I lost interest in professional football in the 1990s. The players put me off. They were, or appeared to be, a bunch of overpaid, ill-behaved prima donnas.
I no longer think that. Today’s England team has won me over. At a time of bitter dispute over what it means to be English, these gifted young men are displaying all the values that we as a country once held dear.
As others seek to divide and set faction against faction, they have achieved the formidable feat of uniting a fractured, polarised nation. Young and old, north and south, rich and poor, graduates and non-graduates, rural, provincial and metropolitan elite – everyone is cheering them on, and they are generating real happiness and joy, not friction and rancour.
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They are doing so not just because they are winning (in Europe, no less), but because of who and what they are.
Almost without exception, they are a wholesome, decent and modest bunch, down to earth and largely untainted by scandals or misconduct. There are no big egos, no “stars” that eclipse the rest, with Harry Kane, the captain, merely the first among equals. They are friends and colleagues, not rivals. They play for each other, not themselves. Whether starters, substitutes or reserves, they selflessly celebrate each other’s achievements. The older players encourage the young ones, and the experienced the newcomers. They are picked entirely on merit, and succeed through hard work and commitment. They do not brag, boast or over-promise, but they certainly deliver.
These young men do more than play outstanding football. For all their wealth, they have a strong sense of social responsibility. Marcus Rashford challenged the government and won free school meals for deprived children during the Covid-19 lockdowns and has raised more than £20m to tackle food poverty. Raheem Sterling paid for 550 pupils at his old school in Brent to attend an FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Jordan Henderson tweeted his support for a young Liverpool fan who had struggled with being gay.
They are socially progressive, but not aggressively “woke” in a fashion that might upset conservative, as opposed to Conservative, England. They take the knee, but why would they not? They are the embodiment of today’s multi-ethnic Britain – black, white and mixed race. They are an inspiring example of what the country could and should be: tolerant, inclusive, respectful and racially harmonious. They are certainly not indulging in “gesture politics”, as the Home Secretary suggested.
It is the manager who sets the tone, of course, and Gareth Southgate’s leadership has been exemplary.
He is humble, soft-spoken and unassuming, but tough and determined with it. He is a man of honesty and integrity who sets and enforces rules and standards, but also encourages collective responsibility. He promotes collaboration, teamwork and a sense of shared purpose – not each man for himself. He believes in detailed preparation, not winging it. Far from careening around like a supermarket trolley, or listening to the vacillating whims of pundits, he is a master of carefully thought-out tactics and strategy.
Southgate understands that the players are role models. “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate,” he wrote in his remarkable and surprisingly moving “Dear England” letter on the eve of the Euros. He encourages his players to be “a force for good as we strive for a better society”.
Above all, he champions an inclusive form of English patriotism as opposed to the ugly, jingoistic, xenophobic nationalism of the reactionary right.
At a time when Britain’s standing in Europe is rock bottom, Southgate and his players have earned respect across the continent. Unlike the few brain-dead fans who booed during the German national anthem at Wembley last week, he doesn’t sneer at England’s rivals, or talk of them disrespectfully, or gloat in victory. He doesn’t boast about England’s “world-beating” team or innate superiority. He is proud of his country, but understands that true patriotism is something felt not flaunted, understated not arrogant, inclusive not exclusive, generous not mean, critical not mindless, forward-looking rather than stuck in some imaginary past.
As Southgate wrote about the millions of children who are following England’s progress in the Euros: “No matter what happens. I just hope that their parents, teachers and club managers will turn to them and say, ‘Look. That’s the way to represent your country. That’s what England is about. That is what’s possible’. If we can do that, it will be a summer to be proud of.”
Sadly, not many teachers and parents could say the same of our present Prime Minister and his team.