Euro 2020: Southgate's England are winning the culture war as well as the football

·5-min read

You know a sporting event is going well when politicians start wearing the shirt, and the commentators begin arguing about what it all really means.

Not since London 2012 has there been such a rush to bask in reflected glory, or to divine its source, than that triggered by Gareth Southgate's England reaching the final of Euro 2020.

This weekend's newspapers offer a rich variety choice of takes, with Southgate and co claimed as both paragons of progressive thought and beacons of Brexit Britain.

Yet we don't need pundits to discern what the players and manager think.

Unprecedentedly, they told us before a ball was kicked.

In a remarkable intervention that's hard to imagine any previous national coach contemplating, Southgate published an open letter on the eve of the tournament that amounted to a manifesto for his England.

It talked not about football, but about politics, a minefield in a nation nursing a nascent culture war.

Yet instead of swerving and sticking to sport, Southgate and his team chose a side and headed for the front line.

'Dear England' is a skilful essay on patriotism that bridges the sense of nation inspired by royal weddings and jubilees, and that of second-generation immigrant players larking about on inflatable unicorns.

Southgate writes of his identity being rooted in memories of his Second World War veteran grandfather, a "fierce patriot", and the idea of representing "Queen & country".

But he writes that isn't the only way of expressing national pride.

"I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions - as we should - but that shouldn't come at the expense of introspection and progress."

For Southgate that means his players engaging unapologetically with issues of equality and social justice.

"I have never believed that we should just stick to football," he wrote.

"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."

He has been as good as his word.

When the team were booed for taking the knee in pre-tournament friendlies, Southgate was unequivocal.

The players would continue to take the knee throughout the tournament not, as some suggested, in support of the political leadership of the Black Lives Matter organisation, but as a simple symbolic act of anti-racism.

Southgate's position cast those booing the knee as anti anti-racists (for which some might use another word) and can only have endorsed his standing with his players.

Almost half of this squad is black or from ethnically diverse backgrounds and all of them know what it is to be abused on social media.

Raheem Sterling, the star of the tournament so far, has been targeted by the mainstream media too, with everything from his choice of tattoos to social media posts of his home generating Sun front pages with uncomfortable undertones.

In 2018 he called it out.

"For all the newspapers that don't understand why people are racist in this day and age all I have to say is, have a second thought about fair publicity and give all players an equal chance," he wrote on Instagram.

And in Marcus Rashford, they have arguably the most effective political campaigner of recent years, a man whose support for free school meals during the coronavirus pandemic shamed the government into changing policy.

England's St George's Park base in Staffordshire is more used to debates about metatarsals than Marxism, but the squad have been unafraid to stare down politicians too.

After England's opening game Priti Patel, the home secretary, said that she did not support players 'taking the knee', and backed the right of England fans to jeer them.

In doing so she was echoing the prime minister, whose official spokesman said Boris Johnson supported the right of fans to boo the "gesture".

Two days later Tyrone Mings, a defender outstanding in the victory over Croatia, was asked about it.

Politely, but without hesitation, he told Ms Patel and her boss they were wrong.

"The home secretary is one of many, many people that oppose us taking the knee, or refuse to defend it," he said.

So we have our own set of beliefs and what we think we can do to help, and we will be players who stand up for what we believe in."

It was the sort of question once guaranteed to end a press conference as England players, with some justification, ducked involvement in the politics of the day.

John Terry and Wayne Rooney needed no help getting a kicking on the front pages, and David Beckham built a huge commercial brand on being reliably bland.

But here was an England player speaking his mind on behalf of a squad unafraid of debate.

It was a jaw-dropping moment for those of us who have followed England, personally and professionally, since the hooligan-blighted 1980s.

The game and its followers have come a long way since then, but a nasty right-wing strain has clung to the fringes of England's support, evident in the chorus of "No Surrender" still regularly heard during the national anthem.

By facing down those voices in the stands, and the national leaders who give them encouragement, Southgate and his players have ensured that their success cannot be hijacked.

Having described taking the knee as "gesture politics", Ms Patel's Twitter feed now features pictures of her in an England shirt cheering on the lads, interspersed with messages about "tough" new immigration legislation.

Mr Johnson meanwhile has posed on a giant St George's flag in Downing Street, and worn an England shirt in precisely the way an actual fan never would - over his shirt & tie, but beneath his suit jacket.

If they didn't have more important things to worry about this weekend, Southgate and his players might ask who's indulging in gestures now.

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