There is a temptation sometimes to think that there is a line of progress in societal issues that moves steadily upwards.
In football, we have been asserting, glibly, for many years that the racism problem in the game is vastly improved from the way it was in the late Seventies and early Eighties, when players such as Ces Podd were loudly abused from the terraces with impunity and bananas were thrown on to the pitch at John Barnes.
That case cannot be made any more. Social and cultural history is not a smooth arc. There are periods of enlightenment and there are periods when things lurch backwards.
And we entered a phase some time ago in English football where we lurched backwards. The rancid reaction to England’s defeat by Italy in the final of the European Championship last Sunday was merely a confirmation of that.
Events of the past week have shown English football has not progressed in the right direction
The racism of the late Seventies and early Eighties is still omnipresent across the English game
No one has sought sanctuary in revisionism about the atmosphere at Wembley, before, during and after the game and nor should they. The behaviour of a loud minority of England fans was feral. It was out of control.
It was a reminder that however much we had told ourselves England’s hooliganism problem had gone away, it hadn’t. It had been hiding but now it feels it does not have to hide any more.
Let’s be honest: when Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka missed their spot-kicks, everyone knew what was coming. Rashford, Sancho and Saka knew what was coming, too.
Everyone knew they would be racially abused on social media. It is not an exception any more. It has not been an exception for some time. It is the norm. When anger and disillusion and impotence want to raise their voice in football now, their default mechanism is racist abuse.
Vile racist abuse directed at Marcus Rashford (left), Jadon Sancho (second left) and Bukayo Saka (right) has confirmed that we have lurched backwards in our fight for equality
In that context, it seems especially strange that so many people are still questioning the worth and the legitimacy of footballers taking the knee before games.
If ever a set of circumstances legitimised the actions of the England players during the Euros, it was the circumstances that unfolded last week in the wake of defeat.
Some players are anticipating that in the next few weeks the Premier League will attempt to exert gentle pressure on them to abandon the practice before the start of the new season.
They think the Premier League are probably bored of it now and they think that, even though they would never admit it, broadcasters are probably bored of it, too.
Taking the knee is not good TV. Not really. It is a reminder that there is something wrong. It is a nagging acknowledgment of something you would rather just went away so you could forget about it. People are bored of it now; that’s what we keep hearing.
There is also concern among stars that the powers that be will try to prevent players kneeling
You’ve made your point, they say, it’s time to move on. But I spoke to one captain of a Premier League club last week who made this point: how, he asked, could he go to the players at his club and tell them that everybody would really rather they went back to normal and stopped taking the knee when the 2021-22 season begins? How could he ask them to do that when nothing has been achieved?
If players stop taking the knee now, it will be an admission of defeat. Because since they started doing it, at the Aston Villa-Sheffield United match in June last year, nothing has changed with regard to racism in English football.
If anything the situation has got worse. So why would you abandon a protest before any change has occurred?
The social media companies still refuse to introduce any measures to clamp down on perpetrators. And football itself has stopped short of introducing more severe penalties for those fans found guilty of perpetrating the abuse.
However, a Premier League captain said players will step up protests, rather than back down
Nor is there a set penalty for a player found to have racially abused another player. If anything, a player who alleges racial abuse is the one who suffers the more severe punishment because he or she is labelled a trouble-maker or a fantasist. So is it surprising that when black players, in particular, hear commentators telling them that they should abandon taking the knee because it is not the right kind of protest, they resist.
There is a curious arrogance about presuming to tell people how they should protest. It misunderstands how protest works.
It misunderstands that protest is not designed to reassure those it is protesting against. It is there to challenge them. It is there to effect change.
And so far, nothing has changed. So it is fanciful to think there will be fewer protests or that they will be abandoned. The skipper I spoke to said he believed the situation was reaching ‘boiling point’. Protest is likely to increase, if anything, not subside.
They are likely to grow more radical rather than succumb to the wishes of those telling them to pipe down.
So far, nothing has changed, so it is fanciful to believe that there will be fewer protests
Booed by their own fans at the Euros, the England football team presented a dignified, unified, progressive face that the country at large can only envy. Their power has not been diminished by the pockets of opposition to what they are doing. It has increased.
If there is still no sign of positive change by the time of the new season, it is possible that, far from rowing back on protests, Premier League players will step them up.
They will search for more radical means of expression to reinforce taking the knee. They know they have power and public support and they may start using it.
If things really are at boiling point, it may not be long before we see a team walk off in a match if a team-mate is abused by an opponent or by supporters. That, too, will doubtless be ‘the wrong way to protest’ but a lot of footballers got to the point some time ago where they were past caring.
NOVAK STILL NOT IN MY TOP THREE
Novak Djokovic moved level with Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal on 20 Grand Slam singles titles when he won the Wimbledon’s men’s singles final last Sunday.
It poured more fuel on the fire of the debate about who is the greatest of the three of them. Even if Djokovic goes on to win more titles, it won’t change my mind.
Greatness and why you appreciate a particular player go way beyond titles. My top three are Federer, Bjorn Borg and Guillermo Vilas.
Novak Djokovic reached 20 Grand Slams last week but still is not in my top players of all time
NUNO MISSES THE POINT ON KANE
Nuno Espirito Santo, the new Tottenham boss, said it as if it were an end to the speculation about Harry Kane seeking a move. ‘Harry is our player, period,’ he said.
It’s hard to argue with that but it misses the point. He is indubitably Spurs’ player now but what everyone is interested in is whether Kane will still be Spurs’ player by the end of August. If he is, it will mean Kane has decided that he wants to break records at Spurs and values loyalty above winning the biggest trophies.
It would be a noble choice but there are already some suggestions Kane is ready to try to force a move. I suspect that, despite Nuno’s words, we will hear plenty more about Kane’s future in the weeks to come.
Nuno Espirito Santo missed the point when discussing wantaway star Harry Kane this week
PRAISE FOR HOLT
Oliver Holt’s work has been recognised in the Society of Editors’ Press Awards. Oliver was highly commended in the columnist of the year category.
Judges said he was ‘adept at harnessing the emotional power and pull of sport to get important issues talked about — articulating important truths on topics many find difficult to discuss’.