As flag-waving black players and white players unite against racism in football, the conflict of the decades-old left-right divide is stoking controversy once again.
At the Football Association Cup Final in London on Saturday, the scandal of one player kneeling during the national anthem has been largely ignored, with all eyes on the stadium as Arsenal and Chelsea concluded what appeared to be a friendly friendly.
Up until a point, that is, when the left-right debate arose when Tottenham’s Dele Alli knelt for the anthem, a move that set off a fiery debate, in which he was accused of disrespecting the anthem and the country. Alli did not intend to break the law, or offend anybody with his choice of anthem, but that didn’t stop the left from calling him a coward for taking a knee while playing under the banner of the national football association.
How ironic that the same left-right schism that Donald Trump espouses is proving to be one of the loudest issues in society today.
When Alli knelt, he wasn’t alone. Manchester United stars Wayne Rooney and Michael Carrick also knelt before United’s season finale against Swansea, while Ronald Koeman’s Everton allowed the movement to continue throughout the remainder of the match. None of this, however, is going to quell criticism.
Media outlets like The Guardian and The Sun have condemned the players, while football pundits like Jamie Redknapp and Alan Shearer also expressed their doubts.
“Two months ago, when these lines were being drawn in Westminster, Wayne Rooney and Dele Alli would have been in the thick of the motion,” Redknapp said during a Sky Sports podcast with Tim Lovejoy on Sunday. “They would have wanted to see people standing.”
The section of the United squad that knelt for the anthem took their protest to the locker room before the match, so United’s banner wasn’t a problem.
I don’t think it was disrespectful, I think it was the right thing to do. Alan Shearer
The singling out of Alli in particular prompted a fine from the FA on Sunday. But since he didn’t break any regulations, Alli isn’t facing disciplinary action from the governing body. Instead, the policy on political statements for matches in the forthcoming season seems to center on a man wearing a poppy in the matches are played this June, and the manager has the final say over whether the player will make any declaration on Friday.
Does it matter? Sure, but shouldn’t it be an administrative matter rather than the national debate? Shouldn’t we care about the sport and its stance in dealing with racism and calling out bigotry?
Like any such piece of bad sportsmanship, this episode also reveals just how much bad blood there is between the clubs. This is a poisonous environment right now, with politics and sports coming together, and these were taken into account when determining the reaction to the Rooney and Carrick kneel, and the Willian-Raheem Sterling bust up in the season finale of Manchester City’s title-winning season.
The way this situation was handled was never going to lead to a clean break between clubs. In the current political climate, boycotting games is the most effective way to make a point. Going beyond politics is a distraction from how the game is perceived in the locker room.
Still, this is the ugly truth of football: Both clubs are standing their ground. No one is giving an inch, not on either side of the aisle. A demand to stand and disrespect is served with the absolute silence.
If a call for respect is put forth by the star players of the respective clubs, then action is inevitable. Right now, the best that can be said is that the same voices who condemn Alli for his decision are either hypocrites or missing their chance to make an impact.
If the atmosphere in the West London Stadium was anything like a typical soccer game of that kind in England, many a player would be on the side of standing with respect while the songs that they stand at home to would be covered with sounds of outrage.
How sad that politics comes into play now, after decades of politics being removed from sports and deprived of any impact. This is the nature of politics right now in many cultures and sports, but it’s the right time to speak up and make the opposition pay.
England stars taking a knee, as Alli did on Saturday, is showing that a sports community can unite around respecting America. This should happen more often, but few communities can celebrate as loudly as soccer does about the American experiment in democracy.
England’s two most popular clubs are showing it just now.