The debate over players kneeling right before kickoff in soccer games across Europe started almost before they started doing it last summer. On one side were those who said it was worth the symbolism and regular reminders that the fight is A) everyone’s, and B) ongoing, even if these kinds of things always become performative. The other side was more focused on that performative aspect, and the fact that kneeling doesn’t itself lead to tangible, meaningful change, and shouldn’t be seen as a replacement. The first camp worried that ending the demonstration would deflate the cause, while the latter feared the gesture itself would be at the root of inaction, merely paying lip-service without actually spurring true movement.
I’m not sure either side is wrong, and both of these things can be true. What both of these sides want is meaningful action and change, in the end. And it appears some players no longer think that kneeling before games is providing anything.
The practice had already started to face criticism, with Crystal Palace’s Wilfried Zaha being the most outspoken and the first to not kneel before kickoff. He has said that the practice has basically become rote and is no longer an impetus to major change. But the issue came to more of a head today, when both Celtic and Rangers in Scotland, one of the worlds’ fiercest rivalries, both stood as a whole before the whistle as a show of protest.
Background is necessary. On Thursday, Rangers player Glen Kamara claimed he was racially abused by Ondrej Kudela. Video of the incident shows Kudela covering his mouth and whispering something into Kamara’s ear, which is highly suspicious at best. What could he have been possibly saying that he didn’t want anyone else to hear unless it was vile? Immediately, Kamara and other players around the incident went into a rage, only furthering the assumption that something truly disgusting was said. Kamara later told the media that Kudela called him a “fucking monkey.”
Kamara and Rangers both filed official complaints with UEFA, which is still “investigating.” These kinds of investigations from UEFA have almost always resulted in punishments that would strain to be called slaps on the wrist, and this is probably Kamara’s, Rangers’, and Celtic’s point with their decision today.
This is amongst the sea of racial abuse that dozens of players have received online this season. Just today, Jude Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund was another. Soccer as a sport being able to change the tide of social media is obviously a bridge too far, but it speaks to the atmosphere kneeling before kickoff finds itself deep into the practice.
Whatever the use or purpose of kneeling before kickoff was and is, we’re a year into this. And based on this incident, not nearly enough within the game has changed. Soccer can only do so much about the outside world, but if the protests and symbols aren’t even getting through to those within the game, then they aren’t having nearly enough impact. That would seem to be the lowest bar to clear, and clearly the sport has a lot of work to do to even achieve that.
UEFA has to punish both Kudela and Slavia Prague heavily this time around, not give them the kind of token fine or suspension that we’ve seen all too often. The kneeling was supposed to be the starting point for organizations like UEFA and FIFA to introduce major change to the sport. They’ve both had a year of this almost, and yet Kudela didn’t fear anything but being heard by anyone other than Kamara when he spewed forth his slime. He has to be at least partially aware that what he said would be reported, and yet didn’t really care. Didn’t think there would be anything waiting for him to not say it. Until that changes, nothing changes. And clearly, kneeling is not going to get anyone there.