Anti-racist solidarity in EURO 2020 should not be controversial
England's Raheem Sterling, left, takes the knee before the start of the Euro 2020 soccer championship Group D match between England and Croatia at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, June 13, 2021. | Frank Augstein/AP

Another sports “controversy” started when soccer players taking part in the ongoing ‘UEFA Euro 2020’ games–delayed till 2021 by the coronavirus pandemic–took a knee during the playing of national anthems, protesting racism in sports. A serious problem plaguing the soccer pitch for many years.

Yet, while some players chose to kneel, others decided not to, offering flimsy excuses as: “players weren’t ready”, and “politics should stay out of soccer”. Racism in sports is real. And it cannot be separated from racism within society. The reactions to the moral stances taken by some players were reflections of how right-wing, populist and chauvinistic movements wield such massive influence over various aspects of European society, to the extent that these movements often define mainstream political sensibilities.

For example, the French national team-largely Black and Muslim French players–were attacked by right-wing politicians and media outlets after those players took a knee against racism. On June 15, the entire team decided not to take a knee at the start of their matches, likely fearing further racist repercussions.

In the French example, racism in sports prevailed over the anti-racism sentiments. Worse, France’s highest soccer association, the French Football Federation (FFF), doesn’t even acknowledge the necessity to address the issue. FFF president, Noel Le Graet, was quoted as saying that racism “does not exist”, following an incident last September during the Marseille-Paris Saint Germain game, when the Brazilian Neymar was called a ‘monkey motherf—er’ during a scuffle.

Not only are racist incidents in  games on the rise and well-documented in France and elsewhere, but the ‘monkey’ slur is also particularly popular among European soccer fans who, occasionally, carry out what is known as “monkey chanting.”

Specifically targeting black and other dark skin players. When this despicable practice in Italy finally received national attention, an Italian court dismissed the case as ‘unfounded’, and fans who were caught ‘monkey chanting’ on camera were ‘unconditionally acquitted.’

With this in mind, it was unfortunate that only half of the Italian team took a knee during their game against Wales on June 20 and then decided not to take a knee at all in a later match. It is telling that, while racism in sports remains prevalent, anti-racist gestures are considered unnecessary and divisive.

The truth is soccer, like any other sport, is a reflection of our societies, our unity, and divisions; our economic privileges and socio-economic inequalities; our strong communal bonds; and, yes, our racism. Sports fans should attempt to understand it and change their behavior, yet some have chosen to ignore the issue altogether.

Assertions such as “sports and politics don’t mix” are not only wishful thinking—ignoring the fundamental premise that sports are a reflection of reality—such narratives serve to divert attention from core issues that should concern everyone.

This misleading logic falls within the same category of the phrase “all lives matter” in response to the legitimate outcry for racial justice under the banner, “Black Lives Matter”. The latter is meant to illustrate—in fact, challenge—racism and violence, which disproportionately target black people in the United States specifically because of their skin color; while the former, although technically accurate, is meant to delude and undermine the urgency of confronting systemic racism.

When American football player Colin Kaepernick took a knee in 2016 to protest racial injustice, he didn’t mean to be disruptive, to ‘disgrace’ American ‘values’ and ‘symbols’, but rather to force millions of people out of their comfort zone.

His statement was an act of protest against the mistreatment of Black people and communities across the U.S. And as a Black man with access to media platforms, it was his moral duty to speak out. He did. But that wholly symbolic, non-violent act was perceived by many in government, media, and society as a treasonous one, cost the athlete his career.

The entire episode, which reverberated across the world and the violent, often racist, responses to it were all political, unwittingly proving, once more, that the relationship between politics and human rights, on the one hand, and sports, on the other, are impossible to separate. Interestingly, those who insisted that Kaepernick has violated the sanctity of sports have no qualms with other, essentially political acts throughout each professional league: the national anthem, the endless display of flags, the nationalist chants, of soldiers being honored for their services in various wars and, at times, of air force fighting jets flying overhead, intoxicating the crowds with the might and power of the US military. Why are nationalistic politics acceptable while a single black man taking a knee to shed light on the plight of victims of police brutality is perceived to be an act of treason?

Whether it is convenient or not, sports are rife with political symbolism matching our existing realities: inequalities, racism, and more. It can also be a source of harmony and unity. And sometimes it is, like as the heartwarming exchange between Portuguese player, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Iranian player, Ali Daei, when, on June 24, Ronaldo equalized the international goal record of Daei. It can also be a reflection of rooted socio-political ailments, such as racism.

Racism is a political disease. It’s cancerous cells spreading across the body (politic) of society. It must be stopped, on and off the field. While taking a knee will not end racism, it does serve as a conversation starter, a moral stance taken by players, and a meaningful gesture of camaraderie and humanity.

People’s World’s Sports Editor Al Neal contributed to this story.


Ramzy Baroud
Ramzy Baroud

Dr. Ramzy Baroud has been writing about Palestine, the Middle East, and global issues for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, an editor, an author of several books, and the founder of The Palestine Chronicle. His books include 'The Second Palestinian Intifada', 'My Father Was a Freedom Fighter' and 'The Last Earth.' His latest book is 'These Chains Will Be Broken'. Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. He is currently a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs (CIGA), Istanbul Zaim University.