LONDON – Through the pens and pencils of children, England is fighting back against racism.
After Marcus Rashford and two other Black players missed penalty kicks in the final moments of the national soccer team's European Championship loss to Italy, bigots defaced a mural of the Manchester United star and hurled racist abuse at the three on social media. Children in Manchester rose to Rashford's defense, filling spaces on the wall with messages of support, encouragement and consolation.
“I hope you won’t be sad for to (sic) long because you are such a good person,” 9-year-old Dexter Rosier wrote. “I’m proud of you. You will always be a hero.”
The mural, which occupies a brick wall not far from where Rashford grew up, has become a symbol of England’s fight against the bigotry that has blighted the sport loved by people of all backgrounds. The struggle is playing out across the country as politicians and pundits, athletes and activists, react to the racist comments that surfaced post-defeat and undermined the sense of national unity created by England’s uplifting run to its first major soccer championship final since 1966.
The online abuse of the Black players underscores the problems created by one vision of what it means to be English, which is rooted in visions of the past glories of empire and colonialism and often surfaces during international sporting events, said Professor Bridget Byrne, director of the Center on the Dynamics of Ethnicity at Manchester University.
“The work of achieving racial justice in the U.K. is far from over, and that’s what this has revealed,” she said. “Whilst racism has become less socially acceptable to express openly, it is still very much a strand in British culture.”
Prime Minister Boris Johnson was quick to condemn racism and blamed social media companies for not doing enough to stop the spread of hate on their platforms. He said he would use a meeting with company leaders Tuesday to reiterate the urgent need for action.
Critics said that Johnson and his government failed to tackle the issue at the start of the Euro 2020 tournament, when some fans booed the England team for kneeling symbolically at the start of games to highlight the problem of racism.
Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose department oversees police and domestic affairs, has come under particular scrutiny after she opposed what she called “gesture politics” and said fans had the right to boo. In an interview last month, Patel also criticized protests last summer by the U.K.'s Black Lives Matter movement, including one where a statue of a 17th century slave trader was toppled, as efforts to rewrite history.
On Monday, England player Tyrone Mings chastised Patel for playing politics after she called on the police to take action against those who subjected the soccer players to “vile racist abuse.”
“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ & then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” Mings wrote on Twitter.
Marvin Sordell, a former professional soccer player who advises England’s Football Association on diversity, said the outpouring of disgust from politicians and pundits was depressingly familiar.
“We always see condemnation,” Sordell told the BBC. “It’s the same for a few days, then we kind of get back to normal and then another incident happens.…We kind of live in this cycle that continuously goes on. At some point, we have to break the cycle. At some point, it isn’t enough to just be outraged. We have to do something.”
Rashford, who grew up a few miles from Manchester United’s historic Old Trafford stadium, joined England’s national team at the age of 18 after scoring a barrage of goals for his hometown club. The son of a single mother who sometimes skipped meals to ensure her five children didn’t have to, he became a national icon last year when he led a campaign that forced the government to feed children who were missing out on free school meals while the pandemic closed schools.
In response to the abuse he received Sunday night and the outpouring of support from fans, Rashford, now 23, spoke of his teammates and the “brotherhood” created by their successes and failures this summer.
“I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in,” he wrote in a Twitter message that has been liked almost 1 million times. “But I will never apologise for who I am and where I came from.”
That is Manchester’s Withington neighborhood, where local artists painted a two-story, black-and-white mural of Rashford after the success of his school meals campaign.
Abi Lee, assistant head teacher of the nearby St. Paul’s Church of England Primary School, said students were upset by the way Rashford and his teammates were treated, so she took them to the mural to show them how people are fighting racism.
“We wanted them to see that nothing can knock you if you keep fighting,″ Lee said.
Nicola Wellard said her children went to bed crying after England’s loss dashed hopes of a European championship this year. But they were more upset when they found out that racists had targeted local hero Rashford.
On Tuesday afternoon her son, 11-year-old Dougie, proudly pasted his own message on the mural.
“He only missed a penalty,” Dougie wrote. “He doesn’t deserve this.”