England didn’t play all that well in the World Cup, really. There, I’ve said it. I’ve blasphemed.
But the fact is that, in the group stage, the lions unsurprisingly dispatched the minnows of Panama and lost to Belgium, having barely scraped past Tunisia in their opening fixture. Had it not been for Harry Kane’s injury time winner in that first game, they could have been on their way home before even reaching the knockout stages. They then failed to beat Colombia in 120 minutes, before finally laying years of penalty shoot-out demons to rest. They did play impressively against Sweden, albeit against fairly ponderous opposition, to make it to the final four.
In the first third of Wednesday night’s semifinal, they excelled — so much so, indeed, that the game should have been wrapped up long before half time. Croatia could barely string a coherent move together, and England seemed to be creating chances at will. Unfortunately, Kieran Trippier’s perfect free kick apart, they were also missing them. With a World Cup final beckoning for the first time in over half a century, they seemed to suffer a collective failure of nerve — and capitulated like men weighed down by the prospect of reversing all those decades of defeat. The midfield lost its grip. The defense became hesitant and error-prone. Croatia was supposed to be tired — an older team that had played longer, harder games — but it was young England who looked exhausted.
Having said all of that, the English squad, and its remarkably astute and down-to-earth manager Gareth Southgate, have done their country proud in Russia this past month. The response in England has been appropriately warm — indeed, downright delirious, until Wednesday’s rudely required return to Earth. And Southgate’s careful, serious, sensitive and generous leadership of his young charges has resonated widely — and carries a message that extends outside of football — because it contrasts so sharply with the political leadership of England, and indeed that of numerous other nations besides.
Southgate was an accidental appointee — he was given the job on a temporary basis, with the official English footballing hierarchy in disarray, when his tactless predecessor was forced out after an over-hyped media sting. An ex-England player, Southgate had been deemed a failure as a manager at club level. But he set about building a young squad of whom the nation could be appreciative — jettisoning big-name players past their prime, instilling the principles of self-belief and selflessness in his team, innovating on the training ground, avoiding grandiose predictions, and gradually letting his charges’ improving performances do the talking for him.
They set off for Russia with little national expectation of success. World Cup winners just once, in 1966, England had become wary of false dawns. Not many were afflicted by World Cup fever a month ago. But it began to spread as the wins built up — and as people began to take a closer look at this decent, understated, clear-thinking coach, and at his team.
Football is a colossal global business. England’s Premier League is at its very heart. And top players exist in a cossetted bubble, earning fortunes for their performances. Southgate’s squad members all live in that rarefied world, and yet they have managed to strengthen their connection to millions of fans, and to tens of millions more Englishmen and women who never took much of an interest, because they have shown their ordinary side — in the best sense of that word.
They played selflessly on the field — no egos, no tantrums — and were relatively approachable off it. One player (Danny Rose) was encouraged to open up about suffering from depression. Another (Fabian Delph) was allowed to dash home — mid-tournament — for the birth of his third daughter — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Southgate told him, not to be missed.
One of the funniest moments that bolstered the connection came after Sunday’s victory over Sweden, when Harry Maguire, who had scored with a thundering header, was trolled on Twitter by teammate Kyle Walker. Under a picture of Maguire chatting with his girlfriend and others in the stands after the game, Walker wrote: “Yeah so a good header doesn’t hurt. I mean the moment you head it proper, you feel it’s a good one. Know what I mean love?” You may have to be English to enjoy that tweet in all of its nuances, but it amounts to an irreverent, anti-chauvinist, good-natured, ego-deflating jibe that points to a group of young athletes who are self-aware, matey, and have feet firmly on the ground. Few of those are terms that would have often been applied to England’s football stars of recent decades.
Yeah so a good header doesn’t hurt. I mean the moment you head it proper, you feel it’s a good one. Know what I mean love? pic.twitter.com/a5b8UqDjv2
— Kyle Walker (@kylewalker2) July 7, 2018
Gradually taking a closer look at this likable bunch, moreover, the English public doubtless internalized that they were a broadly representative mix of the modern English demographic — white and black, privileged and less so. One player (Dele Alli) is the child of a Nigerian father who had a very difficult upbringing; another (Raheem Sterling) was born in Jamaica, and his father was murdered there when he was two. Almost half of the squad are the children of immigrants.
In a Britain that recently voted to leave Europe and is having plenty of second thoughts, in a Britain uncertain from the highest levels on down about how to handle immigration, in a Britain cursed with an incompetent government, a prime minister terrified of her own shadow, and endless cynical, scheming politicians bent on replacing her, it’s no wonder that more than one commentator has semi-humorously suggested Gareth Southgate for PM. (No wonder either that Prime Minister Theresa May, desperately trying to rally her cabinet colleagues, this week called for a little of the footballers’ team spirit.)
Southgate, it can be safely assumed, doesn’t want the job. He’s determined to take his football team still further forward. But he certainly realizes why the success of these young men is resonating far beyond the pitch. “In England we have spent a bit of time being a bit lost as to what our modern identity is,” he said, with typical understatement, when speaking to the media after England had beaten Panama. “Of course, first and foremost I will be judged on football results. But we have a chance to affect other things that are even bigger.”
In terms of international perception, and for many at home too, English football until the last month was synonymous with managerial incompetence and lazy, egotistical stars; with stadium disasters; with violent, racist hooligans. While playing better than expected though not exactly out of their skins, England and especially Southgate have begun to change all that. The manager proved no slouch in the task of welding his players on the pitch. But Southgate, who even as player maintained a far more open and responsive relationship with adoring fans that was or is the norm, has proved a veritable revolutionary when the ball is no longer rolling — a throwback to a far more chivalrous, more decent era.
This was never more evident than when Southgate, who missed a crucial penalty when England lost to Germany at the European Championships in 1996, walked over to console Mateus Uribe, the Colombian player whose missed penalty sealed England’s victory 10 days ago.
“This wasn’t just a random act of sensitivity and compassion,” wrote Guardian columnist John Crace in an article headlined “Why the Nation Fell for Gareth Southgate.” “It was one of empathy… Southgate knew what it felt like to be the man to dash a nation’s dreams… His arm round Uribe’s shoulder wasn’t a casual, passing gesture: it was one that spoke of a deep personal understanding. Even more than that, though, it was a moment of grace.”
Unfortunately for England, football is not “coming home” just yet — in the words of the “Three Lions” anthem that’s been so lustily sung nationwide these past few weeks. But its football team and their manager have shown how far the pooling of the very best resources, with no biases and no cliques, combined with a modicum of common sense, selflessness, humility and teamwork, can take you. That’s quite a victory, and one which should resonate far beyond football and far beyond England.