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Football’s night of shame

PSG and Istanbul Basaksehir players walked off the pitch on Tuesday evening
(AFP)
Chief Football Writer

A night when the game took the knee and made a stand, illustrating the utter importance of both.

It was thereby a night with genuine impact, that will reverberate in European football for some time.

That goes way beyond the outcome of the “thorough investigation” Uefa say they will conduct into events at Parc des Princes. It feels like what happened there and at The Den have brought another essential line in the sand, in what has been a landmark year for how football deals with race relations. Genuinely unprecedented events have brought truly ground-breaking responses.

That is all the more timely – and arguably inevitable – because the last few months have seen a growing push-back against the gesture of taking the knee. That push-back has ranged from arguments that it is no more than a “marxist” tool, to the idea that it has become meaningless, and lost its power.

The events of the last few days actually emphasise that, in truth, its meaning has not been sufficiently absorbed. That’s before we even get to the fact this is a decision that has been taken by players to recognise racial inequality, and that they want to keep doing.

Those events have necessitated the actions we saw on Tuesday night from Paris Saint-Germain, Istanbul Basaksehir and Queens Park Rangers, but those actions were never separate from the words or gestures. They were a natural follow-on, a next step, that Loftus Road director of football Les Ferdinand had himself called for.

There is a certain irony that much of this surrounded QPR, given they were the first club to say they would stop taking the knee – but that only tells part of the story. Ferdinand’s explanation at the time was completely understandable, and highly nuanced.

“The message has been lost,” he argued in September. “It is now not dissimilar to a fancy hashtag or a nice pin badge. Taking the knee will not bring change in the game – actions will.”

It feels like the message was certainly lost on some of the Millwall fans who booed the gesture ahead of their match against Derby County on Saturday, especially given the preposterous political justifications used.

It was up to their own defender, Mahlon Romeo, to explain that.

“What they’ve done is booed and condemned a peaceful gesture which was put in place to highlight, combat and stop any discriminatory behaviour and racism,” the Millwall player said. “That’s it – that’s all that gesture is. And the fans have chosen to boo that, which for the life of me I can’t understand.”

It was almost as difficult to understand the response to Saturday. That was that QPR and Millwall players would forego the knee ahead of their match on Tuesday, but instead stand arm-in-arm in a “show of solidarity for football’s fight against discrimination”.

That just served as the set-up for a moment that was deliciously poetic, satisfying, seismic, symbolic and significant all at once, as QPR’s Ilias Chair celebrated his fine goal by taking the knee in front of Millwall fans. This was a gesture that became real action, with a potent message.

It should not be overlooked in all of this that players from both teams took the knee before the game, and that many supporters at The Den applauded that, as well as Chair and Romeo.

It’s just the finer details were inevitably going to be overshadowed by an event of even greater significance in Paris.

After Basaksehir assistant coach Pierre Webo accused fourth official Sebastian Coltescu of using a racist term to describe him – in a row picked up by television microphones – both teams decided to walk off in a laudable show of solidarity.

What was truly unique about this was the show of unity, especially as the night developed and the Istanbul players made it clear they would not come back out if Coltescu was involved. The PSG team fully backed them, with many of their stars posting support on social media.

There is going to be a lot of fall-out to this, but the true significance will be long-term.

The night showed that footballers are now forcing the game to accept the new reality: that race relations are one of its most important issues, and that it needs to lead the way; that football must confront its many remaining problems; that things won’t be let to slide in the way they were in the past – that there’s a very clear line.

That is the entire point of taking the knee: that it’s now equality or nothing.

That is why the gesture, and words, are so important. This, however, was a night of action. It’s all part of the same picture, and one that the players are now changing.