Taking the knee: what do football fans across Europe make of the symbolic act?

Connor IbbetsonData Journalist
June 10, 2021, 8:41 AM UTC

Across Europe, football fans tend to support players and staff taking the knee before matches

Since June last year, players and staff across the footballing world have been making the symbolic gesture of kneeling before each game to show support for the Black Lives Matter movement, and a wider commitment to tackling the issue of racism.

However, taking the knee has sparked wide debate within the football community as to just how important it is. Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Zaha became the first Premier League player to stop kneeling before games in February this year, claiming that kneeling was “degrading” and stating players should instead “stand tall” against racism. The issue received new prominence recently, following spectators booing the England team for taking the knee ahead of their friendly match against Romania in the build up to the 2020 Euros.

New YouGov research conducted among more than 4,500 football fans across nine European countries examines how fans view the gesture, and how important they think it is in tackling racism.

Do fans understand the sentiment of taking the knee?

The gesture – first used in the American NFL by Colin Kaepernick in 2016 as a protest during the American national anthem – has been widely adopted as a symbol of protest against racial inequality in June last year following the death of George Floyd. Alongside its use in sport, politicians, protesters, and police alike have taken a knee across the world to demonstrate a commitment to racial equality.

Football fans across Europe tend to be familiar with the sentiment behind the gesture, but nowhere more so than the nations of the UK – including 88% of ethnic minority Britons who are fans of football. In the individual nations, 92% of fans in Wales say they are familiar with the reasons behind taking a knee, as are 90% in England and 88% of those in Scotland.

Among the continental European fans surveyed, those in France (69%), the Netherlands (69%), and Spain (69%) are the most likely to be familiar with why players are taking the knee. Elsewhere, 54% of German and Italian fans are familiar with the reasons, while 36% and 39% respectively are not.

Finally, some 52% of fans in Portugal say they too are familiar with why players are choosing to take the knee during matches, while two in five (40%) are not.

Fans tend to support the act of taking the knee before matches

With Premier League players having taken the knee, the act has drawn both support and opposition from British fans - with the latter no more evident than when fans flew a banner declaring “White Lives Matter Burnley” over the Etihad stadium last year.

YouGov research suggests that this opposition mostly comes as a result of a vocal minority, however, with most nations and groups polled having a majority of fans in support of players taking the knee.

While they are the least likely to be familiar with why players and staff are taking the knee, fans in Portugal are the most supportive of them doing so at 79%, with only 15% opposed.

Among Ethnic Minority British fans support is similar (78%), and this includes 58% who “strongly support” the gesture, the highest of all groups polled.

Closely following are Italian (73%) and Spanish fans (71%). In Germany, where Bundesliga players also wore Black Lives Matter shirts during pre-match warm ups, six in ten of those interested in football (60%) support players taking the knee, although a quarter (27%) oppose them doing so.

In the UK, support is broadly similar across English (54%), Welsh (53%) and Scottish (49%) fans. Opposition in the UK is higher among Scottish fans (42%), but remains a minority, compared to 39% of English fans and 37% of Welsh also opposed.

The only country to be split on the issue is the Netherlands, with 44% of fans in support and 45% opposed to the gesture.

There is disagreement on how important taking the knee can be in tackling racism

In September last year the director of Championship club Queens Park Rangers said the “message has been lost” from the act and equated to it a social media hashtag, however others such as England manager Gareth Southgate believe the gesture of taking a knee still has meaning.

While fans in most of the countries surveyed are supportive of the act of taking a knee, do they think it is important in helping tackle racism in general? Portuguese fans, the most likely to support the gesture, are also the most likely to think the act can be important in tackling racism (76%), followed by two thirds of Spanish fans (66%).

Some six in ten (61%) Ethnic Minority British fans also see the gesture as one important to tackling racism, however nearly a third (32%) do not.

In both Germany and France, 48% of fans say players taking the knee before games is important in tackling racism, however two in five (42% and 43%) think it is not important in doing so. Again, the vote is split in the Netherlands between 48% of fans who see the act as important in tackling racism and 47% who do not.

While around half of fans in each of the UK nations polled support players taking a knee before games, they are the most likely to say the act is not that important in tackling racism overall. Some 53% of Welsh fans, and 57% of both Scots and English fans, think the act is not important.

Despite some high profile players such as Zaha choosing to no longer take part in the gesture, others such as Tyrone Mings have recently reinforced their commitment to the act in a video message, meaning that for some players, the act is here to stay.

See full results here