Boris Johnson’s government faces a high-profile row with the England soccer team over racism, after a Black player accused a senior minister of “stoking the fire” during the just-ended European Championship.
Tyrone Mings, a defender who plays for Premier League club Aston Villa, said Home Secretary Priti Patel had aggravated tensions by refusing to support players “taking the knee before matches”, which the England team regards as an anti-racism stance. In June, Patel called it “gesture politics”.
Several Black England soccer players were subject to online racist abuse after the national team’s defeat in Sunday’s Euro 2020 final. It began after Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka each failed to score in a decisive penalty shoot-out against Italy.
The row is fraught with risk for Johnson given the popularity of the England team, which has received plaudits for reaching its first major tournament final since 1966 and whose players have raised awareness on social issues.
The spat with Mings follows weeks of controversy over whether the government should have supported the England side in “taking the knee” as their way of highlighting racial injustice.
Johnson triggered a backlash ahead of the tournament when he didn’t condemn fans booing the players’ stance at the start of matches, comments the prime minister’s political opponents said confirmed the impression of a leader happy to fuel so-called culture wars.
Johnson, when asked on Monday whether he would now take the knee, avoided answering the question directly. Many in his party have opposed the stance, with some arguing it is affiliated to a communist movement.
“I think people should feel free to show respect and how much they condemn racism,” Johnson said, adding he was at the match on Sunday and that the whole crowd was respectful. “I didn’t hear a single boo.”
This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media.— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) July 12, 2021
Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.
Steve Barclay, chief secretary to the Treasury, defended Patel on a broadcast round on Tuesday, saying she had herself been the victim of online racist abuse and that the government is taking action to combat the problem.
But Conservative MP Johnny Mercer said Mings was “completely right to criticize the government. “Very uncomfortable with the position we Conservatives are needlessly forcing ourselves into,” he said on Twitter. “We must not lose our way.”