Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka are football heroes who should be celebrated. They have represented their country at the highest level while still in their teens. They now face abuse that is absurd in its ignorance about football, and abhorrent in its expression of racism.
Marcus Rashford is 23, and was the youngest English player to score in his first senior international. Jadon Sancho is 21, and is the youngest Dortmund player to score ten goals in a Bundesliga season. Bukayo Saka is just 19, and was Arsenal’s player of the season this year.
English football fans should be proud of their team for ending the Euro 2020 final unbeaten in open play, against an Italy side that was undefeated in an astonishing 33 games. The same goes for all players involved in penalty shootouts anywhere, whether or not they score.
It is abhorrent that a small minority of people have abused Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka, on the basis of their race. It is uplifting that so many decent people have responded by celebrating these three young heroes.
Let’s start with their critics’ ignorance about football. There is no shame in missing a penalty kick. On average it happens every fourth penalty, and very few players score every penalty they take.
Prolific strikers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have each missed nearly thirty penalties. Totti, Ibrahimovic, Cavani, Rooney, Ronaldinho, Aguero, van Nistelrooy, Griezmann, Pirlo, and Neymar have each missed ten or more spot-kicks.
Penalty shootouts are an arbitrary way to quickly settle drawn games, to avoid the inconvenience of a replay. For context, this used to be done by a coin toss. The only certainty of a penalty shootout is that one or more players have to miss, as the shootout will continue until that happens.
Two FIFA World Players of the Year have missed penalties during high profile international shootouts: Marco Van Basten for the Netherlands against Denmark in Euro 1992, and Roberto Baggio for Italy against Brazil in the World Cup final in 1994.
Many great players have missed penalties for England, including Tom Finney, Dixie Dean, Bobby Charlton, Alan Ball, Francis Lee, Allan Clarke, Kevin Keegan, Trevor Francis, Glen Hoddle, David Platt, Peter Crouch, Alan Shearer, Gary Lineker, and Harry Kane.
Many more have missed during the wheel of fortune of penalty shootouts, including Stuart Pearce, Chris Waddle, Gareth Southgate, Paul Ince, David Batty, David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Ashley Cole, and Jordan Henderson.
Young heroes Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka now join these great players in this fickle footballing rite of passage. They will come out of the experience stronger, and they will continue to be among the finest footballers of their generation.
However ignorant their critics are about football, it is abhorrent that a small minority are abusing these young heroes on the basis of their race.
When I was a child in the seventies, racist fans made monkey noises and threw bananas at West Ham players Clyde Best from Bermuda, Ade Coker from Nigeria, and Clive Charles from Essex. Someone sent Best a letter threatening to throw acid in his face when he next emerged from the tunnel. He defiantly played, with his teammates surrounding him on the way out.
West Bromwich Albion then infuriated racists when they signed Laurie Cunningham, Cyrille Regis, and Brendon Batson. They became known as the Three Degrees, and the actual Three Degrees posed for a photo with them wearing West Brom shirts. The disgrace of racist abuse was compounded with stupidity when some youths abused Cunningham and his fiancee in the street, then apologised when one of them recognised him.
These courageous players became role models for future generations of British footballers. In the nineties, Newcastle goalkeeper Shaka Hislop had a similar experience to Lauri Cunningham. Some children were racially abusing him, then they recognised him and asked for his autograph. Hislop helped to found the campaign group Show Racism the Red Card.
Twenty five years later, a small minority of people still display racism towards football players. But now players, clubs, and supporters openly challenge them. This reflects an ever-stronger instinctive opposition to racism within British and Irish society.
Show Racism the Red Card is now the UK’s leading anti-racism educational charity, helped by the high-profile status of football players. Sport Against Racism Ireland celebrates cultural diversity, and supports the integration of immigrants into Irish society.
Under human rights law, we are all entitled to enjoy our rights and freedoms within society on an equal basis, without any distinction, exclusion, restriction, or preference based on our race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin.
It is uplifting that so many decent people have responded to the recent abuse by celebrating these three football heroes. This shows that racism is losing its past power, both within the football world and the wider community.
I hope that this pattern continues, and that we increasingly treat each other on the basis of universal human rights and mutual respect without reference to our skin colour.