MANCHESTER: Anti-racism protestors demonstrate by a mural of England forward Marcus Rashford after it was defaced on Tuesday in Manchester, northwest England. - AFP

WEST DIDSBURY: Anti-racism demonstrators gathered on Tuesday at a mural of striker Marcus Rashford after it was vandalized amid a deluge of abuse against England players. Throughout the day, hundreds gathered at the mural to the England player in the Withington area of Manchester which had been defaced with racist abuse as Rashford and his black teammates Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were targeted online over the side's Euro 2020 final defeat to Italy on Sunday.

Against a backdrop of heartwarming messages and England flags placed on the mural in Rashford's hometown Kate Caine, 42, said she was "disgusted at the behavior of the people after Sunday night and the racist comments". "I'm a Mancunian born and bred and proud to be a Mancunian and I'm so proud of what Marcus Rashford has done for this country," she added.

Before he was attacked by trolls after missing a penalty in the shoot-out defeat by Italy, Rashford, 23, had become a hero to many inside and outside football by successfully lobbying British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to provide free school meals for under-privileged children during the coronavirus pandemic.

Ohmar, 17, said he had come down to the mural to put up some notes and show his support. "A player like him doesn't deserve anything like this. No player does, because he's done a lot to support his country during the pandemic, giving meals to the unfortunate kids," he said. Johnson's government was forced to deny charges of hypocrisy over racism in football as he readied to meet social media executives following a deluge of abuse against England players. In an emotional statement, Rashford said he will "never apologise for who I am", after he was one of three black players targeted by racists online over the weekend's loss to the Azzurri.

The striker said he had been "on the verge of tears" when he saw the mural was covered in messages of support. Rashford's England team-mate Tyrone Mings criticized Home Secretary Priti Patel, saying she had "stoked the fire" by defending fans who booed players taking the knee. Patel had previously said taking the knee was "gesture politics" and Johnson, who has enthusiastically waged verbal war on so-called woke politics, had also equivocated for days over the issue. But his spokesman insisted the prime minister had all along wanted fans to back the team, amid doubts over whether Downing Street can now go through with a plan to welcome the players to a post-tournament reception.

At a cabinet meeting, Johnson told his ministers "the abuse was utterly disgraceful and has emerged from the dark spaces of the internet", according to the spokesman. He said that in his meeting later Tuesday with representatives of social media companies, the prime minister will "reiterate the urgent need for action, ahead of tougher laws coming into force" in Britain.

The allegation of hypocrisy levelled against the government by Mings and even some Conservative MPs is particularly dangerous for Johnson, as the England team basks in widespread sympathy after its agonizing loss. "I'm Marcus Rashford, 23-year-old black man from Withington and Wythenshawe, South Manchester. If I have nothing else I have that," the Manchester United forward wrote on Twitter. "I can take critique of my performance all day long, my penalty was not good enough, it should have gone in but I will never apologies for who I am and where I came from," Rashford added.

Taking the knee

Premier League clubs have taken the knee since last year following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in the United States. Patel had said on Monday the racial abuse of the three players was "disgusting", but Mings issued a stinging response. "You don't get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as 'Gesture Politics' and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we're campaigning against, happens," he tweeted.

England manager Gareth Southgate said the online abuse was "unforgivable", and captain Harry Kane also lashed out at the trolls. "They deserve support and backing, not the vile racist abuse they've had," he said. "If you abuse anyone on social media you're not an England fan and we don't want you." The racist attacks have been strongly condemned also by the English Football Association. Its president, Prince William, said he was "sickened" by the abuse. - AFP