Gareth Southgate is the perfect loser, which makes him the ideal England manager

Southgate, about to lead his team on their doomed mission to the World Cup in Russia, embodies a modern, modest, self-deprecating idea of Englishness.

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Every England manager’s career ends in failure, but perhaps no previous incumbent has been better prepared for it than Gareth Southgate. In fact, he was chosen largely because of that characteristic. Southgate – about to lead his team on their doomed mission to the World Cup in Russia – incarnates a modern, modest, self-deprecating idea of Englishness. This national modesty hasn’t yet won over the ageing cohort whose delusions of grandeur helped give us Brexit, but it has become the standard for the rest of the nation.

Seeing Southgate in the news these days brings me back to a freezing spring morning in 1996. I had come to Aston Villa’s training ground near Birmingham for a magazine article involving a head-to-head computer game between him and a nerd.

Southgate turned out to be a very polite boy with a large nose. At one point a Villa assistant coach, Paul Barron, who would have made a good US Marines drill instructor, decided to measure our body-fat percentages. Southgate took off his shirt and let Barron attach what looked like electrodes to him. Only 9 per cent of Southgate’s body consisted of fat. I took off my shirt. Barron inspected my stomach. “Maybe we should just use the slap test,” he said.

“What’s the slap test?” I asked.

“Slap you in the stomach and see how long it shakes.”

Southgate was still attached to electrodes. “Paul,” he said mildly, “this bloke has only come round to write an article.” Barron found that my body fat ratio was 16 per cent. Southgate reassured me, “Just go to the gym for three hours every night for the rest of your life, and you’ll be fine.”

He was thinking of going into journalism, and we agreed he would write a diary of the Euro 96 championship for my newspaper, the Financial Times, but it never happened. That’s a shame, for he emerged as one of the tournament’s main characters: his missed penalty in the semi-final in the shoot-out against Germany sealed England’s elimination (the match had finished 1-1).

Curiously, the miss made him a national hero. That night John Major, the prime minister, hugged him outside Wembley. Newspapers hailed him as perhaps the best player of Euro 96. And why? Because he incarnated the loser. That open, naive face, the big nose, his admission afterwards that he had been sure he’d score his penalty, his mother’s comment that he’d only ever taken one penalty before, and that he’d missed that too – Southgate personified a post-imperial England that is comfortable with defeat.

It took English football a long journey to get to that place. For decades, the default mode was astonishment each time England didn’t win a World Cup. After all, weren’t we the mother country of football?

Cracks in these assumptions appeared in the disastrous 1970s, when England failed to qualify for two World Cup finals, but until 2010, the tabloids continued to churn out headlines like “England Expects” and “Achtung! Surrender!”. BBC anchors would hopefully ask pundits, “Could this be England’s year?”

But humankind can only stand so much reality. After the 4-1 thrashing by Germany at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, something gave. The match was English football’s version of Suez: the national realisation that actually we were just another middling country without a manifest destiny. Almost overnight, England stopped expecting. When Yougov conducted surveys in 19 participating countries ahead of the 2014 World Cup, the most pessimistic fans (jointly with Costa Ricans) were the English: only 4 per cent expected to win in Brazil. This summer, I’d be surprised if the percentage is that high.

Stefan Szymanski and I showed in our book Soccernomics that the England team perform about as well as you would predict, given the nation’s population, wealth and football experience. England are usually about the tenth best team in the world, and that’s approximately where they should be.

It’s easier to grasp reality in football than in politics. In football, outcomes are written on the scoreboard. You can’t keep telling yourself you are a great nation if you lose to Iceland (population 320,000) at Euro 2016. (Coming straight after the Brexit vote, this was England’s second exit from Europe within days.)

In politics, belief in Britain’s manifest destiny has persisted, at least among older people who grew up on war stories and world maps swathed in pink, and among Old Etonians who grew up planning to be the next Palmerston or Churchill. The one-sided negotiations between the EU and the UK (current score about 5-0, with the first half not yet over) may now be resetting even their expectations.

But when it comes to shaping people’s ideas about their country, football may be a more powerful force than politics. Since July 2016, British Google searches for Manchester United (or for Arsenal, or for Chelsea Football Club) have always exceeded searches for Brexit. England’s matches in Russia will probably be the most watched British TV programmes of the year. Little else brings the nation together any more. England’s cricket matches have disappeared behind the paywall, younger Britons now watch more Netflix than BBC, and pubs have lost their role as meeting places much as churches did before them. 

Every great English banana-skin moment at a major tournament is a ritual that marks the passing of time, and celebrates a certain idea of England: a land of unlucky heroes that no longer rules the world. Southgate – whose biggest prize in his football career so far is the slightly tinpot League Cup – is now the perfect man for the England job.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist. The latest version of “Soccernomics” is published by HarperCollins

This article appears in the 11 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel vs Iran

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