Football tournaments can be unpredictable but this was a sight no one could have foreseen. England and Arsenal winger Bukayo Saka balancing on a unicorn pool float and twirling through the galaxy, landing in a swimming pool. His England teammates bounce him over a water polo net and at one point he comes out of Tyrone Mings’s mouth. This is just one of the exuberantly original and ever so trippy videos on the England team’s TikTok and it encapsulated the mood of the country (as well as making anyone who has seen it wonder what led to it being made, and how we can get jobs working on England’s TikTok channel).
It may not have been the outcome the country wanted, but no one can take away the sheer unexpected elation of England getting to the Euros final. For the first time in 55 years, England had a chance of winning major football tournament (and they so nearly did). We dealt with the nerves about facing Italy by belting out Sweet Caroline, Atomic Kitten’s Gareth Southgate version of Whole Again and Three Lions on repeat. It was easier than talking about our feelings (see, the scenes at Croydon Boxpark after England Denmark, the complex which has had an excellent Euros, whoever does Boxpark’s PR deserves a payrise).
Even better, as well as playing phenomenal football throughout the tournament, the team was easy to warm to. They are eloquent (especially remarkable considering they have an average age of 25), charming and socially conscious. Many of them did not have an easy youth and now they are trying to make the world a better place. Marcus Rashford has forced changes in government policy, Raheem Sterling has an MBE for services to racial equality in sport, Jordan Henderson, Harry Kane and Harry Maguire raised millions for the NHS during the pandemic, Jordan Sancho helped build a pitch for young people in south-east London and Harry Kane wears a rainbow armband to mark Pride. You would happily have them all round to meet your grandma.
If they have wild sides they have done a good job at hiding it. It is a rule that every generation rebels against the one that came before it and so this England team are doing the polar opposite of their elders. Take Gazza, whose approach to dealing with the highs and lows of Euro 1996 was to take off his top and assume the “dentist’s chair” pose in a nightclub in Hong Kong, where people, including teammates Teddy Sheringham and Steve McManaman poured alcohol into his mouth. He had the good humour to mimic it on pitch with Lucozade.
Now Phil Foden is keeping Gazza’s style alive with his bleached hair but that is where the similarities end. This lot celebrate in a wholesome style, hugging, doing fond impressions of each other and playing on those pool floats (they have been single handedly responsible for the redemption of the pool float, from naff Love Island accessory to holiday must-have). If the whole football thing doesn’t work out, perhaps they could be in England’s Olympic synchronised swimming team.
Their wives and girlfriends seem just as lovely. Captain Harry Kane’s wife is Katie Goodland, his childhood sweetheart who met David Beckham with him as a child. She is a sports science graduate turned fitness instructor. She and her fellow WAGs are too busy working out and supporting England to enter into psychodrama, like, say Grand High Wag Coleen Rooney’s Wagatha Christie epic fallout with Rebecca Vardy.
The culture comes from the top. Manager and national hero Gareth Southgate makes time to chat and check up on every player, encouraging them to take breaks (that is where the pool floats come in). He simply asks them how they are feeling and then is ready to talk.
While the Prime Minister tried to harness England’s success during the Euros for his own political gain, Southgate made his own beliefs known (note to Boris Johnson, start by not wearing an England shirt over a shirt with a blazer, it makes you look like you have never been to a football game before and would be more comfortable at the rugby).
Southgate is a Remainer who has spoken about the “racial undertones” to the Brexit campaign and before Euro 2020 he wrote a long and elegant essay on the nature of patriotism, distancing the England team from the values of some of its supporters like far-right activist Tommy Robinson. Southgate’s grandfather was a “fierce patriot and a proud military man who served during World War Two” and he is all for protecting our values and traditions but not at the expense of progress. This was particularly marked as some on the right objected to his team taking the knee. Southgate says taking the knee is part of “their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice”.
He is as much of a star as the players, in his lucky navy and white polka dot tie that replaced the buttoned up waistcoat, and heralds a confidence reflected in a less conservative approach to play, with Raheem Sterling and Bukayo Saka on the attack against Denmark.
Our success was no fluke. The team worked tirelessly and made sacrifices. We deserved to win. Still, the boys have plenty to be proud of and have made their country a better place.