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England’s first European football championship game is against Croatia. But the warm up is Gareth Southgate versus Nigel Farage.
The country’s attempt to win the delayed Euro 2020 event threatens to be overshadowed by an argument over whether the players should bend their knees before kick-off – an act of anti-racist solidarity met with loud, angry boos from some supporters has been.
It is the latest battlefield in a culture war that divided England last year since the assassination of George Floyd by a white police officer in the US in May 2020. Widespread protests in Britain last summer, led by the left Black Lives Matter Movement, were often confronted with right-wing counter-demonstrations – and finally the British Conservative government followed, which launched a “war against the awakening”.
In a briefing on Monday, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said the prime minister “respects the right of the people of this country to peacefully protest and express their feelings about injustice”.
But on the subject of “taking your knees” – a gesture that began in the US with (now ex-) NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick to draw attention to racial injustice – the spokesman said Johnson was “focused on actions rather than gestures” .
In Middlesbrough in the north-east of the country, when England played tournament warm-ups against Austria and Romania on Wednesday and Sunday, the now traditional pre-match kneeling of the players was greeted with audible laughter from the stands.
After the first boos, England coach Southgate said the squad was “really disappointed that it happened”.
“We are more determined than ever to bend our knees at this tournament. We accept that there might be a negative reaction, but we will ignore it and move on, ”added Southgate ahead of the competition, which starts in Rome on Friday and will take place in cities across Europe, including London.
But despite Southgate’s intervention on behalf of his team, the hoot continued in Middlesbrough on Sunday night as the players knelt before kick-off.
The manager’s defense of his squad, which also called on people to put themselves in the players’ shoes and imagine what impact the hoot could have on them, was met with a negative reception by Brexiteer and right-wing commentator Nigel Farage.
“Gareth Southgate gets in touch with his own fans – and the country,” said Farage in a video clip Shared Sunday evening.
Based on a well-known refrain from some football fans on the Internet, Farage explained: “If you bring the Black Lives Matter organization to its knees, it is not about equal opportunities, not about racial justice, it is about a Marxist organization that wants to weaken the police.” that wants to bring down western capitalism, bring down our entire way of life and replace it with a new communist order. ”
“The moral of the story is very, very simple. All sports teams, all sporting events should stay completely out of politics. Don’t get involved in political gestures of any kind, ”he added.
In a statement to POLITICO, a spokesman for UEFA, the governing body of European football, said there was “zero tolerance” [policy] against racism and any player who wants to protest in this way to demand equality for people will be allowed to do so.
But as England gears up for a tournament to host the final and second-favorite win behind France, Farage promised that more knees would only lead to “terrible, divisive weeks”.
Esther Webber contributed to the coverage.