Updated: Sep 10, 2021
“I’m proud to be English again.” It’s been a while since those words were uttered. With England on the brink of their first major tournament win for 55 years, a national pride has been restored by Gareth Southgate and his squad.
Three weeks ago Southgate faced plenty of choices. Foden or Sterling for one (in the end he opted for both, but it’s the latter who has been the star). Manager or leader was another more complex quandary. He opted for citizen, taking to his platform as national manager, and stepping on the platforms of others, where we fail to see our elected politicians.
As England made it to the European Championship final for the first times, politicians, who say politics has no place in the game, still managed to politicise England’s advancement. Gesturing, I think they call it.
Boris Johnson’s staged celebratory photographs along with the flag outside Downing Street, fooled no-one. Just a few days prior to the Denmark game Priti Patel, the Home Security, condoned fans booing the taking of the knee. Days after she was wearing the three lions, crease in the sleeve still fresh.
They say this week’s news is next weeks fish and chip paper. Twitter says otherwise, and Patel, rightly so, has been called out for hypocrisy, after celebrating England’s win.
Patel and Johnson are enjoying the football, and no-one should take umbrage with that, except celebrations are on their terms, to suit their agenda, not the country’s. Southgate on the other hand is doing his job with aplomb and quietly embarrassing Downing Street at the same time.
It’s the choice the England manager didn’t have to make, but he continues to embrace the bigger and harder decisions on and off the field. Years past England managers battled to keep stories out of the press; prostitutes and parties all too often reoccurring themes. This generation; Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford in particular, fill the front and back pages for lighter, better reasons.
The days of Fleet Street crucifying players; they should be role models, continuously landing on the door mat, are long gone. Our ‘lads’ are that, and Southgate has been sterling himself to support them.
England edged out Denmark in last week’s semi final, a tense after comparative to the convincing defeat of Ukraine, but Germany was milestone, a hoodoo broken, an awakening. Italy is a whole other challenge again. If you’ve never experimented and tried olive oil and lemon sorbet, try it. Only this Italy team is smoother.
The evolution since the World Cup exit to Croatia is measurable. The Germany game plan was conservative and could have easily backfired. Both games needed change, and in the latter, Southgate knew how to shuffle the deck.
Six games for Kalvin Phillips, Declan Rice and Harry Kane could prove a stretch, and probably too late for tinkering with.
England have been fortunate to arrive at the final; Sterling’s penalty could hardly be called stone wall, but we’ve taken our medicine in years gone by. Whilst VAR maintained Danny Makkelie’s decision to point to the spot, the technology wasn’t their to save us in South Africa as Frank Lampard’s rocket went in off the bar in Bloemfontein.
Italy are no strangers to the dark arts either. Suffice to say, the winners at Wembley will need to be wily.
And what of Wembley? The home of football, but at times through this tournament a theatre of controversy. Taking the knee, booing opposition national anthems, Captain Tom shining his laser pen at Kasper Schmeichel, and smatterings of nationalism down Wembley Way.
Navigating the changing national sentiment, often dictated by a fickle and impatient press, needs a steady hand. Southgate hath provide. Crowds have been growing at Wembley which could men more negativity from small quarters of the stadium.
Taking the knee has become divisive in itself, its own issue outside of the reason the gesture is performed. People are almost forgetting and the debate has shifted to marxism; multi-millionaire footballers in the prime of their life trying to so sew the seeds of a communist revolution.
Hopefully the Czech Republic game, where cheers drowned out jeers, is a barometer of what we can hope for.
How an action, used when one partner proposes to another, or in prayer, can be perceived as anything negative or disrespectful is bizarre. Let it go, enjoy the football, and if our politicians can get back to doing what we voted them in for, leading an inclusive meritocracy of a country, we can let Southgate get back to doing what he was hired for.
Aleks Cerefin, UEFA president, has had to deliver this tournament somewhat against his will. The logistically challenging brainchild of the exiled Michel Platiniti, Cerefin says the format will be first and last time.
As England says farewell to Europe, it’s an opportunity for the country to simply say “tarrah, for now, not goodbye forever. Our friends will always be welcome.”
Despite managing England’s most technically gifted squad, Southgate has been forced in to a delicate spot, balancing football with politics. The open letter, the statements the team will continue to take the knee, the perseverance with Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane. This man believes in England, on every level. He can make England whole again.