Which trio of dates loom larger in national consciousness: 1964, 1997 and 2019, or 1966, 1996 and 2021? The former are historic general elections. The latter, historic England performances in international football. Here’s a test. Stop anyone in the street. Vastly more will recognise the latter dates.
What is that saying about the cultural significance of football success in our national consciousness? Britain struggled for 200 years to become a democracy. Yet more are expected to watch the Euro 2020 final on Sunday night than turned out to vote in the general election two years ago. If politicians attracted a fraction of the interest of England’s football team, we would have the best supported democratic system in the world.
Outside of war, patriotism can find it hard to find a focus. Yet in football, national fervour and pride find a ready outlet. When England succeeds at football, supporters are proud to be English, and happy because they are English. For a few fleeting weeks, worries fade away and the nation finds a palpable meaning and sense of belonging. The flags come out on the cars and in the windows or our homes, and the T-shirts and regalia are put on.
Like all those lucky enough to have been alive in the summer of 1966, I can remember the World Cup Final at Wembley as if it was yesterday: watching a black-and-white television screen in a marquee at a rowing regatta in Huntington, where I had come to watch my older brother perform. Bobby Moore, the captain of the day, was my hero. I had pictures of the team up in my bedroom at home and followed their every move.
Victory against West Germany added multiple octanes to the swinging '60s, bolstering a nation that had been down on its heels only a short while before. Harold Wilson, Labour’s first populist prime minister, milked the victory for all it was worth.
The European championship in 1996, again on home turf, saw the nation transfixed afresh in expectation of a victory. By now, I had a young family and watched the semi-final in our south London home with our four-year-old son. No sporting defeat has made more impact on me. We were both unable to move from the screen after Gareth Southgate’s penalty miss in the semi-final against Germany.
Again, the country had been through a hard time economically following Black Wednesday in 1992, and success at football had been a potent source of national pride. John Major, a hapless leader in the eyes of some, inevitably took the hit as prime minister. Somehow, many believed, he was responsible. Defeat in the general election the following year was seen somehow as poetic justice.
The 2021 European championship has again come at a time of national disorientation, after Brexit, the economic downturn and Covid-19 lockdowns. At last, many have experienced a sense of pride and excitement absent from their lives for many months. We have immersed our identities in the football team, become them, and in the victories over Germany, Ukraine and Denmark, we have shared the same excitement as the players as if we were being hugged by Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling pitchside. Heck, we were partly responsible ourselves for the victory.
Win or lose on Sunday, the nation will be in for a fall. The euphoria will last a few days, weeks at most, but then the competition will become a distant memory with little to replace it. Divisions and frustrations will re-emerge. Boris Johnson will wrap himself in the national flag. But historian that he is, he will know that England’s success is unlikely to be repeated: defeat to West Germany in the World Cup in 1970 played no small part in the general election defeat of Harold Wilson four days later.
Will anything be left of these heady last few weeks? I hope that the fundamental decency and values of Southgate, Kane, and the team will continue to exert a positive influence on the nation. In the way they have conducted themselves, they resemble far more Bobby Moore, the Charlton brothers and the heroes of 1966 than the self-indulgence of some of those in the squad from 1996. That indeed would be a cultural legacy worth having.
Anthony Seldon‘s last book was ‘The Impossible Office? The History of the British Prime Minister’