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12 July 2021

England’s Euro 2020 defeat shouldn’t obscure the progress it has made

The iconic image of the final, from an English perspective, is surely the embrace that Gareth Southgate gave Bukayo Saka.

By Stephen Bush

Don’t see it as a defeat for England. See it as a victory for all Morning Call readers, my colleagues, my friends, family members, and strangers I see passing on the street who won’t have to endure continuous and gratuitous references for the rest of time to the fact I was at Wembley to see England lift the European Championship.  

[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]

It’s always, I think, more trouble than it is worth to bring on players solely to take a penalty kick, particularly as Italy were bossing the game at that point and might have won it in extra time. But it also increases the pressure on the players, and from the moment of Marcus Rashford’s run-up, when you could visibly see the tension on his young shoulders, I felt a horrible sense of dread. Jadon Sancho’s penalty was no better. It felt like the one tactical misstep of Gareth Southgate’s otherwise flawless approach at this tournament.  

There are two important buts: the first is it’s still a phenomenal achievement to reach the final of the European Championship and the second, and more important, is what it tells us about this political and media moment. 

The iconic image of the final, from an English perspective, is surely the embrace that Gareth Southgate gave Bukayo Saka, whose missed penalty was decisive – it was the embrace that Southgate never received at Euro 96. And that difference is, in part, about changing mores and the lessening taboo around public displays of male emotion – and it is a wholly positive one. The appalling racist language directed at Rashford, Sancho and Saka on social media last night, and that no footballer in the English top flight has yet felt able to come out while still playing, shows that we still have a way to go. But we’re closer to the summit than we were in 1996: and not just or even, most importantly, because England made it past the semi-final. 

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