There is something momentous about this year’s England men’s football team. Something huge. Not the historic fact that they got to the final of a major international tournament – only the second ever time. Not even the strange backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, which meant that a tournament played in 2021 was bizarrely called Euro 2020, and half-full stadiums felt both recklessly dangerous and gloriously liberating after a year of lockdowns. The really momentous thing about the England football team this year was bigger than even those things. It was in the calm and maturity of the leadership of the manager Gareth Southgate. It was in his example of gentleness, care and respect for all. It was in the solidarity and bravery of the team which decided, against a wave of pressure and a lack of support even from the UK Prime Minister, that it would carry on taking the knee before each game in protest at racism in the sport.
It was in the captain, Harry Kane, sporting a rainbow armband in support of LGBT rights, and in striker Marcus Rashford being named the youngest ever person to top the ‘giving list’ before the tournament, having raised more than his net worth for food poverty charities. It was in the comforting hug Southgate gave a crying 19-year-old Bukayo Saka, who had missed the decisive penalty in the final, despite Southgate himself getting nothing more than a pat on the shoulder when he experienced the same emotions following his own penalty miss in Euro 1996.
There is something wonderful about this group of mature, compassionate, antiracist men who cry and show vulnerability without mockery or reproof from their manager. They point to a better England, a better world. How we’ve needed it. We have had too much petty politics – too many culture wars and stoking of division in recent years. We have too many macho men in positions of power and influence in the world right now, and we’re tired of their immature and dangerous posturing.
Contrast the above with the racism and stupidity of booing your own team, which a large minority of fans did when England took the knee. Contrast it with the all-too-predicable racist backlash from some fans on social media and beyond when three players who happened to be black missed their penalties in the final. Contrast it with the thuggish scenes at Wembley where grown men had violent toddler tantrums because they didn’t like losing and have never been taught to deal with their emotions in a mature and healthy way. The contrast could not be more stark.
The pathetic racists must not ruin what was a brilliant few weeks of football and moral leadership from the England team. It is up to the FA, the government and the police to deal with abuse and violence in the game, and we need to keep up the pressure on them to ban fans for life, give people hefty fines and generally put a stop to all racism and hooliganism. But we also need to bring the focus back onto this wonderful team.They are a fine example of 21st Century healthy, non-toxic masculinity, and they stand in direct opposition to the ugliness of the violent, racist world some England fans still inhabit. The forward-looking, positive spirit of their solidarity, strength and kindness is a great example to all footballers and football supporters. We could do with a lot more of it in our country and our world.
Ruth Wilde is the National Coordinator of Inclusive Church and a sports fan.