Marcus Rashford’s mural in Withington, Manchester, was defaced after England’s defeat in the Euro final last month (11/07)Rathfelder/Wikipedia

Content Notice: This article contains detailed discussion of racial abuse.

As adoring supporters returned to the Premier League last weekend, watching matches in empty stadiums will hopefully be an affair that football fans never have to relive. Although increased fan participation is hailed as the missing piece that breathes life back into the football viewing experience, I can’t help but be somewhat sceptical about this, as my experience of watching the game has changed and not for the better.

Fans in stadiums don’t always bring the warm and lively atmosphere that we would expect. In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, and the FA and Premier League paying more attention to racial abuse that players of colour have to endure, there continue to be fans that boo when players take the knee at the start of a match. There’s little point in discussing whether taking the knee is a political statement or not, ultimately it carries a message of anti-discrimination.

Those who attend football matches are not a homogenous demographic, and it’s clear that amongst them there is a proportion that does not agree with this message. An obvious response to this statement is that these backwards-thinking individuals form a significant minority in the stands, which is certainly true. But as a spectator, or for a player, it doesn’t matter how many people are booing: what matters is how much noise they’re making, and that minority certainly makes itself heard.

“how much online abuse will this Black man receive if he misses this penalty and Manchester United lose the final?”

As a football fan myself, this reality leaves a sour taste in the mouth, and was especially the case during the Euros. Knowing that so-called England fans would boo their own players before the kick of a ball for their stance against discrimination takes quite a bit away from the excitement that international football should offer.

For most Black players, pre-match abuse is only the least of their problems. It’s what happens after the full-time whistle, when they are at home with their families, that grabs the headlines. It’s practically common knowledge now that Black footballers in the Premier League receive social media abuse on a weekly, possibly daily, basis and they have had to cope with this from a young age. Many of the stories that we’ve seen in the past year are a result of Black players becoming more comfortable going public with the abuse they receive. The quantity and predictability of this abuse is shocking, yet I didn’t notice how much it had affected me and the way I watch the sport until May this year, with the Europa League final between Manchester United and Villarreal.

Being an Arsenal fan, I wasn’t particularly taking sides - I just wished to enjoy the game and be sucked into the narrative of the ‘David and Goliath’ matchup. It was a fun watch: the Spanish side took a one-goal lead in the first half yet were pegged back to 1-1 early in the second. Full-time came and there was nothing to separate the two teams going into extra time. However, it was during that half-hour that I noticed in myself a growing level of unease. The penalty shootout was inevitable and excruciating, but for reasons that it shouldn’t have been.

“One kick decides a player’s fate – hailed as a hero, or subject to abhorrent abuse”

Villareal went first, so United would always be chasing the score. Marcus Rashford took United’s fourth penalty and, I have to say, I wanted him to score, not for the club nor to win the match, simply for himself. He coolly slotted it into the left side-netting: relief. United’s sixth taker was the Brazilian, Fred, and he was first to take a sudden-death penalty. My feelings of unease and anxiety rose even more. They peaked when it got to the eighteenth penalty of the shootout, to be taken by Axel Tuanzebe.

It was the first moment that I thought: “how much online abuse will this Black man receive if he misses this penalty and Manchester United lose the final?” Tuanzebe was in the news some weeks prior regarding the receipt of online racial abuse after a supposedly sub-par performance. I cannot adequately describe my elation when he absolutely smashed it into the top right corner. United eventually lost the shootout 11-10 due to a miss by goalkeeper David de Gea. At the time, all I felt was relief, yet I gave little thought to the fact that it was the highest quality penalty shootout I had ever seen in my life: I was unable to fully enjoy the experience.


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It turns out that what I went through in May was only practice for what was to come later in the following month’s Euros. The Europa League final was a best-case scenario: all three Black players scored. The aftermath of the Euros and the racist abuse received by Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka, was sadly the predictable consequence of a worst-case scenario. The average England fan likely saw each penalty miss as a blow to the chances of winning their first major tournament in over fifty years. What I saw was the monkey and banana emojis that were going to flood their DMs the day after and likely for weeks to come.

Penalties are no doubt the area of my viewing experience that’s most affected by the events of the last four months. One kick decides a player’s fate – hailed as a hero, or subject to abhorrent abuse. But this general anxiety for the fate of players of colour has seeped into all areas of the game and taints the way I watch it. As the new season has begun and fans are back in stadiums, it certainly is exciting to think about the great things that we will see in the coming year. However, at the back of my mind I know it’s only a matter of time before online racist abuse towards footballers becomes a headline again, and I don’t think that feeling of dread will ever leave me. It’s only ever one bad performance away, or one missed penalty.