Defeating the ghosts: England ignored history to make history | England
AAnd you may find yourself living in a place of song and celebration. You might find yourself watching a team of cloudless and sympathetic young people have unforgettable moments, in a country that for a year now feels that a vital element of joy has been lost, but which for the moment just wanna bask in the lights and sing please, please, please don’t take me home.
You may find yourself watching England in a tournament final, led by an honest and admirable man who talks about values and fairness, understands the value of the offbeat defensive pivot, but also seems to want to show you how. make gingerbread or clean your gutters with a broomstick. And you can tell yourself – which would be perfectly reasonable – well, how did we get to this?
It is always tempting to assume that sport has a vital and deep meaning. But there are also times when the things people do in sports become more than just a loud escape, when it feels like the sport is trying to tell you something. How much, enter Gareth Southgate and this weird, happy New England.
The triumphalism of the flags will not be missing before Sunday evening and a difficult meeting with an excellent Italian team with a big heart. But it’s worth remembering that England’s progress to the Euro 2020 final is really just kind of an upgrade.
This is not a sporting miracle or an outsider’s story. England has the richest football league in the world. England has a population of 55 million and a powerful economy. It has one of the most vital, albeit woefully underfunded, amateur football cultures. England has the perfect conditions for sporting success.
Yet by Wednesday night, the England men’s team had reached a major final in the 70 years since their first World Cup appearance – 70 years making a fetish of failure, writing tearful anthems to fail, to become much more effective at failing beautifully than in reality. do something about these obstacles to success.
England at the Euro is not some sort of quest for the Grail, an Albion triumph over fate. Rather, it is a case of displaced blockages and blown cobwebs. Despite all the hot football air, its schmaltz, its extra cheese, this England team seems to offer a model of something, of leadership, of rewarded merit, of finding ways to let go of the past. Therefore. How did we get here anyway?
Looking back, it’s easy to prove that every one of England’s games in this surprisingly full-blast European Championship provided a vitally important study of Gareth’s age. England’s first opponents were also their last important ones at Russia 2018, where an out-of-armed midfielder was swarmed by top players at Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium. But Croatia has never really been a bogeyman team or a nemesis. It was always about what England had done wrong, study and review, recognizing weakness, qualities that so often got lost in the rage and solipsism of defeat.
It was mainly Raheem Sterling’s game. It’s easy to forget now that there was a certain degree of fury against the selection of Sterling, a senior player who in his recent club form arguably didn’t deserve a place on the squad. And as always with Sterling, and more broadly with England, it was like there was something else here too, weird noises in the distance.
Before the match, Boris Johnson had called, with a wink, to refrain from booing the players’ pre-match anti-racist gesture, having previously, with another wink, defended the right to mock . Dog whistle policy in sport. Race-baiting through signs, words and sneers. Sterling knows a lot about this.
Five years ago, in the last few euros, he was assailed by tabloid newspapers, labeled weak, disloyal and fatally flash using the racist language of “bling” and all the rest. Sterling called him himself. It was a remarkable moment of resisting, refusing to be victimized and holding up a mirror instead.
It might just be one of those sporting illusions, but Croatia was a time when those tides seemed to come together. Sterling led the attack, scored the only goal and continued to march through this tournament, a fearless and uplifting figure. It’s just football. Sterling does not have to take on this responsibility. He is neither a warrior, nor a politician, nor the embodiment of anything outside of his sport. But then, well, he sort of is.
Five days later, the depression set in. England have been slow against Scotland. A goalless draw provided a moment of crisis. There were calls for change, for Southgate, a tactical round head, to doubt his judgment, toss the pieces in the air and let go of Gareth’s dogs.
England has always tended to conduct these sports surveys in a vacuum. What matters here is what England does, what England thinks, what conversations England has with herself. But someone else is in this room as well, and Scotland played really well at Wembley. Know your limits. Stick to the plan. Resist the populist cry. This is Southgate’s super strength. A weaker leader might have yielded to fleeting opinion. Southgate had the courage to be gentle.
England held on, and against the Czech Republic Bukayo Saka was in the squad ahead of popular hero Jack Grealish. Saka is 20 years old. He has little top football behind him. But he was the man of the match as England beat the Czechs. And here is another principle of Southgate-ism: talent will be rewarded. Age and background are not a barrier. Southgate may be the goalkeeper for this England team. But this door is still open.
And so on in Germany and in the round of 16, where so much came together. To win with England in a game like this is to first defeat the ghosts, the noises through the wall, the shadows against the door. England was controlled against Germany. Grealish emerged at the perfect moment and helped change the game. A 2-0 victory was celebrated warmly but without any anger. At the end, Southgate gave a touching TV interview in which he spoke of letting go and making peace with his own pain during past matches in Germany. You could almost hear the chains snapping as the weight was lifted. Another note in Gareth’s credo: the past is over.
England scrambled to Rome and the quarter-final against Ukraine, which could have been tough opponents, but was swept aside. It was England’s note of grace, a freedom attack performance and a moment of sporting resurrection for captain, Harry Kane, who had until then appeared to be wading through a bog in a set of gravity boots .
And so on in Denmark, back at Wembley, and the unusual trauma of an overtime semi-final win. The lasting imprint of that night will be the audience’s reaction, an outpouring of joy and liberation, the feeling of people flashing in the light and drawn, regardless of their starting position, to this sympathetic young team.
From there England went one step further. Southgate spoke of his players having the chance to create moments that endure, that have a life of their own in popular culture. For now, they will only see a part to win.
It will be exhausting, bruised and also entirely new and virgin territory, not only for this light and airy English team but for the rest of us as well. It will be mostly fun, an act of love just to watch this team play again, with their alluring notes of leadership and collectivism; and even, whisper it, a contagious little ray of hope.