A local resident puts love hearts and slogans on the plastic covering offensive graffiti on the destroyed mural of Manchester United striker and English player Marcus Rashford on the wall of a cafe on Copson Street, Withington on July 12, 2021 in Manchester, England .

Christopher Furlong / Getty Images

Football in the UK has struggled for decades with bigotry, class divisions and tribal loyalties that sometimes turn violent. But a stream of online abuse directed against a group of English gamers this week has raised new concerns about the sport’s fan base and criticism that Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not done enough to fight racism in his country.

The abuse started minutes after players Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, all black, missed their penalty shots during the Euro 2020 final against Italy on Sunday, costing England the title.

Thousands of racial slurs poured onto players’ Twitter and Instagram accounts, including hundreds marked with monkey and banana emojis. Another black player, striker Raheem Sterling, was also targeted – despite being one of England’s top scorers and named to the tournament’s all-star team.

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According to an analysis by anti-racism activist Hope not Hate, there were 1,300 tweets of the N-word and other insults directed at all four players immediately after the game – more than twice as many racist tweets during any other game Were posted in the month-long tournament. A similar study by the Professional Footballers Association found that “the level of abuse incidents identified during the Euro 2020 final, directed primarily against Jadon Sancho, Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling, was higher than the rest of the tournament combined “.

The abuse was not limited to social media. A huge mural of Mr. Rashford in Manchester, where he grew up, was defaced with swear words on Sunday night.

Mr Rashford has spoken widely on racism in football and other social issues, including child poverty. On Tuesday he made a long statement addressing the penalties missed and the consequences of losing.

“I’ve grown into a sport where I expected to read things that were written about myself. Be it the color of my skin, where I grew up or how I recently spent my time off the field, ”he wrote. “I can take criticism of my performance all day, my penalty wasn’t good enough, it should have gone in, but I’ll never apologize for who I am or where I’m from… I’m Marcus Rashford, 23 year old black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else, I have it. “

Mr Johnson and other government ministers have lined up to criticize those who abused the players and the prime minister vowed to raise the issue during a meeting Wednesday with officials from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. “Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed,” Johnson said this week. “This English team deserves to be lauded as heroes and not to be racially abused on social media.”

Officials on Twitter and Facebook said they removed more than 1,000 racist posts after the game and promised to permanently suspend accounts that violate their rules. The London Metropolitan Police have also launched an investigation into online abuse.

Mr Johnson and other lawmakers, including Home Secretary Priti Patel, have come under fire for failing to take a stronger stand against racism at the start of the tournament. Both refused to condemn fans who booed players for kneeling before kick-off as a statement against racism. In an interview last month, Ms. Patel said she does not support “people who engage in this type of gesture politics” and refused to criticize anyone who is booed. “That’s a choice for them, frankly,” she said. At the time, Mr. Johnson distanced himself from Ms. Patel’s comments, but did not openly contradict her.

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This week, Ms. Patel said she was disgusted with the “racist abuse by the vial” directed against the players after Sunday’s game. This led to a sharp response from the English player Tyrone Mings, who is Black. “You can’t start the fire right at the beginning of the tournament by calling our anti-racism message ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretending to be disgusted when exactly what we’re opposing happens,” Mings said said on twitter.

Others have repulsed Mr Johnson. “The Prime Minister said it was okay for the people of this country to boo on players who were trying to promote equality and defend themselves against racism. It starts at the top, ”said former England player and football expert Gary Neville.

“For too long, incidents of racial hatred, abuse and harassment on the Internet have been taken less seriously and that needs to change,” added Matthew McGregor, campaign director for Hope not Hate. “The political leaders must also get stronger. Convictions are not enough if the anti-racist attitude of the players was undermined before the tournament. “

The controversy has a positive side. There was a flurry of support for the players, and more than £ 30,000 ($ 52,000) was raised to repair the Manchester mural that was covered in tributes to Mr. Rashford and the others. Many of the handwritten messages mentioned Mr. Rashford as an inspiration and thanked all players for their passion during the tournament. “There was a kind of love and solidarity, and that’s really encouraging,” said Ed Wellard, who co-founded the community art project. “It has developed into something very special.”