Defender Mahlon Romeo was furious and striker Colin Kazim-Richards responded by lifting his fist as some supporters at London club Millwall, where 2,000 fans were allowed to attend for the first time during the pandemic, could be heard booing from the stands while the gesture was carried out before kick-off in a Championship match.
Both sets of players were accused of performing another empty gesture, while a wider argument broke out about the politicisation of sporting events and the disconnect between liberal campaigning and personal choice.
“The fans who have been let in today have personally disrespected not just me but the football club,” Millwall star Romeo told the South London Press, angrily adding that the match had been made “irrelevant” by the reaction of the fans while claiming that their boos demonstrated the ongoing problem of racism in society.
“What they’ve done is booed and condemned a peaceful gesture which was put in place to highlight, combat and stop any discriminatory behavior and racism. 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 has offended me and everyone who works for this club – the players and the staff.
“I’m speaking on behalf of myself here – not any of the other players, I want to make that very clear. This is the first time I feel disrespected.
“I’m almost lost for words. I don’t know how they thought that would make me feel. I don’t know what they thought taking a knee stood for.”
Many fans and political figures clearly remained unconvinced and confused, voicing their frustrations and misgivings with an act that has frequently seen athletes criticized after exercising their right not to take part in the US.
“Why all the fuss about Millwall fans making their views known when their players take the knee?” asked Susan Hall, of the Greater London Authority Conservatives.
“They are entitled to their views. I’m not in the least surprised they dislike the subservient gesture. BLM is now a political group wishing to defund the police. Ludicrous.”
BLM’s official website calls for an investment in communities rather than law enforcement. “We know that police don’t keep us safe,” it argues.
“As long as we continue to pump money into our corrupt criminal justice system at the expense of housing, health, and education investments, we will never be truly safe.”
The display of discontent could herald more examples across the coming months as limited numbers of fans return to stadiums in the UK, echoing the row during and after an FC Dallas match in the US in which booing could be heard from around 3,000 fans.
Dallas defender Reggie Cannon called the reaction “disgraceful” and “absolutely disgusting” adding: “You’ve got fans booing you for people taking a stand for what they believe in.
“Millions of other people support this cause. We discussed with every other team and the league what we’re going to do and we’ve got fans booing us in our own stadium.”
The UK environment minister, George Eustice, did not condemn the booing but told a TV news program that racism in football should be “called out and challenged”.
“My personal view is that Black Lives Matter – capital B, L and M – is actually a political movement that is different to what most of us believe in, which is standing up for racial equality,” he said.
“Each individual can take their own choices about how they reflect this and I know a number of people feel quite strongly and have taken that approach.
“If people choose to express their view in a particular way, that should always be respected.”
Millwall, who have spent decades attempting to improve their reputation after incidents of racial abuse from the stands, issued a statement shortly after Eustice’s remarks saying they were “dismayed and saddened” by the boos.
“The club has worked tirelessly in recent months to prepare for the return of supporters,” they said.
“What should have been a positive and exciting occasion was completely overshadowed, much to the immense disappointment and upset of those who have contributed to those efforts.
“The players are continuing to use the biggest platform they have to support the drive for change, not just in football but in society generally.”
Long-serving Romeo warned fans not to “spread hatred” and claimed the booing had “basically f*cked off” the club’s community efforts, which he said had been “undone and attacked”.
“I feel really low – probably the lowest I’ve felt in my time at this club,” the 25-year-old admitted.
“I’m not trying to stop or contain – but if your beliefs and views oppose a positive change in society then don’t come to a football ground and spread them around.
“When fans are booing a peaceful gesture to highlight racism, it naturally makes you ask yourself, ‘why am I putting myself through this?’
Millwall players had previously issued a statement announcing that they would continue to take a knee until the end of 2020.
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