- We often make a choice in life about whether to focus on the positive or the negative.
- For those who talk about England fans who misbehaved during the dramatic and draining Euro 2020 semi-final victory over Denmark, it is always worth underlining that we are talking about an idiotic minority.
- The booing of the opposition’s national anthem, the pointing of the laser pen at Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel and the sporadic abuse of Danish fans at Wembley are all things that bring shame upon the England fanbase and the country in general.
However, I’d like to think that these are stains that haven’t crept across even a thousandth of the true picture. There is hope that this dizzying run to a first ever European Championship final has been a unifying force for a divided country, a nation scarred by Brexit and the draining culture wars that have followed. Of course, the societal problems and inequalities that exist in England won’t be wiped away if Harry Kane lifts that famous piece of silverware on Sunday, but it will be the crowning achievement of a group of players that England can be proud of.
Young footballers have often been demonised in England – they spend too much, they are out of touch with the common man, and they set a bad example for youngsters. They have been easy targets for the tabloids. With the honest leadership of England manager Gareth Southgate to fall back upon, they have helped to smash those myths. Marcus Rashford’s efforts to tackle food poverty and inequality have hit the headlines, and rightly so. The taking of the knee is typical of this group’s efforts to make positive change, despite ludicrous attempts to muddy the waters and deride it as some kind of Marxist call-to-arms. They have heard the boos and the right-wing buffoonery and sniping, and they have ignored it all. This is their stage, their platform, their chance to make a difference.
Why it's different this time
The television pundit and former England right-back Gary Neville was correct to draw attention to the lack of honest leadership in the UK government, even though he was inevitably told by some to “keep politics out of football.” While it may be an uncomfortable truth for some, the heart of his argument is demonstrably correct. When the government is caught telling lie upon lie, a humble, kind and thoughtful leader like Gareth Southgate is always going to shine by comparison. The Home Secretary Priti Patel dismissal of taking the knee as “gesture politics”, only to then wrap the success of the team around her like a stolen coat, shows the kind of craven opportunism England’s young heroes are up against in a post-truth society. For those of us who are deeply ashamed by Brexit, it has been nice to see England represented by messages of tolerance, hope and humility rather than bombastic nationalism.
And so, to the football itself. England have played with a composure and a togetherness which has been quite jarring to see. With the finish line in sight against an exhausted Denmark, England kept possession with a maturity and a confidence that long-time watchers of the team simply aren’t used to. This was the tiki-taka performance of Spain or Italy, not England.
From youngsters to bona fide superstars
There have been so many heroes. Full-backs Luke Shaw and Kyle Walker have passed every test, negating the threat posed by Joshua Kimmich, Robin Gosens and Joakim Maehle, and enhancing the England attack. Harry Maguire has been a defensive behemoth, imperious in the air and intelligent with the ball at his feet. Kalvin Phillips and Declan Rice have provided energy and toughness in the heart of midfield, and have contributed to an incredible defensive record.
Raheem Sterling, brought up within sight of the Wembley arch, has dazzled defences throughout the tournament. His reverse pass to Harry Kane against Ukraine, his hoodoo-busting strike against Germany and his determined run to claim a penalty against Denmark have all been massive moments in England’s surge towards sporting immortality. Harry Kane, leaden-footed and out of sorts in the group stage, has come alive when it really mattered, as all world-class strikers do. His clever movement and ability to drop deep as a facilitator could prove crucial against Italy’s experienced central defenders.
The renaissance of italian football
England face their stiffest test of the tournament against a resurgent Italy. Roberto Mancini picked a nation up from the canvas after the Azzurri’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. He has added a modern twist to age-old Italian principles. This is a team that defends solidly and works breathtakingly hard, but it also looks to play in an attractive fashion. Mancini admits that his own volatility as a younger man cost him the chance to truly shine as a player on the international stage, and he feels like a man on a mission. It’s a cliché, but this truly feels like a club side, with everyone pushing in the same direction. No divas, and no temper tantrums.
The midfield is beautifully balanced. Jorginho is the metronome, Marco Verratti the escapologist who wriggles out of the tightest spaces, while you might be able to end carbon emissions forever if you could harness the energy of Nicolo Barrella. In attack, Federico Chiesa is a big-game player, a man who puffs his chest under pressure. Lorenzo Insigne is a pocket rocket who could be about to make the whole country love him as much as they do in his hometown Naples.
It will be a tightly-contested final, the perfect end to a month of joy that has seen fans flood back into stadiums. England are desperate to end the country’s 55-year-wait for a major trophy, but in terms of how England as a team and as a nation is viewed, maybe the players and the manager have already secured a victory.