"When you win, you're English. When you lose, you're Black." That tweet, by medical researcher Ahmed Ali, sums up the state of the soccer world in Europe, particularly Britain.
After England lost to Italy in the European Championship final Sunday, a flood of racist social media attacks rained down upon three young Black players who missed penalty kicks during a tiebreaker to decide the match. That day, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka learned, if they did not already know it, that for many, their perceived Britishness is provisional, dependent upon their ability to kick a ball.
This battle being waged in England should be very familiar to the one in the U.S. It is between those who accept the idea of a multiracial democracy and those who are proudly revanchist, seeing their attacks on Rashford, Sancho and Saka as somehow an assertion of their whiteness and their citizenship in the face of outsiders who are tolerable only as long as they bring glory to team or country.
This wave of online (and offline) attacks on outspoken Black athletes has been part of a broader, vengeful effort to assert hierarchy in response to a period of athletes' outspokenness and rebellion.
There was also a harbinger of these attacks in the audible boos from England's fans when the team, as is its custom before every match, took a knee to protest racism.
The attacks on Rashford were particularly vile. A mural was defaced in the hardscrabble industrial city that hosts his club, Manchester United. Before people vandalized it, the mural featured a quotation from Rashford: "Take pride in knowing that your struggle will play the biggest role in your purpose." Now it is a monument to the ways that sports can draw out both petty hatreds and bitter truths.
For those unfamiliar with him, Marcus Rashford is more than a terrific footballer. Having experienced hunger during his youth, he started a campaign amid the ravages of Covid-19 to feed 400,000 children in the Manchester area. He led a campaign against hunger aimed at British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, which ended up feeding 4 million. At the time, he pledged to "fight for the rest of my life" to end child hunger throughout the U.K.
In November, Rashford tweeted, with his trademark modesty:
To the campaigners, charity workers, volunteers, teachers, care workers, key workers, that have fought for this level of progress for years, thank you. This is YOUR victory. Never underestimate the role you have all played. I'm just honoured to be on this journey with you.
Even if Rashford were a cad and a scoundrel, his treatment after Euro 2020 would rightly be a national disgrace. But this young man is an absolute jewel. To be treated like something worse than sewage by people, some of whose own children may have very possibly been fed through Rashford's efforts, speaks to the ugliness of what is taking place.
As for the vandalized Manchester mural, it has been covered with messages of support: hearts, sticky notes and DIY childlike renderings of jerseys and flags. His club, Manchester United, tweeted: "We're all behind you, @MarcusRashford. As a player. As a person. As an inspiration to our club and our supporters. As a representation of hope that there is plenty more good than bad in the world." Support for Rashford and his teammates is a feeble sign of hope, but one that will hopefully win out.
Even if Rashford were a cad and a scoundrel, his treatment after Euro 2020 would rightly be a national disgrace. But this young man is an absolute jewel.
Rashford is no radical. Yet he committed the cardinal error of stepping outside of his box and doing more than just playing the game. That put a target on his back — one could have set a clock to the backlash that would ensue with his first misstep. It shows how far we have to come in societies that conditionally accept Black people into the mainstream — yet where society is poised, always, to discard or turn on them if they step outside the parameters they are given.
When he finally tweeted out a statement on Monday, it was with Rashford's typical poise. "I've grown into a sport where I expect to read things written about myself," he wrote. "Whether it be the colour of my skin, where I grew up, or most recently, how I decide to spend my time off the pitch. I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in but I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from."
It will be fascinating to see where this intractability of British racism takes him on his political journey. Perhaps he will not be content to feed the poor and start asking why millions, in a country of such ostentatious wealth, are going hungry. No matter what, though, as he said in his statement: "I'm Marcus Rashford, 23 year old, black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchaster. If I have nothing else I have that."