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Taking the knee

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Opposition to taking the knee, an anti-racist action popularised by a global movement, shows how far there's still to go in tackling racism in football

After what has felt like an eternity for match-goers, last weekend saw the return of fans at football stadiums in some parts of the country and with it, an ugly side of football culture, often assumed to be a relic of the past reared its head. At The Den, as Millwall and Derby players took the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, a significant portion of Millwall fans decided to boo loudly.

It should be remembered that the act of taking the knee in the context of BLM originated in 2016 America with NFL player, Colin Kaepernick protesting against police brutality during the traditional pre-game national anthem. The protest of a professional athlete became incorporated into the significant street movement in response to police shootings of black Americans.

Colin Kaepernick was a huge talent in the NFL but the stance he took ultimately cost him his career. Donald Trump encouraged the league to fire players who took the knee during the national anthem and this pressure effectively contributed to Kaepernick being blacklisted as a player.

The incident at The Den has generated widespread debate and discussion. There have been legitimate questions raised around how long the practice of taking a knee should continue for and if the gesture has lost its meaning.

Some arguments hold more weight than others. If we sweep aside the idiotic claims around BLM from right-wing commentators that are purely designed to delegitimise an anti-racist movement, we can deal with the effectiveness of kneeling as a protest sanctioned by football's governing bodies that have previously ignored appalling racism.

In September, QPR Director of Football, Les Ferdinand took the decision to stop the club's players from participating in the action before games. In a statement, he said:

“What are our plans with this? Will people be happy for players to take the knee for the next ten years but see no actual progress made?

“Taking the knee will not bring about change in the game - actions will.

“Those media that have been quick to question us should be looking more inwardly. Our Under 18s were forced to abandon a game in August 2019 against AD Nervion FC due to racist abuse.

“More than 12 months on, Uefa refused to deal with the situation and the Spanish FA did nothing."

Les Ferdinand perhaps hasn't considered that it doesn't have to be either/or and though he is right about football's governance instrumentalising this gesture while taking no meaningful action, the connection to a popular movement that taking the knee has shouldn't be discounted.

Arguments around the effectiveness of taking the knee aside, Millwall fans booing an anti-racist gesture deserves unreserved criticism. There is much talk around football fans' desire to 'leave politics out of the game' but in a sport where racist acts are still far too common, it is imperative that there is a genuine effort to stamp racism out.

This is why the most powerful response to the acts of Millwall's fans came during their next home game at The Den on Tuesday night. After QPR's Elias Chair took the lead with a screamer from the edge of the box, he and his black teammate, Bright Osayi-Samuel took the knee and raised their fists in front of the stands.

On the same night as the Millwall and QPR game, there was another incident at the Parc des Princes where the fourth official was accused of racism against Basaksehir's assistant coach. This led to both teams withdrawing their players from the pitch and the match had to be abandoned.

The fact that an official was at the centre of a racism row demonstrates that there are huge failures in tackling racism within European footballing structures. Uefa is keen to pay lip service to issues around racism but has often been lax in sanctions against clubs where their fans have been guilty of racist incidents.

As a Manchester City fan, I recall not too long ago Uefa fining my team more for being late onto the pitch than they fined Porto for their fans racially abusing Yaya Toure and Mario Balotelli.

Despite what certain narratives some would believe, football fans aren't all mindless hooligans and the response to players taking a stand has received widespread praise amongst the fans I know. Players that are willing to take direct action against racism will achieve more in combatting racism than pre-match videos of football's superstars 'saying no to racism'. The response to significant incidents on Tuesday night could well be a sign of the positive impact of the BLM movement this year.

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