England’s still dreaming (10 July 2021)

Ahead of Euro 2020 final Dhaka Tribune

The dreams of England fans are still alive. Gareth Southgate’s team has become the first British men’s side to reach the final stage of the UEFA Euros. Collective public excitement in the run up to Sunday’s final is inevitably growing beyond fever pitch. 

After 55 years, England is at the climax of a major tournament for only the second time ever.

Win or lose now, Southgate has proved the 2018 World Cup semi-final was no fluke. It is his softly spoken, calmly persuasive management style that has got the team where they are today. 

By stressing humility, strategic thinking, and unity, Southgate’s leadership is inspiring a youthful squad to “make their own history.”

Long may he run. Quarter-finals are more like England’s par performance, even when they do well. Good enough for many games, but nowhere near great enough to win overall. 

Memories of the endlessly re-visited 1966 World Cup victory over West Germany (boosted by its infantile association with the Second World War), could do with some company. 

While England’s momentum may yet earn support from some Scotland and Wales fans, any boost to the national mood in everyday British life is destined to be short-lived. 

Even under optimistic projections, the UK youth unemployment rate will exceed 15% at the end of this year. And this is before truly knowing all the knock-on effects Covid will have on the global economy in the years ahead. 

Not that getting a job is enough. Well before the pandemic intensified the economic uncertainty of Brexit, millions of people were stuck in a precariat of insecure low paid jobs, unable to properly make ends meet.

Rising property and childcare prices during the pandemic are now pushing record numbers of working people below the poverty line.

Such everyday hardship is nowhere near the top of the UK government’s agenda. 

Or for that matter, for most of the media. It was only the high-profile life story of England and Manchester United footballer Marcus Rashford that interested the press in his campaign to tackle child food poverty. 

The lives of those better off than Rashford’s single mother while bringing him up — not least those with the type of job comfortable enough for them to have been able to work from home and save money during Covid, many of whom are now clamouring for foreign holidays — cannot help but get greater airtime. 

The government knows this and plays off it by constantly chasing and sometimes simply making up feel-good headlines. 

It has also become adept at stoking up US-style “culture wars” around the media and somehow blaming the Labour Party for all manner of ills, which is remarkable given the latter has been out of national government for over 11 years.

The truth or untruth of such stories, positive or negative, counts for little. Dominating the news cycle is all that matters to Boris Johnson. 

Hence, despite the fact there is at least a year to go before most of the world is fully vaccinated, the UK government has spent much of this year showing an unseemly haste to declare “victory” and “freedom” over the virus, while more quietly postponing a formal public inquiry into its (mis)handling of the first year of the pandemic.

With so many stories of cronyism and corruption in government circles, the contrast between Johnson and Southgate as leaders is clear for all to see. 

One telling and impressive aspect of England’s journey at this tournament has been the grounded way Southgate’s players speak calmly and stay on message during post-match interviews.

Southgate’s empathy, quiet strength of character, and inherent decency contrast sharply with what can at best be described as Johnson’s louche leadership style.

Because Euro 96 provided England’s most popular fan song (though many would argue New Order’s Italia 90 anthem is better) and that was when Southgate missed a fateful penalty, comparisons between then and now are inevitable.

It is time to ignore the temptation of nostalgia. Roberto Mancini’s Italy will deservedly be extremely hard, if not impossible to overcome, even though England are playing at home.

Hopefully, more people now will pay attention to Southgate’s mantra of its the next match that counts. Or at least the players.

One of the less foreseeable tributes to Southgate’s leadership skills came this week from former US Republican Party pollster Frank Luntz. 

Commenting on public distrust of politicians, he praised Southgate for being clear, sincere, and authentic, the very qualities many politicians try hardest to fake. He singles out the “Dear England” letter Gareth Southgate wrote in the Players Tribune https://www.theplayerstribune.com/posts/dear-england-gareth-southgate-euros-soccer last month, as “one of the best editorials I have ever read” for supporting, not merely defending the decision of England’s players to take the knee at the start of their matches.

This is interesting at a time when the vast amount of money earned by top players makes it easier than ever to mock footballers.

Out of touch shills for teams owned by oligarchs, with too much money to waste say many from the left. Out of touch millionaire’s virtue signalling for likes, complain the right. 

Many of the latter group of opinion-mongers, often highly paid themselves, are performing what Private Eye dubs a “reverse ferret” on their hitherto loudly expressed cynicism and hostility to the political gestures of England’s players. 

Southgate of course does not need to do a U-turn. In the piece praised by Luntz, he goes beyond platitudes about the team getting closer to the fans for whom they play, by standing up for his players and among other things writing “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity, and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness, and educate.”  

Having principles and living them well is the real-life lesson here. Not that the word “values” can ever be said with a straight face by most in the game, as the oft-mentioned oligarchs for one and Qatar 2022 for another, prove in spades. 

But if Southgate’s approach helps England finally lift a trophy at this tournament, well I may temporarily overlook the latter. 

“There’s no future in England’s dreaming” says the still wise, old song, and I tend to agree. 

Mind you, until Sunday night, it will be far easier for fans to hope, than to sleep.