England’s new culture war: Football – POLITICO

England’s first match of the European football championships is against Croatia. But the warmup is Gareth Southgate vs. Nigel Farage.

The country’s bid to win the delayed Euro 2020 event threatens to be overshadowed by a row over whether the players should take a knee before kickoff — an act of anti-racist solidarity that has been met with loud, angry booing from some supporters.

It’s the latest battleground in a culture war that has divided England for the past year, since the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer in the U.S. in May 2020. Widespread protests in Britain last summer, led by the left-wing Black Lives Matter movement, were often met with right-wing counter-demonstrations — and eventually followed by the U.K.’s Conservative government launching a “war on woke.”

In a briefing Monday, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the prime minister “fully respects the rights of people in this country to peacefully protest and make their feelings known about injustice.”

But on “taking the knee” — a gesture that started in the U.S. with (now ex-)NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to draw attention to racial injustice — the spokesman said Johnson is “focused on action rather than gestures.”

In Middlesbrough in the northeast of the country on Wednesday and Sunday, as England played tournament warmup matches against Austria and Romania, the now-traditional pre-match kneeling by players was met with an audible chorus of jeers from the stands. 

After the first bout of booing, England manager Southgate said the squad was “really disappointed that it happened.”

“We feel, more than ever, determined to take the knee during this tournament. We accept that there might be an adverse reaction but we’re going to ignore that and move forward,” Southgate added, ahead of the competition that begins on Friday in Rome and will be held in cities around Europe, including London.

But despite Southgate’s intervention on behalf of his team, the jeering continued Sunday night in Middlesbrough as the players knelt before kickoff.

The manager’s defense of his squad, in which he also urged people to put themselves in the players’ shoes and imagine what effect the jeering might have on them, was met with a dismissive reaction from Brexiteer and right-wing commentator Nigel Farage. 

“Gareth Southgate is putting himself out of touch with his own fans — and the country,” Farage railed in a video clip shared Sunday night. 

Echoing a familiar refrain among some football fans online, Farage stated: “Taking the knee to the Black Lives Matter organization isn’t about equality of opportunity, isn’t about racial justice, it’s about a Marxist organization that wants to defund the police force, that wants to bring down Western capitalism, bring down our whole way of life and replace it with a new Communist order.” 

“The moral of the story is very, very simple. All sporting teams, all sporting events should stay completely out of politics. Not get engaged with any political gestures of any kind whatsoever,” he added. 

In a statement to POLITICO, a spokesperson for UEFA, European football’s governing body, said it “has a zero tolerance [policy] against racism and any player who wants to protest in this way to demand equality amongst human beings will be allowed to do so.”

But as England prepares for a tournament at which it hosts the final and is second-favorite to win behind France, Farage promised that more kneeling would only lead to “a horrible, divisive few weeks.” 

Esther Webber contributed reporting.

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