As Gareth Southgate’s players revelled in the ecstasy and singalongs at a joyful Wembley on Wednesday and millions celebrated beyond, England itself seemed transported, not like a country bruised by divisive politicians, waging their dismal culture wars.
Boris Johnson was there, trying to fit in, and there is a feeling his government had a draft script for the Euros, if they thought about football very much at all. England doing well at a packed Wembley would somehow broadcast a triumph for Brexit, for the vaccine rollout, for how well the government wrestled with the Covid mugger and all that. But neither Johnson nor the home secretary, Priti Patel, thought it through before they supported the booing of the England team taking the knee before pre-tournament matches, thereby antagonising the players – and recklessly stoking racism in football that campaigners have fought 40 years to kick out.
Yet this group of players, continuing to take the knee and use their tremendous influence to oppose racism and social injustice, have refused to be used for that script, while thrillingly taking England to their first final since Alf Ramsey’s 1966 monument. Southgate – thoughtful, genuine, focused on detail, a dignified leader, of such contrast to Johnson’s bombast and recklessness with the truth – even thought ahead and wrote his own script, just to be sure.
In a euphoric country, it is important to maintain focus on what the manager said this would all mean, in his remarkable open letter, “Dear England,” released three days before the tournament began, the very day after Johnson refused to condemn the booing of the players. He expressed his belief and aspiration in a progressive, unified, modern England, at ease with its young people and diversity, and it was astonishing, also very moving, that an England manager should publicly set out such a vision. By speaking out, Southgate seemed also to be deliberately heading off likely efforts by Johnson and his supporters to colonise England football achievement for their own crude agendas.
Calling his players “a special group”, it was illuminating to see how Southgate described their journeys, playing for their country while embracing anti-racism and social justice, as “liberated in being their true selves”.
That was a response to those such as Patel who have denounced taking the knee as “gesture politics”, pointing out that this gesture – which remains hugely powerful – is integral to the players expressing themselves.
“I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” Southgate said; a knowing response to that classic English putdown, a timeworn way of denying sportspeople their voice. Clearly referring to his players’ progressive work including Marcus Rashford’s campaigns for children in Johnson’s country to have enough food to eat and books to read, Southgate urged them on.
“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice,” he wrote, “ while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate.”
He used the language of football to address the racists: “You’re on the losing side.” And the language of hope: “It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”
He had his say too on the culture wars, the plague of simplistic affiliation to statues, the union jack, stately homes and gunboats, with which Johnson’s government has sought cheap votes.
“I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions – as we should,” Southgate wrote, “but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”
There have been reports that Johnson’s strategists have been put out by Southgate’s letter, which makes it impossible for them to claim the team’s progress as fuel for their divisive agenda. In 2018, Southgate expressed disappointment in Brexit itself, telling an ITV documentary that there were “racial undertones” in the vote.
“I didn’t like the connotations around Brexit,” he said. “There were some generational opinions about what modern Britain should look like.”
It will forever be a landmark in our history that Southgate’s England achieved so much in the European Championship just after Britain left the European Union, but the manager and team’s statements prevent their work from being exploited as a triumph for Johnson’s crude take on patriotism or for Brexit. It will always be part of the history, too, that this great national sporting moment came as Johnson and his supporters were busy waging a “war on woke”, even spawning a new TV channel dedicated to it. The word itself is greatly abused by those who use it as an insult, but this England team, resolutely taking the knee, captain Harry Kane wearing a rainbow armband, Jordan Henderson tweeting support to a gay fan, surely are, in its best, true meaning, woke.
“No matter what happens,” Southgate wrote, “I just hope that [children’s] parents, teachers and club managers will turn to them and say: ‘Look. That’s the way to represent your country. That’s what England is about. That is what’s possible.’ If we can do that, it will be a summer to be proud of.”
They have, and it is already, beyond expectation. Southgate and his players, with their great skill, dedicated work, unity, and core of progressive values, have pointed the way, on and off the field, to a better England.