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16 June 2024updated 17 Jun 2024 12:44pm

Can Starmer and Southgate both triumph this summer?

Football and politics have become more entangled than ever.

By Clive Martin

The European Championships are upon us. The travel bans have been issued, the plastic chairs have been bolted down, the hot takes about nationalist semantics are in the X drafts. Spirits among some groups of fans are high: some Munich bars reportedly ran out of beer earlier this week after Scottish supporters descended on the city. And yet, south of the border, the mood around the tournament feels a long way from what it was before the 2021 Euros, or even the 2018 World Cup. For a start, distracting your more politically engaged fan is a general election campaign that is inching its way to a predictable, inevitable conclusion. But, occupying the rest of their eyeline, another attempt at footballing glory is getting under way, kicking off with England vs Serbia this evening. And, conversely, it already feels as precarious and anxiety-ridden as English tournament runs always do.

Even though the England squad is loaded with Ballon D’Or contenders, all-time top scorers, Premier League Player of the Season winners, and a batch of exciting young bucks, there is a sense that nobody wants to get too excited this time round. Not only did Harry Kane’s penalty miss in the last World Cup cement the idea that there may be some ancient voodoo curse hanging over St George’s Park, there is also a commonly held belief that Southgate just doesn’t know how to get this team rolling. In football-intellectual terms, this is the era of England Realism, Jules Rimet still groaning.

To his credit, Southgate has made some bold decisions for once, dropping his household-name favourites (Jack Grealish, Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling among them), and rolling the dice on some modish, tifo-approved Crystal Palace players. Yet still, there is a nagging sense that he doesn’t quite know how to work with this crowd, like a bureaucrat put in charge of some anarchic rave or Sue Gray given the job of organising the Notting Hill Carnival.

If Southgate fails, there are two likely charges to be levelled against him. One is fatalistic: he simply cannot coach a modern, pressing, attacking side. The other – which will emerge as the revisionist school – will argue that actually he conceded too much influence to the keyboard managers and gaming-chair coaches, and should’ve just put the band back together as he usually does. Maybe Southgate would actually be satisfied with this line of attack. Out of contract in December, there is a real possibility this may be his “hate to say I told you so” tournament.

He’s far from the only stilted, awkward guy with a big job to do in Britain at the moment. The roles of England manager and prime minister are often compared, but really it’s most like being an opposition leader of the Labour Party: overseeing huge amounts of insider factionalism while also trying to win over the young, the old, the many and the few. Southgate and Keir Starmer certainly bear a few surface-level similarities. They both see themselves as modernisers in how they ripped up the existing structures at their respective HQs. They seem to inhabit the same, softly spoken “better Britain”, and are fully paid-up members of Team Sensible. They are quiet Brexit critics, with undying faith in the police, the military, the (partially regulated) free market and the pub garden.

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But here, the comparisons end. Even though the Euros will coincide with the election (on one of the few fallow days), the Southgate and Starmer that are emerging over their respective campaigns couldn’t be more different. Dropping the bang-out-of-form Rashford is hardly analogous to sidelining a talented and well-liked MP like Faiza Shaheen. It’s more akin to not bringing Cole Palmer, which thankfully Southgate has avoided. Perhaps a better comparison in terms of football tournaments and elections is not this year’s, but Southgate 2024 and Jeremy Corbyn 2019 – two campaigns that very much put their cards on the table. Perhaps, bringing Adam Wharton ahead of Jordan Henderson will be remembered as Gareth’s “free wi-fi and 100,000 council homes a year” gambit. A policy that pleases the enlightened youngsters, but not the grumbling malcontents of the nation.

The more you think about it, the less similar Southgate and Starmer are right now. The former has, for once, shown some real gumption, changing up the habits of his career. Whereas the latter desperately tries to court voters with uncontroversial, one-size-fits-all policies about social-care workers’ wages and VAT on private schools. Perhaps what’s even more worrying is that Starmer doesn’t even have a Harry Kane or even newly promoted vice-captain Kyle Walker – the instantly recognisable deputy, the arbiter of his vision. To the less engaged, Rachel Reeves remains as comparably anonymous on the opposition bench as the third-choice keeper Dean Henderson is in the England squad.

Still, if England is going to be thrown into exhilarating election-tournament synergy, then spare a thought for the people of France, with the country going to the polls on the same day as two knockout fixtures, and Les Bleus likely to be playing in and around this time. Unlike ours, theirs is an undecided election that will have the future of the Republic on the line, with the hard right surging and France staring down the barrel of terrifying, totemic changes. No doubt, this will be another weird summer in which football converges with politics, as it usually does. But Starmer and Southgate have embarked down divergent paths: victory in Germany was always going to “take a miracle”, but it’s hard to see both restraint and recklessness triumphing in the same summer.

[See also: How Emmanuel Macron turned France to the hard right]

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