Kevin De Bruyne has long been a champion of social justice, despite being a white kid from a comfortable background in Belgium.
He memorably allowed his image, photoshopped so he looked like a man with Down’s Syndrome, to be used in advertising aimed at drumming up support for the Special Olympics, when he was a star at Wolfsburg in 2014.
De Bruyne’s awareness is partly based on his background – he spent part of his childhood in the former Belgian colony of Burundi, and in Ivory Coast, due to his dad’s work for an oil company.
It was no great surprise that when football emerged from lockdown, a year ago this week, the Manchester City midfielder would take an active role in football’s response to the Black Lives Matter movement.
The murder of George Floyd by a police officer in May of last year was the spark for a powder keg of protest around the world, a symbol of the wider issue of racism, both overt and subtle, that still poisons the planet.
Football has always been a microcosm of that problem, with players subject to terrible abuse from the stands, in the dressing room and more recently, over social media. But it has also been a force for good, through the multi-cultural nature of all the great teams, and through initiatives such as Kick It Out.
So when football was emerging from lockdown, it was also caught up in the maelstrom of the Black Lives Matter protest.
During the pandemic, a group of Premier League players, led by Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson, had go together to discuss moves to play their part, and use their considerable financial muscle to help NHS staff.
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After years of “player power” having connotations of self-interest, this was a case of footballers being a force for good.
So when they held a video conference call to discuss football’s Project Restart, there was some frustration when the Black Lives Matter issue was being stepped around.
The meeting was mainly intended to be about safety issues – Watford skipper Deeney, and City star Sergio Aguero were among stars who had expressed concerns about playing during a pandemic.
But Deeney, sick of a lack of leadership on the issue of racism from those in power, felt it was time the players took control.
He grasped the nettle during the video call with an impassioned eight-minute speech about the need for players to show their support for the struggle against inequality and prejudice.
De Bruyne was the first of the group to respond, saying “Troy’s absolutely spot on, I’m with Troy”.
The Premier League captains group was suddenly awash with ideas of how to use football as a platform on which to make a meaningful stand.
Sheffield United’s David McGoldrick suggested the taking of the knee, while Deeney and his wife together designed a “Black Lives Matter” badger to be sewn onto the sleeves of all Premier League shirts.
De Bruyne suggested they go a step further and replace players’ names on the back of the shirts with the slogan “Black Lives Matter”.
City star Raheem Sterling has long been at the heart of the push for change, both in football and wider society, and he took part in a powerful video with Liverpool skipper Jordan Henderson, Borussia Dortmund’s England ace Jadon Sancho and former England star and TV host Gary Lineker that highlighted the lack of black people in powerful roles in various sports bodies.
Sterling said he was “tired” of shouting for change and urged the government to take a hand, saying “I will never tire of being black”.
Sterling also began his own social media campaign as part of the Black Lives Matter movement, calling on the government to address the under-representation of black people in Parliament and in sports bodies.
That came after the Daily Telegraph published a report into the way minorities were represented, and it included the fact that there are no black owners, chief executives or chairs at any of the 92 Premier League and Football League clubs.
And of the national sport governing bodies that receive public money, just three per cent of board members are black, while 64 per cent have no black board members at all.
Sterling enlisted teammate De Bruyne and former skipper Vincent Kompany, as well as the Blues’ England star Lucy Bronze, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Bayern Munich ace David Alaba.
Sterling had a history of standing up on the matter – he started a game-changing debate after he was abused by a racist Chelsea fan during a game at Stamford Bridge in December 2018.
The Jamaican-born forward accused some sections of the media of fuelling racism in their portrayal of black players, drawing attention to the different way in which stories about his white teammate Phil Foden and black colleague Tosin Adarabioyo buying houses had been treated.
He said on Instagram: “I just want to say, I am not normally the person to talk a lot but when I think I need my point heard I will speak up.
“Regarding what was said at the Chelsea game, as you can see by my reaction I just had to laugh because I don’t expect no better.”
He added: “What happened at Chelsea shows what is still going on in football. Where is (Premier League chief executive) Richard Scudamore? Where is (FA chairman) Greg Clarke? Where is Chelsea’s chairman?
“They should have been talking out last night and it has to dealt with at the top. We do not have any leadership at the top of the game to speak out. They rely on Kick it Out.”
The focus of Sterling’s campaign was the racism still rife within the English game, and the complacency that has seen us condemn the racist abuse of our black players in other European countries whilst ignoring the more subtle manifestations of it here.
The insidious nature of hidden racism was realised by De Bruyne, when he spoke about his pre-conceptions of Sterling, before he joined City in 2015.
“I had never met him and from what I’d read, I thought he was going to be a very different character,” De Bruyne later said.
“I didn’t think he’d be a bad guy, really. But the papers were always claiming that he was arrogant.
“So I guess I thought he’d be … what do the English call it? A bit of a d***head, maybe?
“When you read about other players, it influences the way you think. You can’t help it.
“Then I got to City and I actually met Raheem, and we’d talk a bit after training, and I thought, ‘Wait, this guy seems really cool? What’s the story here?’.”
The story was that Sterling was just one victim of the bias, often unconscious, that exists in sections of the English media, the very problem Sterling highlighted when he drew attention to the differing treatment of Foden and Adarabioyo.
The murder of George Floyd opened the debate out – for the players, this was not just an issue within the narrow confines of English football but a worldwide issue, in which the lives of black people, and other ethnic minorities, are seen to be cheaper than those of the white establishment.
So when football kicked off again, with a double bill on June 17, the focus was on Aston Villa vs Southampton and City vs Arsenal, two games that had been postponed to accommodate the Carabao Cup final, just before the shutdown.
That meant Aston Villa and Southampton players making the poignant gesture in the first game back after the season had been suspended for several weeks.
And a couple of hours later, City and Arsenal also dropped to one knee to make a powerful point, with both the Gunners’ Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and City’s De Bruyne also making the clenched fist salute as a show of solidarity.
City as a club, and manager Pep Guardiola, also swung in behind the players, producing a video they released on social media, featuring Raheem Sterling, John Stones, Riyad Mahrez, De Bruyne and Guardiola, as representative of the club’s rich diversity.
Guardiola rounded off the video by simply saying “Black lives matter” an expression of support for the statement itself, and the movement – and not the Black Lives Matter website, which expressed overtly political aims, and was only one manifestation of the protest.
It was a powerful stand made by football, and by other sports, but the fact that England players were booed for taking the knee before their friendly against Austria, shows that ignorance – both of racism and the meaning of the gesture – is still rife.
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