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Soccer newsletter: Racism taints otherwise joyful Euro tournament

Ed Wellard tapes trash liners across offensive wording on the mural of Marcus Rashford
Ed Wellard, from Withington, England, tapes trash liners across offensive wording Monday on the mural of Manchester United striker and England player Marcus Rashford on the wall of the Coffee House Cafe, which appeared vandalized the morning after the England soccer team lost the Euro 2021 final against Italy.
(Peter Byrne / PA via Associated Press)

Hello and welcome to the L.A. Times soccer newsletter. I’m Kevin Baxter, The Times’ soccer writer, and we begin today with England’s loss to Italy in the final of Sunday’s European Championship.

Or actually, the ugly aftermath of that loss.

Kai Chapman, an 8-year-old Arsenal fan from Sussex, just south of London, took it particularly hard as did many in England. Bukayo Saka, a 19-year-old Arsenal midfielder, was the last of three England players who failed to convert his try in the tie-breaking penalty shootout, handing the trophy to Italy. Even though it was a school night, Kai stayed up late trying to process the anguish he was feeling — and trying to understand the pain Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho, who also missed their tries, were enduring.

He awoke Monday morning to a deeper pain, one no 8-year-old should be asked to understand. He learned the players, all of whom are Black, were being subjected to vile racist taunts. British police opened an investigation into “offensive and racist” social media posts and to the desecration of a Rashford mural on the wall of a cafe in Manchester, where Rashford plays for Manchester United.

The prime minister, the mayor of London and members of the royal family all condemned the attacks.

But Chapman did something about it. He left the breakfast table, climbed the stairs to his bedroom and opened a dresser drawer, where he picked through a collection of 16 soccer shirts before selecting his favorite Saka jersey to wear to school.

“I’m proud of Saka for doing well in the Euros and I wanted to show my support against racism,” he said. “I wanted to give racism the elbow.”

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Kai Chapman wears a soccer shirt featuring Bukayo Saka’s number and surname
Kai Chapman, 8, shows off his England away shirt with Bukayo Saka’s name on the back. He wore it to school in support of Saka after he learned the soccer player was the target of racist attacks after missing a penalty kick during a Euro final loss.
(Dan Chapman)

Being in England and all, there was a price Kai paid for his solidarity. On Monday he was supposed to be in his school uniform, not a soccer one, so he was reprimanded by his teachers. But he was cheered by his classmates, who understood the message of his act of civil disobedience.

“I’m extremely proud of him. He’s always been this way,” Dan Chapman said of his son.

Kai, who lives in a middle-class, mixed-race neighborhood, has been attending Arsenal matches, including U-23 games, with his mother, Gemma, for half his life, and often waits hours after games to greet players like Saka.

To Kai, they weren’t just his heroes, they were his friends.

And he instinctively knew he had to stand up for his friends. Many others in England — and elsewhere — did not behave as gallantly.

I pray I don’t really need to explain this, but just in case let me repeat that this just was a game. An important game, yes, as it was England’s first appearance in the Euro final. And it was at Wembley Stadium, no less.

But it still was just a game.

England's Harry Kane puts his hand on the back of Bukayo Saka's head
England’s Harry Kane, center, consoles Bukayo Saka after the penalty shootout during the Euro 2020 soccer final match between England and Italy at Wembley stadium in London.
(Laurence Griffiths / Pool via Associated Press)

Saka, a rising star in England and one of two teenagers on the national team, came off the bench in the 70th minute to help the Three Lions withstand a withering Italian attack. Rashford and Sancho, who led Germany’s Borussia Dortmund in assists last season, came on in the closing minutes specifically for the penalty shootout. All three are important parts of a young, diverse English team that appeared to be just what the country needed at the moment.

England’s exit from the European Union, driven in large part by a backlash against immigration, has opened wide fissures in the country. Then came COVID-19, which shuttered business and killed more than 128,000 people in the U.K., the highest death toll in Western Europe.

The only other time England had reached the final of a major tournament was 1966, when it won the World Cup at Wembley with an all-white team.

This time the squad mirrored the country. Captain Harry Kane is part Irish. Rashford’s mother is from Saint Kitts. Raheem Sterling was born in Jamaica. Saka’s parents are Nigerian. Seven of the players England started in the final had immigrant roots.

And for the most part England embraced them — and the players embraced them back. Kane wore a rainbow armband during an earlier match with Germany to celebrate LBGTQ pride. Rashford shamed the government into reversing a decision to cut free meals to poor schoolchildren, then started a viral campaign to assure the program continued. Sterling was honored by the queen for his work to combat racism.

In many ways they are even better men than they are players. And that makes their treatment even more appalling, especially since missing penalty kicks is just about the most English thing you can do if you’re a soccer player.

England's Raheem Sterling falls in front of Italy's Bryan Cristante
England’s Raheem Sterling, center left, falls in front of Italy’s Bryan Cristante during the Euro 2020 soccer championship final match between England and Italy in London on Sunday.
(Carl Recine / Pool Photo via AP )

Seven times in the last 31 years England has been eliminated from a World Cup or European Championship on penalty kicks. Among the players to miss their tries while in the spotlight are David Beckham, Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher and Gareth Southgate, current coach of the national team.

None was subjected to the vitriol Saka, Rashford and Sancho have had to endure.

Lost in the controversy is the fact that Italy deserved its title. The Azzurri outshot England 19-6, controlled the ball two-thirds of the time, attempted nearly twice as many passes as England and dominated for long stretches.

Not only did Italy not lose Sunday, it hasn’t lost since September 2018, a string of 34 consecutive games, one short of the modern record shared by Spain and Brazil.

Italy has had its own ugly history with racism in recent years, which the country’s soccer establishment has vowed to fight. The English Football Assn. also has spoken out on the problems that have plagued the game there. How effectively and how sincerely can be debated, but the FA has taken action.

Compare that to British politicians, who can be blamed for contributing to a climate that made the recent acts of cowardly racism inevitable. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel were branded as “total hypocrites” Monday for condemning the racist abuse directed at the soccer players after failing to speak out against fans who booed the same players for taking a knee to protest racism earlier in the tournament.

Education minister Gillian Keegan also dismissed kneeling as a gesture that “create[ed] division.”

Perhaps they should have a conversation with 8-year-old Kai Chapman of Sussex, whose subtle protest Monday put his country’s politicians to shame.

Argentina's Lionel Messi holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates
Argentina’s Lionel Messi, center, holds the trophy as he celebrates with teammates after beating Brazil in the Copa America final at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on Saturday.
(Andre Penner / Associated Press)

Wanna bet?

Argentina’s Lionel Messi finally picked up the major international trophy that has been missing on his mantelpiece Saturday when Argentina outlasted Brazil 1-0 in the Copa America final in Rio de Janeiro.

Colombia and Argentina were set to co-host the tournament, but civil unrest led Colombia to pull out in May and Argentina bowed out amid a spike in coronavirus cases last month, forcing the tournament to be held in neighboring Brazil.

Despite two high-octane offenses led by Messi and Neymar, the game was a conservative, defensive affair with the only goal coming from Angel Di Maria —Neymar’s teammate at Paris Saint-Germaine — in the 22nd minute.

Di Maria also scored the lone goal in Messi’s only other international tournament win, in the 2008 Olympics, a U-23 competition.

The Brazil-Argentina match preceded the Euro final by less than 24 hours and came on the same day group play began in the CONCACAF Gold Cup, a rare trifecta of international tournament soccer made possible after the European and South American events were delayed a year by COVID-19.

That caused quite a bit of excitement in Las Vegas, where the betting action on soccer was robust.

“Our soccer handle on a daily basis is good,” said Nick Bogdanovich, vice president of trading, Caesars Sports. “But the World Cup every four years and the European Championships, those events draw real big action. So yeah, we’ve been seeing outstanding action on this tournament.

“Way, way, way more than a normal daily basis or a weekly basis.”

Bogdanovich said the wagering picked up when the tournaments reached the knockout stages and drew about as much interest as an NBA playoff game. The European matches, he said, were about 10 times more popular than the Copa America matches despite the presence of Messi.

“Europe was king. It was off the charts,” he said.

Seattle Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe and LA Galaxy forward Javier Hernandez argue
Seattle Sounders midfielder Kelyn Rowe, left, and LA Galaxy forward Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez argue after Hernandez made contact with Sounders goalie Stefan Cleveland on June 19 in Carson. The Sounders won 2-1.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

MLS parity: Some teams are more equal than others

Major League Soccer’s often-byzantine financial regulations were designed, in part, to induce parity among the teams. The idea was to make it difficult for any one team to spend its way into a dynasty and to convince fans that on any given weekend their team had a chance to win.

So how’s that going? Not well, according to the standings, which show that on any given weekend an MLS fan’s team was more likely to lose than win. Just 13 of the league’s 27 teams were above .500 when MLS began its short international break last week while five others have lost at least seven of their first 12 games.

Despite its efforts, MLS appears to have divided itself into a league of haves and have-nots.

“Clubs in the last year have evolved professionally and organization-wise. It’s a competitive environment. There’s a lot of clubs that players [and] staff really want to be a part of,” Galaxy general manager Dennis te Kloese said. “There is some difference in between teams. But I do think that this is a league where you cannot underestimate teams.

“So it’s not a given thing [of] just spending. It’s more the people that you have, the character of the people that want to be with you. [The] personality of a lot of people within the club make you take steps forward. It’s not only the spending part.”

If that’s true, then the Seattle Sounders are the class of the league. Not only are they unbeaten after 13 games this season but they’ve never failed to make the playoffs since joining MLS 12 years ago. They’ve also played in four of the last MLS Cup finals and won twice.

Miami, meanwhile, is a mess despite breaking salary cap rules in signing six designated players. In its second season, Beckham’s club has won just twice, the same as Atlanta, Toronto, Vancouver and Dallas. The Chicago Fire, which has had more than two decades to figure things out, isn’t much better at 3-7-2 with a -5 goal differential.

The Fire, in fact, have made the playoffs just twice since 2009 and have one winning season since 2013.

But if MLS hasn’t achieved true parity, with seven different winners in the last 10 seasons, it’s doing better than much of the rest of the world. Over the same span Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga have crowned two champions each, Spain’s La Liga has had three, France’s Ligue 1 has had four and England has seen just seven teams win the title in the Premier League era, which dates to 1993.

Frankie Hejduk stands in front of supporters in the stands and raises his hands
Former U.S. men’s national team and Columbus Crew player Frankie Hejduk leads supporters in a cheer before the inaugural MLS match at Lower.com Field between the New England Revolution and Columbus Crew in Columbus, Ohio, on Saturday.
(Jeff Dean / Associated Press)

No place like home

When the Columbus Crew closed the doors to its old home last month after 22 years, it marked an important milestone in MLS history.

Columbus Crew Stadium, which opened in the spring of 1999, was the league’s soccer-specific venue. The Crew’s new home, Lower.com Field, is the 24th new venue.

With Cincinnati and Austin also opening new stadiums this season, 2021 marks the first time three teams have debuted soccer-specific venues in the same year.

Here’s the list of the soccer-specific venues that have entered MLS since 1999 with the opening date and result and attendance at the first MLS game:

Columbus Crew Stadium, Columbus, Ohio: May 15, 1999, Columbus 2, New England 0, 24,741

The Home Depot, Carson: June 7, 2003, LA Galaxy 2, Colorado 0, 27,000

Pizza Hut Park, Frisco, Texas: Aug. 6, 2005, FC Dallas 2, MetroStars 2, 16,750

Toyota Park, BB, Bridgeview, Ill.: June 11, 2006: New England 3, Chicago 3, 12,941

Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Commerce City, Colo.: April 7, 2007, Colorado 2, D.C. United 1, 18,086

BMO Field, Toronto: April 28, 2007, Toronto 0, Kansas City 1, 20,148

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.: March 27, 2010, New York Red Bulls 1, Chicago 0, 24,572

PPL Park, Chester, Pa.: June 27, 2010, Philadelphia 3, Seattle 1, 18,755

Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.: June 9, 2011, Kansas City 0, Chicago 0, 19,925

BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston: May 12, 2012, Houston 1, D.C. United 0, 22,039

Red Bull Arena, Harrison, N.J.: March 27, 2010, New York Red Bulls 1, Chicago 0, 24,572

PPL Park, Chester, Pa.: June 27, 2010, Philadelphia 3, Seattle 1, 18,755

Sporting Park, Kansas City, Kan.: June 9, 2011, Kansas City 0, Chicago 0, 19,925

BBVA Compass Stadium, Houston: May 12, 2012, Houston 1, D.C. United 0, 22,039

Stade Saputo, Montreal: June 16, 2012. Montreal 4, Seattle 1, 17,112

Avaya Stadium, San Jose: March 22, 2015, San Jose 2, Chicago 1, 18,000

Orlando City Stadium, Orlando, Fla.: March 5, 2017, Orlando City 1, New York City FC 0, 25,527

Banc of California Stadium, Los Angeles: April 29, 2018, LAFC 1, Seattle 0, 22,000

Audi Field, Washington, D.C.: July 14, 2018, D.C. United 3, Vancouver 1, 20,054

Allianz Field, St. Paul, Minn.: April 13, 2019, Minnesota United 3, New York City FC 3, 19,796

Inter Miami FC Stadium, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.: Aug. 22, 2020, Inter Miami 3, Orlando City 2, 0 (COVID-19)

TQL Stadium, Cincinnati, Ohio: May 16, 2021, Inter Miami 3, Cincinnati 2, 6,000 (COVID-19)

Q2 Stadium, Austin, Texas: June 19, 2021, Austin FC 0, San Jose 0, 20,738

Lower.com Field, Columbus, Ohio: July 3, 2021: Columbus Crew 2, New England Revolution 2, 20,407

Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget celebrates
Los Angeles Galaxy midfielder Sebastian Lletget, right, celebrates with midfielder Kevin Cabral (9) after Cabral scored a goal against FC Dallas on Wednesday in Carson.
(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

And finally there’s this …

The Galaxy’s Sebastian Lletget wore the captain’s armband for the first time Sunday and went the full 90 minutes for the U.S. in its Gold Cup opener, a 1-0 win over a shorthanded Haiti on Sunday. Lletget is the only player to have taken part in every U.S. game since the start of 2020 … Former Galaxy teammate Gyasi Zardes, who earned his 57th cap, picked up his 10th career assist on Sam Vines’ goal and became the second-fastest American to double digits in goals and assists behind another former Galaxy player, Landon Donovan. Haiti played with a short bench after five of its players tested positive for the coronavirus … Mexico had a horrible night in its Gold Cup opener. It started when El Tri lost forward Hirving “Chucky” Lozano for at least a month to head and neck injuries sustained 10 minutes into its game with Trinidad and Tobago. Without him, Mexico was held scoreless for the third time in six games. And as if that weren’t enough, the anti-gay chant that led FIFA to order Mexico to play its first two home World Cup qualifiers in empty stadiums returned at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas, prompting officials to halt the match twice as players pleaded with the fans to stop. Mexico next plays Wednesday against Guatemala, a last-minute replacement for Curacao, which pulled out of the tournament after several players tested positive for the coronavirus.

Podcast

Don’t miss my weekly podcast on the Corner of the Galaxy site as co-host Josh Guesman and I discuss the Galaxy each Monday. You can listen to the most recent podcast here.

Quotebook

“When I lost, I went to give a hug to the biggest and best in history that I saw playing: My friend and brother Messi…. I’ve great respect for what he has done for football and especially for me. “I HATE TO LOSE!!!” But enjoy your title. Football was waiting for you for that moment!”

Brazil’s Neymar on Instagram, describing his emotional hug with Lionel Messi after losing to Argentina in Saturday’s Copa America final.

Until next time...

Stay tuned for future newsletters. Subscribe here, and I’ll come right to your inbox. Something else you’d like to see? Email me. Or follow me on Twitter: @kbaxter11.


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