Bukayo Saka’s treatment after Iceland loss exposed familiar media failings | Morgan Ofori

Estimated read time 6 min read

The response by sections of the English press to England’s 1-0 defeat against Iceland in their final Euro 2024 warmup game raised some uncomfortable issues, not for the first time. The best that can be said is that at least they emerged before the tournament and not after, and hopefully there will be some lessons (re)learned.

England played poorly in a disjointed performance that lacked sharpness. Iceland scored in the 12th minute and despite having most of Gareth Southgate’s likely first XI on the pitch, England missed chances and could not find a cutting edge. Late substitutions further muddied the waters.

Across many newspaper back pages it was Bukayo Saka’s image used to convey disappointment at England’s loss — despite the player not having been on the pitch when the goal was conceded. Saka came on in the 64th minute.

In some senses it is easy to see how this happened. The pictures of the Arsenal winger throwing a paper plane off the pitch – cue “Plane awful” headlines in the Daily Mail and Sun, and “England take a nosedive” in the Daily Telegraph – offered something different from the usual dejected player. Others featured a picture of Saka sprawled on the ground. Such decisions are made quickly by editors working to tight deadlines.

Perhaps it also makes sense for a player such as Saka to be used to demonstrate frustration at the result; he is high-profile, has assumed an important role as one of England’s best players and his presence might reel in readers because of the tribal element of football. He is one of the best players in the world, was one of the biggest names on the pitch at the end of the game – and, as it happened, one of eight black players in England’s lineup at that point.

But even for those of us with short memories this was uncomfortable. Saka’s miss in the penalty shootout in the Euro 2020 final made him in many eyes the symbol of England’s failure. Like the other players who missed spot-kicks, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, Saka was vilified and abused. Reflecting on the reaction to Friday’s defeat, Tony Burnett, the chief executive of Kick It Out, said it showed how black players are only a “misplaced kick” from being vilified and sent a message that targeting players online is regarded as fair game. “Those points need to be considered when writing headlines or selecting images as deadlines approach. The words and pictures travel a long way, hitting harder than you might realise.”

Using a young black English player as the symbol of disappointment, regardless of his contribution to the result, carries baggage. Anyone covering the national team should be aware of the historic vilification of black players and the editorial line should be unapologetically anti-racist.

Darren Lewis, the president of the Sports Journalists’ Association and an assistant editor of the Mirror, wrote arguing the picture of Saka throwing a plane “did indeed capture the mood on a dismal night. Shots of Saka, slumped on the pitch on his front, would also have caught the eye with the Arsenal forward one of the most recognisable faces in the England team.”

Iceland’s Jon Dagur Thorsteinsson scores against England.View image in fullscreen

But Lewis added, tellingly: “But here’s the thing: Choosing Saka meant he, unwittingly, would become the face of another bad night for the team that had left England fans unimpressed. And at that moment it needed a pause. A consideration. A discussion on whether Kane missing a sitter, keeper Aaron Ramsdale conceding or any one of the defenders undone by Iceland would have been more prudent. The pictures would not have been so good but the meltdown would have been avoided.

“Because for many fans, three years after that Wembley nightmare, Friday was too much to take. Supporters of other races and allegiances joined many black fans in wrongly interpreting it as yet another young footballer who looks like them being lined up for more negativity at the Euros.”

Ian Wright, Saka’s mentor, wrote on X: “Now more than ever let’s get behind & support these young people. “We can all see what’s happening & who’s being set up to be the face of defeat. We are going to be gas lit with explanations and justifications, but those deciding who goes on the back pages know what they’re doing. Let’s keep our energy focused on giving these players pure love and support throughout the tournament.”

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Let’s not be in any doubt that racism still lurks close to, and often above, the surface in this tournament. Last week, the German broadcaster ARD asked survey participants if they would prefer more white players in the national team. Joshua Kimmich called it “absolutely racist” while his manager, Julian Nagelsmann, said it was “madness”. There was bemusement that such blatant racism should ever be part of a public forum. But the British press should be wary too.

Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham celebrate a goal with Mason Mount during England’s World Cup win against Iran in 2022.View image in fullscreen

Black England fans of different generations have their own reference points. Emile Heskey rounding off a comprehensive 5-1 away victory for Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England against Germany in 2001 is memorable for many. For older generations, you might hear someone cite John Barnes scoring against Brazil in 1984. When England routed Iran 6-2 in their opener at the last World Cup with Jude Bellingham, Saka and Raheem Sterling all on the scoresheet, there was a collective smile on all faces and also pride in a new, united squad.

Many black fans in England are glad to finally feel represented in the modern squad. For my younger generation, their identities are tied to the post-empire, multi-cultural society they have been raised in, and they are both hyper-aware of the dynamics of racial representation in the press, and unwilling to tolerate what they see as dog whistles. The actor Daniel Kaluuya described in 2022 how “there was a gap” between being black in England and wanting to support the national team, because the natural reaction of some white fans is to other and vilify black people. “It’s why I never felt comfortable in the pub,” he added.

Southgate’s England are the nation’s most united team in terms of purpose for decades. This summer features a major football tournament, European elections with a surge in support for the far right, and a UK general election that may see the same. As such, the job of the media in how they represent the national team becomes all the more important. Black England supporters see you.

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Source: theguardian.com

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