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United by football, divided by BLM: How taking the knee has become such a controversial gesture at the Euro 2020

The symbolic gesture by the England team has attracted significant criticism with fans often booing their own team when the players take the knee ahead of the game.

The Euro 2020 football championship is finally underway after being delayed by a year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. 24 European countries are participating in the 16th edition of the championship, vying for the coveted trophy. Apart from the football and the fanfare surrounding it, there is another aspect that has gained significant attention: The Black Lives Matter protests and England taking the knee as a symbol of protest against racism.

The symbolic gesture by the England team has attracted significant criticism with fans often booing their own team when the players take the knee ahead of the game. Supporters of the gesture tend to brand everyone booing the gesture as a ‘racist’ but there are a great many nuances involved they often overlook.

As much as they scream that the gesture has nothing to do with politics or the BLM, it cannot be denied that it has its roots in the BLM movement. Critics oppose the move because they consider it a political statement at a place which should not have any political demonstrations. The controversy has continued since the friendlies ahead of the tournament but the English FA and Gareth Southgate have continued emphasising that the team will take the knee ahead of games.

England vs Croatia at Euro 2020
England players take the knee before their match against Croatia at Euro 2020 (Source: Skysports)

The FA issued a statement ahead of the friendly against Romania where it said, “Ahead of today’s game, our players will once again take the knee as a show of solidarity with the Black community, including members of our squad who themselves continue to suffer abuse on a regular basis.” They added, “Please support them, just as we know you will once the game begins.”

The England coach had said, “Some people decide to boo. I think those people should put themselves in the shoes of those young players and how that must feel.” “If that was their children, if they are old enough to have children, how would they feel about their kids being in that sort of situation,” he added.

In an open letter, Southgate said, “I know my voice carries weight. Publicly I am the England men’s football team manager. I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players.” He added, “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”

Many other teams at Euro 2020 have refused to take the knee

Despite such incantations, fans booed the team when the players took the knee ahead of their match against Croatia in their first game of the tournament. Croatia had already announced that their players would not take the knee. England won the match after Raheem Sterling scored the only goal.

The Croatian Football Federation had said earlier that they will not impose any decision on the players. It had said, “The Croatian Football Federation believes that the players have a right to their own opinion on these topics, and that they also have a right to choose whether they want to engage in any activity.”

After the Croatian team jointly decided to not take the knee ahead of their friendly against Belgium, the CFF stated, “The Croatian Football Federation respects their stance on this and will not impose taking the knee as an obligation for Croatian players, as this gesture does not hold any symbolic ties to the fight against racism and discrimination in the context of Croatian culture and tradition.”

While those taking the knee have the right to do so, it is rather bewildering that they accuse everyone opposed to the gesture of being racist. By that implication, it would mean that even the Croatian national team is racist and all the teams, practically every other team than England, is racist for not taking the knee. Is that the implication that the English team and its coach wishes to make?

Czech Republic, too, announced that their players will not be taking the knee at the Euro 2020. “We want to fully concentrate on football and the sports side of things,” their head coach Jaroslav Silhavy had said.

“I understand that these are important topics for the whole of society, and my team and I obviously condemn any and all displays of racism. But we talked this through back in March, agreed on our own show of support for the fight against racism, and we do not intend to change anything about that decision,” he had added.

The gesture attracted attention ahead of the match between Belgium and Russia as well. The Belgian team was booed when they took the knee, Russia did not. Netherlands ahead of their match against Ukraine did not take the knee as well. Hungary is not likely to take the knee either given their Prime Minister’s public statements against the gesture.

Belgian players took the knee, Russians did not at their match at Euro 2020 (Image Credit: AFP)

It is to be remembered here that there is no way of denying the gesture is intimately linked to the BLM Movement. The movement itself is hugely controversial with its leaders often taking extremely problematic stands and their members accused of inciting and participating in riots. Under such circumstances, it comes as no surprise that the gesture has attracted so much criticism.

The arguments against taking the knee

One of the foremost criticisms of the gesture is that it does not, in any way, help to fight the actual menace of racism. No one could possibly argue that taking the knee convinces actual racists to have a change of heart.

It was this reason that had prompted Crystal Palace player Wilfried Zaha to announce that he will not take the knee before the Premier League matches. ““I’ve said before that I feel like taking the knee is degrading and stuff because growing up my parents just let me know that I should be proud to be black no matter what and I feel like we should just stand tall,” he had said.

“Because I feel like taking the knee now, it’s becoming… we do it before games and even sometimes people forget that we have to do it before games,” Zaha had stated before adding “We’re isolating ourselves, we’re trying to say that we’re equal but we’re isolating ourselves with these things that aren’t even working anyway, so that’s my stand on it.

Furthermore, the cultural context in which such gestures find relevance is limited to the United States of America and parts of Western Europe. It has no relevance at all in large parts of the world. Therefore, an attempt to universalise a western problem reeks of cultural imperialism.

At the end of the day, the gesture is relegated to meaningless virtue-signaling without any positive impact on the ground. On the contrary, it only further sows seeds of division within the world of football. Racism exists and it is terrible but opposition to a political gesture cannot be branded as a racist act.

One of the fundamental problems with the affair is that those taking the knee and their supporters refuse to acknowledge that it is indeed a political gesture. Unless that is accepted, a common ground is unlikely to materialize in the near future.

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K Bhattacharjee
Black Coffee Enthusiast. Post Graduate in Psychology. Bengali.

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