The English may have invented association football, but the rest of the world turned it into the beautiful game.
And that has become all the more evident in our national team’s history of disappointing near misses followed by a string of just terrible performances, and a country that became so utterly disillusioned with their national sport at a national level. But in the 2018 World Cup, that changed. We were knocked out at the semi-finals as we have been once before in 1990. But, nonetheless, it was different. The entire country was behind this team through and through. And even when we lost the semi-final against Croatia, fans walked away with pride and hope for what will come next. We may have lost the third place playoff after that, but nothing was stopping Captain Harry Kane bringing home the golden boot. Next time, we are all hoping together, we will bring home the trophy too.
May I offer a perhaps wild reading of the England team’s success and failures in the past? It seems like a metaphor for our national identity. We were once a far more powerful nation. We were once better at football. Now, we’re not. Now we begrudgingly accept that we aren’t what we once were and that that’s fair. Perhaps the guilt over the morals of some of the nation’s historical actions such as imperialism plays a role in this. Perhaps not. Either way, it shatters national identity and pride. But this is no longer to be. We had a young squad, and a squad that were outclassed in terms of talent by other teams. But sport is about more than just ability. Firstly, we have a unique passion for the teams we follow in the sport we invented. Okay, maybe other countries (particularly places like the favelas in Brazil) may match the English in their passion for the game. The Italians even have a word for this, ‘Tifo.’ But we had an equal amount of that other great English sporting aspect – sportsmanship. Gareth Southgate, Harry Kane.
They all displayed this hugely and that, I think, is something that represents what football once meant to the English, something talent can never replace. Our stiff upper lip has been tried and tested so much since 1966 that it was in the brink of crumbling away, but I think what a man like Southgate recognises is that this can be beaten through patience and quiet determination. Roy Hodgson’s management style was very much focused on tactics. Fabio Capello before him seemed to want to try and make his players into better athletes by tightly controlling their diets and fitness. I’m no expert on management or football at all for that matter, but I see something a lot different in Gareth Southgate. He himself knows the pain of his country’s international anguish all too well. He missed the penalty that knocked us out of Euro ‘96, the same year ‘three lions’ was released and sang in bars just as much as it was this summer.
But he has taken his defeat in good faith. 22 years later, he has been given another chance, and he has become a national treasure. Waistcoat sales have rocketed with men all over England trying to replicate his style. He is calm and sporting in defeat. And calm and sporting in victory. He represents true English values that are respectable and are the stuff we should hold on to.
The young England squad that played in this world cup represent the England of today. We aren’t the same country we once were. But that doesn’t stop us from being great. Many players in the team are descended from countries across the commonwealth. This is a new England. And maybe this realisation of a new identity has awoken a new rebirth in English values for the modern age. In an age of such political divide and confusion, through sport we have come together and through sport we have found a collective identity and national pride. I hope it can spread outside of football and into society all over the country. In the meantime, whether we’re still in the EU in two years or not, bring on Euro 2020!