England fans – as well as everyone else forced to endure people going on about “the footy” non-stop for a whole month – have long been subjected to a number of cheesy/corny/cringey (delete as appropriate) songs that mark major tournaments.
But one stood out above the rest this year and became the de facto soundtrack of the summer: the 1996 classic “Three Lions” by former comedy duo David Baddiel and Frank Skinner and the rock band Lightning Seeds. (That, and a surprisingly catchy reimagining of Atomic Kitten’s 2000 single “Whole Again”.)
To the surprise of many, playing mainly on home turf under the Wembley arch, England actually sailed through a major tournament. They played attractive, attacking, possession-based football, knocking out big scalps along the way – including, to fans’ immense satisfaction, Germany.
At the centre of it all was Gareth Southgate, the unlikely hero of English football. He doesn’t have the arrogance of a José Mourinho, the exuberance of Jürgen Klopp, or the Spanish flair of Pep Guardiola. In a way, he’s the ready salted crisp of football managers: reliable, inoffensive, but not a world-beater, surely?
It was all going so well – until it wasn’t. After taking an early lead in the final, the Three Lions conceded and ultimately lost out to Italy because of, perhaps inevitably, a penalty shootout.
Despite the defeat, England’s European Championship campaign proved to be about a lot more than just football. The beginnings of what felt like an inclusive form of patriotism surrounding the national team emerged, and, perhaps for the first time, all England fans felt that they could decry a woeful managerial decision, together, regardless of their background.
However, the progress was almost instantly undermined when Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, three young black footballers, missed their penalties in the shootout and were subjected to racist abuse online. This, and ticketless fans storming Wembley – even coming through wheelchair entrances – echoed an ugly history of English football fandom.
Yet evidence of the inclusive patriotism championed by Southgate’s men became tangible shortly after the abuse was first reported: a flood of social media users offered support to England’s young protagonists, highlighting the progress made.
And the changes seem to have stuck.
The knee-taking that was once received lukewarmly by fans across club football and England games prior to and at the beginning of the Euros (with the Home Secretary Priti Patel even defending fans booing) is now met with resounding applause. Players including Rashford and Jordan Henderson are more comfortable than ever speaking out about the causes that matter to them.
Despite adversity from the government, Southgate’s men were intent on becoming the change they wanted to see in the game – and not just, as the England manager wrote in an open letter on the eve of the tournament, “stick[ing] to football”.
Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.