Soccer Twitter: The Ugliness of the Beautiful Game

In his first chapter “Exploding the Library,” Milligan highlights a shortcoming of archivist work in preserving small, daily posts by average people. As a history major myself, I understand the importance of this sort of documentation in analyzing social, political, spiritual, and economic trends of the past. 

However, I believe it is even more crucial to preserve the digital record of incidents such as the widespread online racial abuse of England’s Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka after each man missed crucial penalties in the decisive shootout against Italy in this summer’s Euro 2020 final. 

Such moments are instructive for historians, influencers, and the average citizen as to the follies of social media companies like Twitter in allowing heinous content to be published and the inability of Western nations like the United Kingdom (which governs the lands of footballing entities England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland1) to root out deep-seated societal racism.

Many white English fans, no doubt disappointed with the result in a time where football has sustained a sense of normalcy for many during the pandemic, took their frustration out on Rashford, Sancho, and Saka – all of whom are young black men –  in cruel fashion. This reached far beyond the normal online back-and-forth chat common among supporters of rivaling clubs or nations.

Calls to “get back to ya own country” are common in the widespread targeting of black athletes.

Racial slurs, death threats, and identitarian innuendos like the one above littered social media sites in mid July and deserve the attention of digital historians. I’m not arguing that the tweets should be kept up; rather, I’m urging them to keep records of events like this to hold those responsible accountable and promote preventative social media policies to filter racist messages before they are sent. 

This horrifying trend is pervasive in club soccer as well. Chelsea’s Romelu Lukaku, Roma’s Chris Smalling, and Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior are among many foreign black footballers at Europe’s elite clubs who are affected by this issue every time they open their phones and log online. These players face massive criticism in particular because they are outspoken about racism and other political issues that harm marginalized communities.

I think racism in football right now is at the all-time high. Why? Because of social media.” – Romelu Lukaku

In a June 2021 Interview with CNN Sport

In the same vein, much of the vitriol aimed at Rashford after the final no doubt came from his loud and continued opposition to conservative British Prime Minster Boris Johnson. Rashford successfully pressured the government into continuing to provide free meals for at-risk youth during the summer and winter holidays after Tory efforts to cut the program.

Critics of outspoken players often argue that sports and politics should be kept apart. However, I believe that politics is already deeply-woven into fan experience worldwide. Not-so-subtle acceptance of militarism and empire drive football conferences and leagues in America to host fighter jet flyovers before games. Politicians root for local teams at home and abroad in order to connect with and garner favor from their constituents. If we as historians and sports fans are forced to accept this dynamic as an inevitability, then we must do everything in our power to document case-studies like the England men’s soccer team to allow for change.

Rashford (age 23), Sancho (21), and Saka (20) have bright futures ahead of them in the world’s most popular sport. Ironically, those three alongside other black Englishmen like Raheem Sterling, Kyle Walker, Jude Bellingham, and Reece James were fundamental in England reaching their first Cup final in 55 years. As Saka missed the tournament’s deciding penalty, disappointment drove people to their phones to grieve together. Collaborative commiseration is acceptable – but, online racists deserve no slack from the archival community for their actions.

Bryce Nelson

References

  1. Allen, William. “Why do England, Scotland, Wales & Northern Ireland Play as Separate Teams If They Belong to UK?” AS.com, AS English, 12 June 2021, en.as.com/en/2021/06/12/soccer/1623503034_966968.html.

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