The conclusion to Euro 2020 was a familiar one for England: defeat in a penalty shoot-out. But the journey there was not. For the first time in 55 years, England made it to the final of a major tournament, and did so five years after the nadir of defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016. To watch England put together 54 consecutive passes during the semi-final against Denmark – the most of any side in the tournament – was to witness a team transformed.
But the enduring memory of Euro 2020 will be of a country transformed. The manager, Gareth Southgate, and his players ignited the communal joy that had been so lacking during the Covid-19 pandemic: the chance conversation with a passer-by on last night’s game, the reunion of old friends and family in stadiums and pubs and sitting rooms, the cacophony of horns and chants on the streets after another victory. During the tournament, Mr Southgate and his team emerged not just as footballing heroes but as national ones.
For years, England has been a country defined by divisions that no politician seemed able, or willing, to bridge. Before Euro 2020, as commentators debated whether players should take the knee in opposition to racism, some feared the tournament would fall prey to such polarisation.
But by championing inclusive patriotism, Mr Southgate negotiated this divide better than any politician. As Jason Cowley writes, “The key to understanding Southgate’s ‘version’ of Englishness is to accept that he rejects binaries and false oppositions… You can take the knee and love your country. You don’t have to choose between diversity and tradition; between the Englishness of his grandfather and the Englishness of Marcus Rashford.”
Such was Mr Southgate’s success the UK government had to scramble to keep up. Having refused to condemn the booing of players who take the knee, Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Priti Patel were left hurriedly pulling on England shirts as the nation united behind the team.
Mr Southgate, who leads the most diverse England side in history – 13 of the 26-man squad could under Uefa rules have chosen to represent another country – recognised that one cannot equivocate against racism. As he wrote in “Dear England”, his pre-tournament essay, “Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of behaviour, I have some bad news. You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society.”
The England manager’s stance was vindicated by the racist abuse aimed at three of the team’s black players – Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – after the defeat against Italy. Though racist barracking is now far less common on the terraces, social media has provided a new platform from which it can thrive. While tech companies such as Twitter and Facebook delight in associating themselves with progressive causes, their business model is based in part on the tolerance of abuse. Rather than masquerading as neutral platforms, they should be held legally accountable as publishers for the racist and libellous content that is “published” on their sites.
But as Mr Southgate understands, such abuse represents the dying gasps of an old order. The exclusivist England that racists crave is the country of the past. The St George’s Cross is no longer a symbol of far-right nationalism but one of inclusivity and diversity. As the historian David Olusoga notes, England, by some projections, will by the middle of the century be around one third black and minority ethnic.
Liberals have an understandable tendency to bemoan what is wrong with their country, but Mr Southgate’s England is a hopeful reminder of what is right. Today, not only through its footballers but through its writers, its artists and its musicians, England stands as one of the most diverse, socially liberal and tolerant countries in Europe. This summer was an emphatic demonstration of why we should celebrate this truth – and of how to do so.
This article appears in the 14 Jul 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Apple vs Facebook