Most of us will never know what it’s like to take a penalty with the whole world watching. Most of us will never feel the haunting silence of more than 60,000 football fans holding their breath. We will never see the cloud of despair that falls when the ball doesn’t hit the back of the net.
Over in seconds, a penalty is a challenge of skill and courage. It’s a masterclass in holding your nerve. It can go one way or the other. It doesn’t always go to plan. That’s just the way it is.
Last Sunday we watched it all in slow motion. Our Marcus Rashford, a national hero, didn’t kick the ball in quite the right way. Then, a domino effect. Twenty-one-year-old Jadon Sancho stepped up next, and then finally Bukayo Saka, just 19 years old.
We all know what happened next. We all saw Saka sobbing into England manager Gareth Southgate’s arms. The dream was over.
In that moment, the whole nation should have put its arms around Rashford, Sancho and Saka – three young men who were part of a team that took us further than we’d gone in 55 years. We should have celebrated the team’s diversity, the players’ remarkable back stories, their sense of social justice, their togetherness.
But the following morning the news was bleak. Rashford’s mural in Withington had been vandalised. As Italy lifted the Euro 2020 trophy, trolls had taken to Twitter to bombard England players with sickening racist slurs.
If they’d scored and if England had won the tournament, Rashford, Sancho and Saka would have been lauded as heroes. But all it took was three missed pens for them to be subjected to vile racist abuse.
On Monday Little Mix star Leigh-Anne Pinnock, who filmed a BBC documentary about the racism she has experienced in her career, put it perfectly.
“You can live here, but be quiet,” Pinnock wrote on her Instagram page. “You can speak at the table but not too loud. You can play for us but you can’t lose. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the Black British Experience.”
There were those who questioned the validity of players taking the knee at the start of games. Our own elected leaders dismissed the team’s stance against racism as “gesture politics”. By taking a knee in solidarity with the victims of racism, the England team were forcing us to confront something many people in this country would rather deny and ignore.
But the past week has shown us we cannot ignore it anymore. The racists are a minority, but their voices are loud and their rhetoric is dangerous.
Within hours of the Rashford mural being vandalised, the local community, anti-racist campaigners and football fans had come together to decorate over the graffiti, leaving poems and messages of support – an outpouring of love that left Rashford “on the verge of tears”.
On Tuesday hundreds of people gathered at the mural with Black Lives Matter posters. They took the knee and spoke to their children about racism.
And in the space of 24 hours, the news cycle changed. We were no longer reading about Twitter trolls and hateful xenophobes. Instead the voices of empathy and justice had taken over, and their voices were much louder.
We have a long way to go but, as Rashford himself has shown us, kindness will always prevail.