By Dan Hunt
Before EURO 2020 even began, England was being booed by their own fans. The simple act of kneeling against racism for a few seconds before each kick off elicited such outrage that the Prime Minister had to step in and support those who thought some of the richest twenty-somethings in the country were Marxists. Old men in armchairs shook their heads, and the Tory MP for Ashfield was so dumbstruck he decided to boycott the team in protest.
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England’s response to this? Simple. They did it anyway. Gareth Southgate stood by his players’ decision, and after a couple of games had been played and a few points had been scored, people largely stopped caring. Taking the knee might be a small symbol of solidarity, but without doubt it represents something far more significant.
Young English people are lucky enough to be watching a progressive England team that is winning games. Players like Rashford, whose respect extends beyond the world of football, is recognised by fans as a young man with principle. Raheem Sterling, once vociferously targeted by the tabloid press, is now a respected figure in the side, and has an MBE for services to racial equality in sport to boot. Even Harry Kane’s small gesture of joining Manuel Neuer in wearing a captain’s armband with the rainbow flag to mark Pride, represents an inclusivity we don’t often associate with football, let alone the national side.
Playing before the eyes of millions, England has a team to be proud of. Young people have the opportunity to watch this diverse group of men who hail from every corner of the nation and see themselves in them. They can see the value of acting on your beliefs, the value of unity and the possibility of hope for the future. If these players have proved anything, they’ve demonstrated the ability to be patriotic without being ignorant, and proud without being arrogant.
With success, however, comes opportunism. Politicians are jumping on the England PR bandwagon faster than they can cut the meals of hungry children. Priti Patel is celebrating the achievements of players who wouldn’t be English had her immigration approach been implemented 50 years ago, while Boris Johnson poses next to as many St George’s crosses as he can find. Those who regurgitate the ideal that politics has no place in football should tell the politicians to stay away. The accomplishments of these players have nothing to do with the affairs of Westminster, and everyone knows it.
Following the semi-final against Denmark, Gary Neville praised Gareth Southgate’s leadership, distinguishing him from the quality of politicians in this country. The man in charge of the team comes across as a calm and humble figure, with a willingness to improve himself and learn, and a quiet hunger to succeed. He may be the man on the touchline in the dapper suit, but without a sparkling managerial CV, Southgate lacks the egotistical stubbornness that weighs down some of the best managers in the world.
It is arguably Southgate’s normalness that makes him so popular. You’d be hard pushed to find anyone who explicitly dislikes him, because there is no reason to. Southgate is a role model for young people in this country, and he has picked a team in his own image that represents the best England has to offer. This team is defined by the players’ respectfulness, diversity, and efficiency, but simultaneously a sense of humour.
Every meme of Bukayo Saka on an inflatable unicorn depicts a sense of joy and freedom. This is an England team that understands the pressure of the three lions badge but refuses to let that prevent them from having a good time. In what feels like an increasingly bleak time for young people with fewer opportunities than ever before, this England team is both a welcome distraction and something meaningful to get behind. Football coming home will not fix society or change the world, but it has the potential to alter Englishness as a concept from a history to be ashamed of to a future to be hopeful for.
This England team has the appearance of the establishment in every sense of the word. On the pitch we see 11 millionaires, who start each game by singing ‘God Save the Queen’ and don the three lions badge: but what sets them apart is their willingness to put principles at the forefront of their image, and stand-up to the government and the media in the process. Their success on the pitch would be irrelevant if it didn’t in some way validate the very message that forms the sub-plot to this extraordinary tale. This England team might be ‘woke’, but they certainly aren’t weak.
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