London (AFP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government Tuesday denied charges of hypocrisy over racism in football as he readied to meet social media executives following a deluge of abuse against England players.
In an emotional statement, striker Marcus Rashford said he will “never apologise for who I am”, after he was one of three black players targeted by racists online over the side’s Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy on Sunday.
Rashford’s England team-mate Tyrone Mings criticised Home Secretary Priti Patel, saying she had “stoked the fire” by defending fans who booed players taking the knee.
Patel had previously said taking the knee was “gesture politics” and Johnson, who has enthusiastically waged verbal war on so-called woke politics, had also equivocated for days over the issue.
But his spokesman insisted that the prime minister had all along wanted fans to back the team, amid doubts over whether Downing Street can now go through with a plan to welcome the players to a post-tournament reception.
At a cabinet meeting, Johnson told his ministers that “the abuse was utterly disgraceful and has emerged from the dark spaces of the internet”, according to the spokesman.
He said that in his meeting later Tuesday with representatives of social media companies, the prime minister will “reiterate the urgent need for action, ahead of tougher laws coming into force” in Britain.
The government’s planned “online harms bill” will, for the first time, bring firms such as Facebook and Twitter within the orbit of Britain’s communications regulator.
Under the bill, if social media companies fail to take down abusive content promptly, they could be fined up to £18 million ($25 million) or 10 percent of their annual global turnover, whichever is higher.
The allegation of hypocrisy levelled against the government by Mings and even some Conservative MPs is particularly dangerous for Johnson, as the England team basks in widespread sympathy after its agonising loss.
Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were attacked by racist trolls after missing penalties in the shoot-out defeat by Italy.
Rashford had become a hero to many inside and outside football by successfully lobbying Johnson to provide free school meals for under-privileged children during the coronavirus pandemic.
“I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that,” the Manchester United forward wrote on Twitter.
“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,” Rashford added.
– Mural protest –
Images on social media showed a mural honouring Rashford in Withington had been defaced, before locals covered the hateful language with messages of support.
“Seeing the response in Withington had me on the verge of tears,” Rashford said, as sympathisers planned a protest at the mural later Tuesday.
Premier League teams have taken the knee since last year following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the United States.
Patel had said on Monday the racial abuse of the three players was “disgusting”, but Mings issued a stinging response.
“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as ‘Gesture Politics’ and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against, happens,” he tweeted.
Patel’s fellow Conservative lawmaker and former defence minister Johnny Mercer said: “The painful truth is that this guy (Mings) is completely right.
“Very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into.”
England manager Gareth Southgate said the online abuse was “unforgivable”, and team captain Harry Kane also lashed out at the trolls.
“Three lads who were brilliant all summer had the courage to step up and take a pen (penalty) when the stakes were high,” he said.
“They deserve support and backing, not the vile racist abuse they’ve had.
“If you abuse anyone on social media you’re not an England fan and we don’t want you.”
The racist attacks have been strongly condemned also by the English Football Association. Its president, Prince William, said he was “sickened” by the abuse.