they are and that fans who make racist remarks are not wanted as fans at all. Up and down the country, England supporters have been standing in solidarity, covering the defacement of Marcus Rashford’s mural with messages of support and gathering for peaceful anti-racism demonstrations in his hometown of Withington.
The issue has reached the halls of Westminster, too. The Prime Minister met social media companies including Facebook and Twitter at Downing Street on Tuesday to “reiterate the urgent need for action” in tackling racism online. But Labour has said that’s not enough, urging Johnson and his peers to use the Online Safety Bill to give courts the power to ban people convicted of racist abuse online from attending football matches.
Thursday night’s protest, organised by grassroots Peckham football team Legends FC, also echoed this call to action. “Today we protest to call our government to stand with us and not the racist abusers,” said a player from Unathletico Madrid FC, one of 12 other teams from London’s Super 5 League five-a-side community who attended the march with flares, placards and signs emblazoned with ‘Hate will never win’.
Molly, manager of fellow team Lush Lyfe FC, echoed this sentiment among her squad of women, genderqueer and non-binary players in south London. “We want to send a clear message to Government and football’s governing bodies that empty words and ‘condemning’ racist behaviour after the fact is not good enough.”
For many of the protesters, this week’s racist remarks felt personal. Organiser Jess Moens says she and her fellow Legends players came up with the idea over WhatsApp on Monday morning, after experiencing racism in football herself. As a person of colour and an Italy supporter, she felt too unsafe to wear her Italy shirt in public on Sunday night - incidents of racism at matches have rocketed by 215 per cent in the past five years, according to the Home Office, so she didn’t feel safe to celebrate her nation’s victory properly.
Many England fans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Moens at last night’s protest and said they felt similarly scared and sickened. Some said they felt “deeply ashamed” of other England supporters. Others said it made them feel distant from the nation they grew up in. “As a mixed raced English woman who grew up playing football, a part of my love for the sport died seeing the racism targeted at the England players,” says Carmel, a player with Unathletico Madrid. Last night’s banner drop gave her hope “that we are in this fight, against racism, together”.
So what are she, Moens and their fellow grassroots footballers calling for? For Legends FC, it’s about taking serious steps and “not turn[ing] another blind eye”.
“Politicians should be leading from the front,” says Molly. “Supporting players actions; condemning racism and all forms of abuse; as well as using every power available to them to implement measures that will tackle racism across online platforms and in stadiums up and down the UK.”
Part of this means punishing abusers and banning racist players at every level of the game: “on every astroturf, under every floodlight and on the rusty old goalposts of every playing field everywhere in the country,” says Moens. Her peers at Goal Diggers FC, a London club for women and non-binary people, put it best. “Football is for everyone,” they said this morning, following last night’s banner drop. “We believe there’s an ‘all’ in football for a reason.”