Growing up in the West of Ireland, I was pretty much unaware of class and race. The only abuse of note I ever took from anybody was because my dad was the school headmaster, and I was into Ace of Base. There was no fear of gang violence or kidnap. The only crimes to speak of were those committed against football in the park every Sunday afternoon.
Undoubtedly there were social issues, just like everywhere else, but to my innocent eyes, they were hidden from view. What a privileged childhood to have. Privileged, but undeniably sheltered. There were two black people in my life; Paul McGrath, then of Aston Villa and Ireland, and Ballina basketballer Deora Marsh. It never occurred to me that their worldview might be different to mine.
As sheltered as I was, I could read, though. Eventually, I was lucky that I could travel and learn, the most obvious lesson being, me lecturing anybody on race would be as ill-judged as me lecturing a mother of 10 on childbirth.
I’m guessing that my experiences as a kid are quite similar to an awful lot of others writing newspaper columns in this country today. Most of us watched with admiration and pride as Republic of Ireland players took a knee to highlight racial injustice moments before kickoff in Budapest this week. We were prouder still when sections of the 7,000-strong crowd at the Szusza Ferenc Stadium booed them, as the Hungarian players stood and pointed to the ‘respect’ logo on their sleeves.
There are some, however, who feel this protest — any protest — has no place in sport. They tell us they don’t turn on their TV to be confronted with such gratuitous articulations of social conscience, especially from professional sportspeople who, to their minds, are paid only to kick a ball and not express opinions.
What next, they’ll argue. If we tolerate them kneeling to protest injustice before football games, they’ll be bowing their heads and raising defiant clenched fists on Olympic podiums to highlight the global water crisis in Rwanda. How disgusting! It would be better for those people if we had another Olympics, perhaps, an Olympics for athletes with nothing to protest. An exclusively white, first-world Olympics, contested by privately educated athletes. None of this Palestinian flag-waving business. No rainbow shoelaces to support those uppity gays. Just pure sport, unburdened by humanity; like golf or a Lions tour.
Thankfully, Republic of Ireland manager Stephen Kenny disagrees. Eschewing traditional diplomacy, he instead opted for utter incredulity at the fact his players were booed for taking a knee. Post-match, there was no “obviously, we are disappointed, but…”
Instead, Kenny unsurprisingly spoke his mind: “I think it is a very, very important message. The fact that it was booed is incomprehensible. It must be damaging for Hungary with the Euros. It does not reflect well on Hungary really or Hungarian support.
Our players wanted to do it. It is an important stance. I commend them for taking that stance.
If, as some suggest, Kenny has difficulty in communicating his style of play to his players, the same can not be said of the clarity of his support for their protest. Four of his players are of Nigerian descent. Three of them are teenagers. Playing football may be their job, but doing so in front of an openly hostile crowd without protection is not.
For this alone, I’d leave Kenny in the Ireland job indefinitely; not for taking a position I agree with, but for having an informed opinion unsullied by ignorance or corporate greed. Winning is overrated, anyway.
Meanwhile, in football-mad England, a country with a huge opportunity to win something this summer, the FA implored all fans who oppose their players taking a knee before games to “reflect on the message you are sending to the players you are supporting”, this ahead of Sunday's opening Euro 2020 game against Croatia at Wembley (where some people booed those taking the knee).
The statement was the politest of rebukes to a fanbase that has consistently proven itself to be the provider of oxygen for a movement that, bizarrely, needs any explanation at all. The FA could have been much snappier in their statement, five words would have done it; “WE KNEEL BECAUSE YOU BOO.”
The absurdity of the politeness and restraint exhibited by the FA, Gareth Southgate, and the players towards their “fans” was starkly compounded by the non-position position of UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who said through a spokesperson he “would like to see everyone getting behind the team to cheer them on, not boo,”.
That followed a week in which the PM did not explicitly condemn the booing. His spokesperson told NBC News that when it comes to taking a knee, he “believes in taking action rather than just making gestures”. Right then.
In the middle of all that furore, Stuttgart’s Congolese stiker Silas Katompa Mvumpa was banned for three months and fined €30,000 by the German Football Association on Friday after admitting he played under a false identity.
He did so after coming forward — with the support of his club — detailing how he lied about his name and age under duress from his agent, who he alleges threatened him and withheld his passport. Mvumpa said he had lived “in constant fear for the last few years and have also been very worried about my family in Congo.”
The case, which received very little exposure in the context of the Euros, highlighted a trend of exploitation of young African players in Europe.
It wouldn’t happen to a white kid. This may not sit well with those among us who want our sports stars to just shut up and dribble. What a shame for them that their armchair experience is tainted by the collective expression of social conscience by selfish, pampered sports stars. What a shame for the rest of us they couldn’t just shut up and listen.