MANCHESTER, England — All of England had been captivated at the prospect of being crowned European soccer champions for the first time, and the national team’s wrenching defeat on Sunday tore a collective wound — in more ways than one.
Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Saka were among the five England players who braved the pressures of the penalty shootout at the end of the championship. But they all missed the mark, unleashing a surge of racist abuse on social media against the players, all of whom are young Black men.
In the early hours of Monday, Manchester police were called to Withington, in the south of the city, where Mr. Rashford was born, after receiving reports that racist graffiti had been scrawled on a monochrome mural of the soccer star.
The vision of a multiracial, multiethnic Britain that the England team came to symbolize as it fought its way to the final, emphasized by its stance on antiracism with players taking a knee before each game, appeared to vanish.
But as news of the vandalism spread, one act of racism was met with hundreds of messages of pride and love.
Within hours, a collage of hearts, England flags and letters, addressed to Rashford from local fans of every age and color, covered the black sheets of paper that had been used to cover the graffiti. One note read, “My Prime Minister” and “heart of the nation,” while another said, “son of Manchester.”
Akse P19, the local street artist who created the mural, soon repaired the parts destroyed by the vandalism.
Israel Powell, 8, came to the mural accompanied by his father, Tru, 36, who brought his son to see how much his favorite soccer star, once a Black boy from Manchester like Israel himself, was revered by so many, and to post a letter on the wall.
“The racist abuse made me really sad,” Israel said. “Dear Saka, Sancho and Rashford, I like you because you did the best you could do. It’s OK if you didn’t score, I’m still proud of you,” he said, recalling what he wrote in his letter.
Hazel Roy felt compelled to show her solidarity for Mr. Rashford on Tuesday, despite it being her 75th birthday. “I was appalled when I heard that the mural had been defaced,” she said. But, she added, “I was so heartened to hear many people had come to offer their support for him, because I think what he’s done is magnificent.”
Long before his meteoric rise as a soccer star for Manchester United and the England national team, Mr. Rashford, now a famous multimillionaire athlete, once relied on free school meals.
During lockdown last year, Mr. Rashford introduced a campaign to help provide food for more than two million British children during the coronavirus lockdown, an effort that captured national attention after the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to extend a Covid-related free school meal program into the six-week summer vacation last year. Mr. Johnson eventually made a U-turn after receiving widespread criticism.
At Button Lane Primary School, where Mr. Rashford was once a student, Emma Roberts, the head teacher, said both staff members and pupils had been deeply affected by the torrent of racist abuse directed toward Mr. Rashford, who still visits the school.
“Speaking to the pupils this week, they’re more upset that Marcus has had to deal with racist abuse than the fact that England lost in the final,” she said.
An analysis of tweets directed over the last 12 months at elite soccer, basketball, tennis, golf and ice hockey athletes by Pickswise, a sports betting website, found that Mr. Rashford suffered more attacks on Twitter than any other soccer player in the world. The only athlete who received a greater number of abusive tweets was LeBron James, the basketball player.
Shaista Aziz, an avid England fan and antiracism campaigner, is one of three women who started #TheThreeHijabis online petition, which has now received almost a million signatures, calling on England’s Football Association and the British government to permanently ban from soccer matches those carrying out racist abuse online or offline.
With soccer, she said, “we’ve really seen the extreme, open truth of how racism manifests in this country.”
In a statement shared on Twitter, Mr. Rashford apologized for missing his penalty in the finals. He thanked his local community for their messages of support, saying they had brought him to the “verge of tears.”
“I’m Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old Black man from Withington and Wythershawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else, I have that,” he wrote.
Tommy Judge, the mayor of Manchester, described Mr. Rashford as the loudest voice on social issues in the country. “I’m 42 years older than him, but I can learn something from this young man,” he said.
“We’ve got one nasty comment replaced by hundreds of loving comments. That’s what I take from today,” he added, gesturing to the crowds around the mural. “We’ve come out in force to say, ‘Not in Manchester, not in our name, and not against Marcus Rashford.’”
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