LONDON — When England’s Bukayo Saka stepped up to take his penalty against Italy in the Euro 2020 soccer final, what followed was not just the latest chapter of the country’s 55-year tale of sporting heartbreak, but also a grim echo of what its Black stars had endured decades before.
After he missed the decisive kick, the 19-year-old’s social media timeline was flooded with banana and monkey emojis — a modern outlet for the kind of racial abuse that saw trailblazing Black stars regularly pelted with actual bananas and harangued with monkey chants during the game’s bigoted nadir of the 1980s.
But Saka’s defiant response was also firmly rooted in the sport’s past. By emerging as society’s leading voices demanding change, some experts say, he and his teammates are continuing another storied soccer tradition: using the game’s unique hold on the national psyche as a conduit for racial discussion and even progress.
“There’s an irony that so much of our debate around race in Britain is via the medium of football,” said Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, a think tank covering immigration and identity. “It’s probably the sphere of our society that has been most organized in challenging racism, partly because it was associated with the most vocal, extreme racism in the ’70s and ’80s.”
On Thursday, Saka called on Twitter and Facebook, which also owns Instagram, to better police the hateful messages that are all too common online.
“I knew instantly the kind of hate I was about to receive and that is a sad reality that your powerful platforms are not doing enough to stop these messages,” he said in a message posted on social media. “There is no place for racism or hate of any kind in football or any area of society.”
A Facebook spokesperson said in an email that it uses “technology to help us review and remove harmful content” on Instagram, and that it had quickly removed messages and accounts directing abuse at the players. “No one thing will fix this challenge overnight,” they said, adding that “we know these systems aren’t perfect and we’re constantly working to improve.”
Marcus Rashford was also abused online after missing a penalty, and a mural of his face in his hometown of Manchester was defaced with graffiti. But in the days afterward, hundreds of fans flocked to the mural, taking the knee and leaving messages of support in a bid to show the vandals are firmly in the minority.
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Rashford, 23, and his teammate Raheem Sterling, 26, have also been relentless in calling for better moderation of social media, having endured years of online hate. And their teammate, Tyrone Mings, 28, this week called out what he saw as double standards by the British government.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel both condemned the online abuse. But before Euro 2020, they had declined to condemn some fans who booed English players taking the knee against racism, with Patel, who is of South Asian descent, criticizing it as “gesture politics.”
“You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament,” Mings said, “and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we’re campaigning against happens.”
These England players are widely seen as formidable ambassadors for social change. Their average age is 25 and their progressive politics would have been alien to many of their predecessors.
But soccer as a tool of racial progress is not new.
Katwala remembers going to his first Everton FC game in 1988 and hearing his fellow fans proudly singing “Everton are white” because the team had no Black players.
“Football introduced me as a 12-year-old to overt public racism,” he said, “but it also introduced me to anti-racism.”
That was a time of extreme social division. Soccer stadiums were rife with hooligans, many affiliated with the far-right National Front. Crowds regularly made monkey noises and threw bananas at pioneering Black stars such as Laurie Cunningham and Viv Anderson. In 1982, when Cyrille Regis became just the third Black man to play for England, he was sent a bullet in the mail.
“These players were absolutely brilliant, and the traditionally white working-class football supporters felt threatened by it,” said Ellis Cashmore, co-author of “Football’s Dark Side: Corruption, Homophobia, Violence and Racism in the Beautiful Game.”
“To them, this was a game created by white men for white players,” he added, “And suddenly there was arguably the most radical change in the demographics of football ever seen.”
There were white allies like Pat Nevin, the Scottish player who refused to give a post-match interview until the racism directed at his teammate, Paul Canoville, was discussed.
But generally Black players received little support. It was left up to them “to laugh the racism off or you wouldn’t make a living in football,” Anderson wrote in the Daily Mail in 2018.
The 1990s would see rapid change, however.
The Hillsborough disaster of 1989, in which 96 Liverpool fans were crushed to death, prompted a revolution in stadium safety. All-seat stadiums replaced standing bleachers, helping to phase out soccer’s hooliganistic image and replacing it with something more gentrified.
That was supercharged in 1991 when a multimillion-pound TV deal with Sky, now owned by NBC News’ parent company, Comcast, transformed the old-fashioned First Division into the flashy, commoditized Premier League. With it came an influx of foreign, multiracial talent.
International Black stars such as Frenchman Patrick Vieira were now playing alongside Black British players like Ian Wright. The league had become far more diverse than Britain itself.
In 1992, 16 percent of its players were nonwhite, increasing to 33 percent by 2017, according to research by the British broadcaster talkSPORT. By contrast, 3.4 percent of Britons identify as Black.
In 1993, nine years after Regis’ bullet in the post, Paul Ince became England’s first Black captain.
Today, racism clearly still plagues aspects of the game. The anti-racism group Kick It Out said there have been “shocking increases” of reported race hate at professional stadiums, up by 50 percent from the 2018-19 season to 2019-20.
But Katwala and Cashmore are among experts who believe these people are now in a small minority — albeit given outsize voices by the direct and poorly regulated route provided by social media.
“The first generation of footballers decisively won the argument about whether they should play for England,” Katwala said. “In doing so they changed the public argument about who could be English, Black and English, as well as Black and British.”
That’s no more evident than in the examples of Saka, Rashford and Sterling as not just members but also stars of the England team — attempting to lead the country not just on the field but off it, too.