It’s only a game, they say. But what a game it is. Though last night’s drama ended in tears for England, football spread joy across our continent this summer, all the more so as Euro 2020 was being played on delay in the wrong year. There were goals galore, spills and upsets and a new England at the heart of it, both on and off the pitch. Italy will take the European Championship trophy to Rome today but football did come home again in England by helping to show that it is a home we all share.
To still sing “it’s coming home” in 2021 could have sounded like nostalgia for nostalgia. Euro 2020 recaptured the spirit of Euro ’96, encapsulated by an anthem that dreamed of reliving the glory of 1966. Yet it is a song of anticipation, of rekindled hope for the future. It reaffirms a commitment to each other: that whether we win or lose, we will gather again to experience the next tournament together and write another chapter in our national story. This ritual has become England’s primary form of national communion – and it felt more open to everyone who calls England home than ever before.
The unbearable weight of England’s football history burdened the David Beckham and Wayne Rooney generation. This young England seemed more confident about making their own history, at least until those dreaded penalties. What shall we do now without a tournament? Sensible, glass-half-empty voices will warn not to expect too much from sport. Anybody hoping that it will transform structural inequalities or eradicate discrimination will obviously be disappointed.
[Hear more on the New Statesman podcast]
But given sport’s power to bridge divides, it would be a mistake not to identify the contribution that it can make. Sport has few rivals in its ability to spark “who are we” and “who do we want to be” conversations that tens of millions of people can hear. Those of us who want to shape a civic and inclusive national identity have our best opportunity to do so if we engage with such moments.
Sport also has a power to bridge divides because contact between people from different backgrounds and perspectives has a deeper impact if the experiences we share have an emotional intensity. What sport does best is provide an idealised vision of a nation – especially through a national team of which we can all be part. Such symbolism matters but it is not enough.
An immediate example is the need to challenge social media platforms to finally act properly on the outsized share of racist abuse received by our footballers. The toxic moronic fringe has not gone away, as some of the scenes from Wembley show. It is not enough for the decent majority to send supportive messages if the platforms fail to put in place either the rules or the capacity to show racism the red card, even as they share hashtags promising to do so. A failure to act threatens the inclusive England that we have united around this month.
This has been a bad month for culture warriors and polarisers. That has lessons for the right and the left. The cultural right needs to be more selective – even nuanced – in when to pursue its “anti-woke” talking points. It is one thing to defend the Proms and statues of Winston Churchill from threats, real or imagined. It is quite another to cast the England manager as an agent of “deep woke” or even to boycott matches, as Conservative MP Lee Anderson did, over an anti-racism gesture.
The left’s intuitive response is to make partisan points when the right gets it wrong. But in prioritising this, it may be missing opportunities to reach beyond its own political tribe.
A central lesson of Euro 2020 is the need to talk about England – but too few of our institutions can confidently navigate when and how to do so. British identity will face existential challenges in this decade – most obviously the demand for a second Scottish referendum and wider tensions over devolution.
Beyond constitutional questions, there is compelling evidence that those who want to bridge “them and us” divides across class, ethnic and faith lines in England should focus at least as much on English as British identity. Civic Welsh and Scottish identities have received much more conscious attention– but English identity has mostly been left to sport. Civic England has been slow to recognise this – as civic society often tends to think of itself as either local or British, even though Scottish and Welsh commentators often emphasise the need to fill this English vacuum. As the Scottish author Gerry Hassan wrote in last weekend’s National on Sunday, “England needs to speak, celebrate and imagine itself as England” if it is to recognise that England and Britain are not synonyms.
Football can come home (again) next summer, as England hosts the women’s European Championships, if we give the tournament the prominence it deserves. But efforts need to come from outside sport too if an inclusive England is to be more than a “90-minute nation”. English Heritage’s unveiling of a new flag of the names of England. The flag’s 32,000 names capturing how our diversity is the product of a thousand years of history, is a notable, if rare, example.
We liked the England we have been this football summer. Gareth Southgate has been an English leader for our times. We must now gather a bigger civic team behind the example that he has set.