During one of the most difficult periods in our history and at a time when we’ve badly needed it, the performances of the England team at Euro 2020 have helped to bring joy, excitement and a spirit of unity to our country. With victories over Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ukraine and Denmark, Gareth Southgate’s side have given us so much to cheer and celebrate over the last month.
But the results aren’t the only reason this team has captured the public’s imagination. One reason why so many people have been swept up in the emotion of this tournament is because it’s impossible not to warm to this fantastic group of young players. Their style of play, their sense of togetherness and the anti-racist, inclusive values they stand for have made them an inspiration both on and off the pitch. The fundamental decency of their manager and the journey they’ve been on too – many going from tough backgrounds to the bright lights of a Euros final under Wembley’s famous arch – has only further endeared them to us.
It was heart-breaking not to have a happier ending and, like all England fans I’m absolutely gutted they couldn’t bring it home. But in the aftermath of the match, what’s compounded the hurt of the outcome is seeing the vile torrent of racist abuse directed at three of our penalty takers – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka.
I’ve been saying for some time now that the social media companies must get their act together and do far more to drain this poison from their platforms. If that means not relying on algorithms, which are seemingly incapable of identifying so much racism, and instead employing more people to take down abusive posts then so be it. The onus shouldn’t be on players to report this hate, but rather on social media firms to be proactive in removing and preventing it.
The Metropolitan Police have made clear that this abuse is totally unacceptable and that they will do everything in their power to hold those who break the law to account. We should have zero tolerance of racism in football or anywhere else for that matter. If we are to be successful in rooting out this scourge, however, we must do two crucial things.
First, we need to acknowledge that racism is not confined to social media, but is a societal problem that runs much deeper – one that infects many of our institutions and sections of our communities too. Second, it’s not enough to simply say you’re against racism and then be a silent bystander. Instead, we must all raise our voices and actively oppose racism in all its ugly forms, whether that’s by showing solidarity with sportspeople taking the knee or by calling out racism wherever you see or hear it. We should also encourage our leaders to say loud and proud that our diversity is a strength, not a weakness. And that immigration enriches, rather than diminishes, our nation.
Sunday night illustrated perfectly why England’s players continue to take the knee and I believe it’s shameful that they haven’t had more backing for their stance. The reality is the government has a responsibility to lead from the front and set an example in the fight against racism. By refusing to condemn those booing English players for taking a knee, it emboldens those who peddle in this kind of hatred and discrimination.
As hard as it may be after the bruising events of the last couple of days, we must try not to lose sight of all the positives that have come out of this tournament. For me, the sight of both Italy and England’s players collectively taking the knee before kick-off was definitely one of them. With the eyes of Europe – and the world – on London for one of the biggest games in international football, it was incredibly powerful to see players from two different countries uniting in a bold and defiant display against racism. They were cheered on by 60,000 lucky fans inside Wembley stadium. This is the London I know and love.
As mayor of the most diverse city in the world, I’d like to applaud the Italian players for taking the knee and making this important statement. And also to congratulate them on their victory. I’d also like to extend my commiserations to Gareth Southgate and our boys. For everything you’ve given the nation over the last four weeks, for bringing people and communities together, and for promoting unity, not division, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. You should hold your heads up high and feel proud of what you’ve achieved. We can’t wait to see you back in action at next year’s World Cup when I know you’ll be stronger and more determined than ever to go one better.