When England football star John Terry launched his locker room protest against racism during a game against Switzerland in March 2010, no one was particularly surprised. At England’s first and only World Cup match that year, defender Sol Campbell had knelt during the national anthem in protest against racist abuse — accusations he vehemently denied.
As with black athletes across the United States, players at the 2010 World Cup had flooded social media with their support for the protesters, including the much-derided “dirtbag” soccer player, Tim Howard. Others made a more deliberate statement with their moves. In England, the game’s most famous player, the late, great David Beckham, put a three-finger sign to his chest and stood with his back to the crowd during the national anthem.
On the Fourth of July, this year, defenders Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker knelt in their own section of the stadium. Both had chosen the powerful salute as a symbol of their solidarity, after hundreds of England players knelt in solidarity at the 2010 World Cup to protest against racism in the sport.
When Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the Sweden striker, backed the players after they knelt, he provoked a war of words between players. In Sweden, the gesture is called the “afrika” and it is designed to honor black Africans killed in the transatlantic slave trade. It has infuriated many Swedes, including coach Janne Andersson. “It is not appropriate,” Andersson said.
While U.S. sports stars make no secret of their support for the players, the debate at home in England has ranged from bemusement to outright condemnation. Former Prime Minister and Tory Party leader David Cameron tweeted that the players’ gesture was “stupid and pointless.” On Wednesday, Prime Minister Theresa May praised those who had stood up to racism, describing the players’ protest as “absolutely important.” She added, however, that she does not support the demonstrators. The European Parliament suspended its election funding over the shocking revelations of corruption among officials. Foul-mouthed hitmen in world politics, from the U.S. president to foreign politicians, are regularly censured for their foul language.