The game last night was the most watched Football event on TV in the UK, ever. My 87 year old grandad got the train from Nottingham to London to watch it with my dad. Across the country people were travelling to watch it with loved ones. For a brief and beautiful period it didn’t matter who voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’, it was coming home! And we were all ready and waiting to welcome it.
Thanks to the leadership of Gareth Southgate, this England team overcame the deep seated club rivalries that hindered previous squads. In 2006, England had a team of some of the best football players in the world, but didn’t even make the semis. Why? Because to form a team that can collaborate well enough to make it all the way to the final it’s not about individual skill or talent (although you need that too), you also need the kind of collective flourishing that only happens when a group of people unite across differences and work together. Love. Trust. Support. The kind of passion that only comes from being part of a team of people that have your back, and you have theirs, through the bad times and the good. That’s what it’s all about.
This England team is one with distinctly different values from those in the 2006 ‘WAGS and lads mags’ era, and it shows. This year, England players donated £9.6 million in Euro 2020 prize money to the NHS. There’s 23 year old Marcus Rashford, who during the corona pandemic made a statement to the House of Commons in support of continuing free school meals for children. Raheem Sterling, who’s become a role model for speaking out against racism in sport. Jordan Henderson and his public support of LGBTQ fans. Bukayo Saka crying after missing the game-determining penalty with the entire weight of the nation’s expectations on his shoulders — even though he’s only 19. That very moving image of Gareth Southgate head to head with Jadon Sancho. On and off the pitch, this team really cares.
But last night, on my way home from the game after I made a swift exit from a Berlin bar full of Italian fans to lick my wounds in private, I was already depressingly predicting the racist onslaught against the three young men in the penalty shootout.
In its best form football represents an opportunity to come together, a chance to feel and to bask for a short while in something bigger, something greater. Now that it’s not “coming home” after all, many people will be feeling a lot of difficult emotions without a support network or community to process that with. Many of them will turn to abuse and violence, against their wives and girlfriends, against the very team they said they supported. It’s clear from this that a football trophy was only ever going to be a brief hiatus from the intense division and troubles that run through the UK, not the solution.
With this in mind I think the question we should be asking isn’t “why did Southgate choose that line up” or “why did Saka miss that penalty” but “how did so many people across our country become so hateful?” To approach this question with the care, compassion and camaraderie modelled to us by the England team would give the whole UK a much better chance of thriving in the future than winning the Euros ever could.