For these past few glorious weeks, all that has been said and typed over and over again about Gareth Southgate’s England 2.0 is that as a football team, they played unburdened by the neurotic failures of English football’s recent past. And as men, they deliberately fought to set a better example of what a footballer is than that which exists in the popular imagination.
On both fronts they have succeeded beyond all expectations. But, in the end, they have not been able to escape the moral boundaries which have been deliberately set out for them by others.
When they chose to take the knee before their matches in a gesture of solidarity against racial inequality, they were booed by their own fans. That is nothing new. The England football team has always been a gathering place for various iterations of far-right extremists and straightforward thugs.
They are outnumbered now, but by no means eliminated. What is new is that they would be so disgustingly let down by their own political leaders. Boris Johnson at first refused to condemn English fans booing their own players for anti-racism. The home secretary Priti Patel did the same. And now England’s footballers – principally Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka – have received huge volumes of racist abuse online.
Johnson has condemned the behaviour. In any normal country, at a normal time, the prime minister publicly condemning racist abuse would return a semblance of balance to the public discussion. Gordon Brown has made a similar public condemnation. Such public condemnations might seem somewhat contrived, or tokenistic, but they do all add up to something. It is important to make clear that such people are the loud but very small minority.
But Johnson is unable to publicly condemn racism without fanning the flames yet further. It is an incontrovertible fact that he has spent thirty years writing newspaper articles that are peppered with racist jokes. It was only as recently as 2018 that he saw fit to write racist jokes in the Daily Telegraph about Muslim women looking like bank robbers and letterboxes.
Twenty-eighteen is not very long ago. It is still wearily claimed that the column in question was a passionate defence of liberalism. Arguably, it was; but passionate defences of liberalism can be mounted that do not require racist jokes.
The problem is that Johnson has declined hundreds of opportunities to apologise for, clarify, or otherwise withdraw his many overtly racist comments of the past. He has his own strategic reasons for doing so. Never apologise, never explain, is his guiding philosophy. It has certainly worked out fine for him. As always, it is other people who must bear the consequences.
There’s another World Cup next year. Maybe England’s players can go one better. That is up to them. But off the pitch, they will not, it turns out, be able to escape the miserable moral parameters placed down upon them by others. They have tried, but for the time being, the die is cast, the tone is set. There is only so much they can do.