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UK agonises after racial abuse of England football stars

London (AFP) – Political leaders and footballing chiefs in Britain expressed disgust on Monday at racial abuse targeting England stars, including three black players who missed penalties in the Euro 2020 final against Italy.

But as Facebook vowed yet again to look into abuse on its Instagram platform, Prime Minister Boris Johnson himself came under stinging criticism for earlier refusing to condemn fans who had booed English players’ campaign against racism. 

England manager Gareth Southgate said the online invective was “unforgivable”.

“Some of it has come from abroad, we have been told this, but some of it is from this country,” he told reporters.

“We have been a beacon of light to bring people together and the national team stands for everybody.”

Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, the three players whose penalty shootout misses handed victory to Italy at Wembley, were the victims of a stream of abuse on Instagram and Twitter — many apparently from foreign trolls and bots.

“This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media,” Johnson wrote on Twitter. 

“Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.”

While some people identifying as England fans used racial slurs in blaming the trio for the defeat, other offensive messages were accompanied with “forza italia” hashtags. 

England’s players have made a strong stand against racism at the tournament, taking a knee before their games including Sunday’s final.

Johnson and others in the Conservatives’ “anti-woke” government had initially defended the freedom of speech of England fans who booed the players, before backing the team later in the tournament.

Former Manchester United player Gary Neville accused the prime minister of having “promoted” racism, noting one notorious past comment by Johnson likening Muslim women who wear the veil to “letter-boxes”.

“It starts at the top. What do you think is going to happen underneath in life? The parents do something, the children follow,” the pundit told Sky News.

Neville joined others such as Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat who demanded tougher action from social media companies.

“Those who write are pathetic and deserve to be identified and face the public consequences, those who publish it are profiting from hate,” Tugendhat said.

– Prince William ‘sickened’ –

In a statement, Facebook said it had “quickly removed comments and accounts directing abuse at England’s footballers last night and we’ll continue to take action against those that break our rules”. 

“No one thing will fix this challenge overnight, but we’re committed to keeping our community safe from abuse,” it said.

London’s police force said it was aware of “a number of offensive and racist social media comments” being directed towards the footballers. 

“This abuse is totally unacceptable, it will not be tolerated and it will be investigated,” said the Metropolitan Police, who were also probing scenes of mayhem after some ticketless fans forced their way into Wembley Stadium. 

England player Raheem Sterling also received a stream of racial abuse after social media users accused him of cheating to win a penalty in England’s semi-final win over Denmark.

“We’re disgusted that some of our squad –- who have given everything for the shirt this summer –- have been subjected to discriminatory abuse online after tonight’s game,” the English Football Association tweeted.

“We stand with our players.”

Prince William, the FA’s president who attended the final with his wife Kate and son George, said he was “sickened” by the abuse.

“It is totally unacceptable that players have to endure this abhorrent behaviour. It must stop now and all those involved should be held accountable,” he tweeted.

Despite the abuse, the overwhelming majority of messages were in support of the players, who have been praised throughout the tournament for helping bring together a nation hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

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