MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – Premier League players, including champions Manchester City, took a knee before kickoff in support of the “Black Lives Matter” movement as the English season restarted on Wednesday.
The league returned after a 100-day hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the teams and match officials sent out a strong statement of support for the worldwide protests against racism.
Players at the opening game at Villa Park between Aston Villa and Sheffield United, which ended goalless, took a knee just before the kickoff along with the referee.
The same happened before Manchester City’s home game against Arsenal and came after a video presentation with anti-racist messages featuring City forward Raheem Sterling and manager Pep Guardiola.
All the players’ names on the back of their shirts were replaced with the words “Black Lives Matter” as the league formally joined the international protest campaign sparked by the death last month of George Floyd, a black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
The kneeling protest followed a moment’s silence before kickoff in memory of those who died in the coronavirus pandemic.
The match at a rainy Villa Park was also the first in Premier League history to be played without fans, and with strict health protocols in place.
Only 300 personnel were allowed into stadiums divided into three different security zones to try to restrict any possible spread of the novel coronavirus, which has claimed close to 42,000 lives in the United Kingdom.
There was none of the traditional routine at the start of a match, with teams emerging from their changing rooms separately, players lining up two metres apart and handshakes banned. No ballboys were in attendance.
Both teams will be allowed to make five substitutions, in another first for the game in England and following on from the allowances made by soccer’s world governing body FIFA for the leagues having to cram in matches after the lockdown.
The matches were the first of 92 to be played inside the next six weeks to finish the Premier League season.
(Writing by Mark Gleeson in Cape Town and Rohith Nair in Bengaluru; Editing by Ken Ferris and Ed Osmond)