'It starts at the top': Gary Neville calls out Boris Johnson over racist abuse of England players

·5-min read

Watch: Gary Neville criticises Boris Johnson after racist abuse of England players

Gary Neville has criticised the prime minister after three Black England players were subjected to racist abuse after the Euro 2020 final.

The racist abuse aimed at Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who all missed penalties in the shootout defeat to Italy on Sunday, has been condemned by Boris Johnson.

But former Manchester United and England player Neville, now a pundit for ITV and Sky, said the prime minister’s previous comments on racism before the tournament had a negative impact.

Johnson initially refused to condemn England fans who booed players for taking a knee before matches, although a few days later, as the Euros began, his official spokesman said the prime minister wanted people to “cheer them on, not boo”.

File photo dated 22-11-2020 of File photo dated 24/9/2016 of ex-footballer Gary Neville is joining forces with local business leaders to encourage workers to return safely to Manchester city centre amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Issue date: Friday May 21, 2021.
Football pundit Gary Neville has criticised prime minister Boris Johnson after England players were subjected to online racist abuse. (PA)
Soccer Football - Euro 2020 - Final - Italy v England - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - July 11, 2021 England's Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho prepare to come on as substitutes Pool via REUTERS/Carl Recine
England's Jadon Sancho, left, and Marcus Rashford received racist abuse after missing penalties in England's Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy. (Reuters)
Soccer Football - Euro 2020 - Final - Italy v England - Wembley Stadium, London, Britain - July 11, 2021 England's Bukayo Saka with manager Gareth Southgate after the match Pool via REUTERS/Laurence Griffiths     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
England manager Gareth Southgate consoles Bukayo Saka after he missed the final penalty of the shootout against Italy on Sunday evening. (Reuters)

Earlier in the tournament, home secretary Priti Patel called taking a knee “gesture politics”, and refused to condemn those who booed the players, saying it was a “choice for them”.

On Monday, after the three players’ social media pages were flooded with racial abuse, Neville said: “It starts at the very top.

“[England manager] Gareth Southgate and the players a few weeks ago, about five days on the trot, told us they were taking the knee to promote equality and it was against racism.

“The prime minister said it was okay for the population of this country to boo those players who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism.

“I wasn’t surprised in the slightest that I woke up this morning to those headlines, I expected it the minute the three players that missed missed.”

While Neville said those who posted racist abuse must take personal responsibility for their actions, he told Sky News: “If your parents do something, your children will follow.”

Neville added: “There is an issue obviously in football, there is an issue in society where we feel it’s acceptable basically to criticise players for sporting actions because of the colour of their skin.

“People are being abused and it’s absolutely ridiculous in 2021 that we’re still talking about this, but we are.”

In response to Neville’s comments, the prime minister’s official spokesman said on Monday: “The prime minister was clear that he wanted to see everyone getting behind the team to cheer them on. He made that clear on the 11th, before England’s first game.”

Following the racist abuse of Rashford, Sancho and Saka, Johnson said on Monday: “This England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media. 

“Those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves.”

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Patel also tweeted: “I am disgusted that England players who have given so much for our country this summer have been subject to vile racist abuse on social media.

“It has no place in our country and I back the police to hold those responsible accountable.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer also criticised the PM, saying his words today "ring hollow".

Starmer told reporters Johnson had "failed the test of leadership, because whatever he says today about racism he had a simple choice at the beginning of this tournament in relation to the booing of those who were taking the knee.

“The prime minister failed to call that out and the actions and inactions of leaders have consequences, so I’m afraid the prime minister’s words today ring hollow.”

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Fellow senior Labour MP Angela Rayner said: "Let me be clear. The prime minister and the home secretary gave license to the racists who booed the England players and are now racially abusing England players.

"Boris Johnson and Priti Patel are like arsonists complaining about a fire they poured petrol on. Total hypocrites."

Watch: Boris Johnson condemns racist abuse of England players

The abuse has also been condemned by manager Southgate, the England team, the FA and UEFA, as well as by the Metropolitan Police, which added that it will be investigating the “offensive and racist” social media posts.

The force said: “We are aware of a number of offensive and racist social media comments being directed towards footballers following the Euro 2020 final.

“This abuse is totally unacceptable, it will not be tolerated and it will be investigated.”

League Two club Leyton Orient said they had issued a three-year banning order to a season-ticket holder related to the abuse of England players.

“The supporter in question’s actions on Twitter were alerted to the club late last night, and action has been taken swiftly to issue a banning order,” the club said in a statement.

“As the club has repeatedly made clear, we take a zero-tolerance approach to any racist abuse or discrimination.”

Meanwhile, Facebook – which owns Instagram – said it “quickly removed comments and accounts directing abuse at England’s footballers last night and we’ll continue to take action against those that break our rules”. 

Rival social network Twitter said it had proactively removed more than 1,000 posts over the past 24 hours and taken swift action to permanently suspend a number of accounts.

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