It was some three years ago when I first interviewed Jadon Sancho over e-mail for Highsnobiety. Then a relatively unknown 17-year-old, the winger had not long made the bold decision to depart Manchester City to sign for German giants Borussia Dortmund, a transfer that would blaze a trail for young British players moving abroad. These days, Sancho is a bonafide superstar, valued at over $100,000,000. For many young kids, he represents so much more than just a sportsman.
This past Bundesliga weekend, Sancho marked a first career hat trick by taking off his jersey to reveal a message in support of George Floyd (he was, preposterously, booked for this infraction of the rules, a decision which the referee responsible for has since appealed to be pardoned). The youngster’s actions were mirrored on the pitch by Moroccan teammate Achraf Hakimi, while elsewhere in Germany, Borussia Mönchengladbach’s Marcus Thuram and Schalke 04’s Weston McKennie paid tributes of their own. One thing that unites these names is not merely their indisputable talent, but the fact they are all POC minorities who are 22 and under, symbolic of the new generation of culturally switched-on footballers.
It’s no secret that football has a racism problem, not least in Germany where — despite strides being made — players like Hertha Berlin’s Jordan Torunarigha and Würzburger Kickers’ Leroy Kwadwo have, this year, been the subject of monkey chants during games. For a diverse country that prides itself on modern values, it’s perhaps surprising that the presidential board of its football governing body — the DFB — is comprised of 18 white men and one white female (an issue, of course, that brands and companies everywhere are still fronting up to). As FARE’s Pavel Klymenko previously explained to DW: “Generally speaking, diverse boardrooms make better decisions. Someone who has suffered from discrimination in their life can better identify with victims of racist abuse and act with sympathy accordingly.” As of writing this post, the DFB’s control body are currently deciding which sanctions the players could face for their demonstrations of solidarity — if any at all.
More representation of POC is evidently required behind the scenes, and governments everywhere must do more to work alongside the sport’s ruling bodies to affect proper change (it was only back in December when respected UK pundit Gary Neville blasted prime minister Boris Johnson for fueling racism with his rhetoric on immigration). Yes, racism is a societal issue that extends far beyond football, but we as fans have a bigger part to play now than ever. If the fall-out from Floyd’s callous murder has taught us anything, it’s that silence when incidents occur is no longer an option, be it online or in person. The time for football fans, regardless of creed or color, to come together has never been more needed. Staying quiet feels like tacit support for the status quo at this point. As Football 365’s Daniel Storey previously stated: “This is a battle that goes far beyond sport, and one that we are losing.”
Coming back to the DFB’s rulebook, the idea that a sport that reflects our society in so many ways and its players should be apolitical in the post-Colin Kaepernick world borders on laughable. These young footballers have been given a platform — not just in front of the TV cameras, but on social media where they command millions of followers — and thankfully, are brave enough to use it. Outside of Germany, Manchester United’s Marcus Rashford was recently showered with unanimous praise for his efforts in raising awareness around the coronavirus. That he should be allowed to have an opinion on that non-football issue, but keep silent on others, is misguided at best, insidious at worst.
“If [footballers] feel they want to protest, then they should. They should feel free to do that,” Kick It Out chair Sanjay Bhandari told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme. “It’s a fundamental human right to express your beliefs. My suggestion is that they should take a knee.”
Like a lot of people, football isn’t so much an escape for me, but more like a comfort blanket — a safe zone for one to seek refuge far away from the increasingly nihilistic news cycle. The actions of Sancho, Thuram, Hakimi, McKennie, Rashford, Raheem Sterling, Serge Gnabry, and numerous others obliterate that fantasy, and are a timely reminder that such laissez-faire attitudes are part of the problem. Good.