Downing Street has rejected Gary Neville’s accusation Boris Johnson has “promoted” racism.
Following England’s defeat to Italy on penalties in the Euro 2020 final on Sunday night, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka were flooded with racist comments online.
The prime minister said the team “deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media”.
But Gary Neville, the former England defender, criticised Johnson’s leadership.
“When we get racist abuse after a football match at the end of a tournament, I expect it unfortunately because it exists, and it’s actually promoted by the prime minister, who called Muslim women letterboxes, said they look like letterboxes,” he told Sky News.
“Gareth Southgate and the players a few weeks ago, about five days on the trot, told us they were taking the knee to promote equality and it was against racism.
“The prime minister said it was OK for the population of this country to boo those players who were trying to promote equality and defend against racism. It starts at the very top.”
Asked about Neville’s comments, the prime minister’s spokesperson said: “I totally reject that claim.
“The prime minister set out this morning his response to some of the awful comments we’ve seen.
The spokesperson added: “The prime minister was clear that he wanted to see everyone getting behind the team to cheer them on and he made that clear on the 11th, before England’s first game.
“As we said throughout, racism in any form has no place in our society. And that’s why we’re introducing tough new laws to force social media companies to clamp down.”
Johnson previously described the action of footballers taking the knee to highlight racial inequality and discrimination as “gestures”.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, said today she was “disgusted” by the “vile” racist abuse players were subjected to
But she also previously chose not to condemn football fans who booed England players for taking the knee, calling it a “choice for them”.
Labour leader Keir Starmer accused Johnson of a failure of leadership for not calling out the booing of the England team over taking the knee sooner
Addressing the online attacks, Starmer told reporters in Westminster: “It’s absolutely appalling and it has to be called out in the strongest possible terms and condemned.
“This is about leadership, and I’m afraid the prime minister has failed the test of leadership because whatever he says today about racism he had a simple choice at the beginning of this tournament in relation to the booing of those who were taking the knee.
“The prime minister failed to call that out and the actions and inactions of leaders have consequences, so I’m afraid the prime minister’s words today ring hollow.”
Following the abuse towards players on Sunday, an FA spokesperson said: “The FA strongly condemns all forms of discrimination and is appalled by the online racism that has been aimed at some of our England players on social media.
“We could not be clearer that anyone behind such disgusting behaviour is not welcome in following the team. We will do all we can to support the players affected while urging the toughest punishments possible for anyone responsible.”