Thousands of England fans evicted the players as they knelt before their match against Austria last night, leaving BBC pundits stunned by fans’ growing dissatisfaction with the gesture.
After renditions of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ and the anthems, there was an audible cheer as the players knelt at Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough – the first time an England side had done so in front of a home crowd.
The booing was so loud that BBC Radio 5 Live commentator John Murray was left stunned, saying to listeners: ‘Wow, that was quite a response. There was a lot of shouting there. I’m quite surprised by how loud that was.’
The stadium welcomed 8,000 fans for the match against Austria, with TV images suggesting that a significant portion of several thousand were behind the booing.
Despite the cheers that drowned out the boos shortly afterwards, the episode reflects growing anger among supporters who view the gesture as “political.”
England manager Gareth Southgate and TV presenter Piers Morgan condemned the cheers, but other supporters gathered to defend fans on Twitter.
Audible cheers were heard as players from England and Austria got on their knees for the friendly match
Jude Bellingham and Tyrone Mings kneel for Wednesday night kickoff
One fan wrote: ‘It’s not about the color of someone’s skin. You don’t have to get on your knees to be against racism. It’s about time footballers stopped getting down on their knees for a political movement.’
Another added: ‘The boos are not in support of racism, but in the act of taking the knee, which has become a political statement. Political statements have no place in sport.’
While a third said: ‘Unfortunately getting on the knees, whether it is or not, is now associated by many with a political movement that is running petitions from their websites calling for #DefundThePolice and educational movements not a good fit for a large part of the population.’
Footballers first began to bend their knees last June following the death of George Floyd and a deluge of anti-racist demonstrations across the Western world.
It also came amid a slew of racist incidents in the sport, including regular abuse of black players on social media.
The abuse appears to have increased of late, with Manchester City duo Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker subjected to racial abuse following their Champions League final defeat to Chelsea last week.
The pair both received monkey emojis on social media platform Instagram after the game, according to Sky Sports, just days after Manchester United star Marcus Rashford received “at least 70” racist messages following their Europa League loss. final against Villarreal.
Sterling, who is a vocal campaigner against racism in football, has been the target of trolls a number of times this season – and received despicable reports earlier this month, just 48 hours after the Premier League and its clubs launched a 48-hour boycott of social media platforms.
England have several black players on their roster, including match winner Bukayo Saka, Tyrone Mings, Jude Bellingham, Jesse Lingard, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Jadon Sancho.
In March, Wilfried Zaha became the first Premier League player to stop taking the knee before kick-off, in what he described as ‘humiliating’.
Ivory Coast international Zaha instead stood with his arms behind his back.
He later explained: “There is no right or wrong decision, but personally I feel like kneeling has just become part of the pre-match routine.
“Right now it doesn’t matter if we kneel or stand, some of us are still being mistreated.
“I know there is a lot of work going on behind the scenes at the Premier League and other authorities to make changes and I fully respect that. I also have all the respect for my teammates and players at other clubs who continue to kneel.
“As a society, I think we should encourage better education in schools and social media companies should take stronger action against people who abuse others online – not just football players. I just want to focus on football now and enjoy playing on the pitch again. I will stand.’
England manager Gareth Southgate said after last night’s game that he believes the message behind taking the knee before kick-off is lost.
Southgate also said he felt the booing of the knee could be taken as a ‘critique’ of England’s black players.
“I did hear it,” he said when asked about the immediate reaction of a large number of fans.
Piers Morgan slammed the ‘so-called England fans’ who booed the team on Wednesday
Gareth Southgate claims the reason behind taking the knee has been misunderstood
“It’s not something on behalf of our black players that I wanted to hear because it feels like it’s criticizing them.
“I think we have a situation where some people seem to think it’s a political position that they don’t agree with.
“That’s not why the players do it. We support each other.’
The initial cheers were overtaken by a tidal wave of support and as other stadiums across England have seen similar reactions since the return of fans, Southgate are keen to see the meaning behind the message reaffirmed.
“I was happy that the majority of the crowd drowned it out, but we can’t deny that it happened,” he added.
“I think the most important thing for our players to know is that all their teammates, all the staff are fully behind us.
“I think most people get it, some people don’t quite get the message and I assume we’re seeing that on some football pitches right now.”
Piers Morgan lashed out at the fans at Riverside Stadium, who decided to spot the players, claiming the England squad should leave the next time they booed.
Morgan wrote on Twitter on Thursday morning: “It’s disgusting to hear so many alleged England fans loudly booing a team with many black players for getting on their knees to protest racial inequality, then loudly cheering on one of those black players.” when he scored.
“The next time these idiots captivate, the players should run away.”
In addition, midfielder Jack Grealish – who played a key role in England’s winning goal – said none of the players were happy about it.
“I think that will be discussed in the coming days,” he told Sky Sports. “It’s something we don’t want in football in general and especially in our games.
England players are expected to continue kneeling during the European Championship this summer – one of the most watched events in world football.
UEFA has strict rules regarding political statements but has allowed English players to kneel during the Nations League and are unlikely to change their stance during the tournament.
Prior to Wednesday night, players had already encountered resistance as fans returned to the stadiums, with some fans booing the knee-taking before previous matches.
Fans at Wembley ahead of the FA Cup final between Chelsea and Leicester were booed before applause drowned out the protests. A similar sentiment was heard at Old Trafford ahead of Manchester United’s game against Fulham on May 18.