It’s tough to lose the final of the Euros. It’s even tougher to lose it on penalties – a cruel and unusual punishment made more so by the fact that partly responsible was a tragic error by a coach who knows all about taking penalties.
But enough of the hysteria. Just as there was far too much expectation squatting like a stone on the England squad from the start, so the vastly overdone despair at falling at the final hurdle is in danger of erasing the magnitude of the achievement.
It’ll be no consolation for the team’s last three young penalty takers for the time being – see Marcus Rashford’s agonised letter of apology for his shootout miss. But it is hardly a disgrace to lose out to Italy, along with Spain one of the two best sides in the tournament. Remember that England came through the month unbeaten in open play and held the Azzurri to a draw over 120 minutes in the final.
After the disappointment, let’s take pleasure in what we have: a talented, genuine and eager squad that did us proud by getting to a final for the first time for half a century, led by a decent, honest manager whose ‘Dear England’ letter at the start of the tournament was more eloquent about patriotism and being English than any politician in any party for as long as one can remember.
And whose conduct has a lot to say about good management. Since 2016 Southgate has quietly remodelled the national team in the modern European idiom, something that proved beyond all his predecessors – Sam Allardyce, Roy Hodgson, Steve McLaren, Fabio Capello, Sven-Göran Eriksson, Kevin Keegan, Glenn Hoddle, Terry Venables, even though all of them tried – all the way back to Graham Taylor, the last exponent of blood-and-thunder English football exceptionalism in the 1990s.
In this, of course, he has been much aided by the foreign managers and players who have been attracted to the English game. To put things into perspective, the last time a club managed by an Englishman won the Premier League, the richest and by some measures most competitive league in the world (although the Germans, Italians and Spanish might have something to say about the latter), was 30 years ago. Leeds under Howard Wilkinson in 1991-92, since you asked.
Since then, foreign money and the personnel that followed it have brought the elite English clubs, many of them kicking and screaming at first, into the modern football world. Arsène Wenger was the pioneer with Arsenal’s ‘invincibles’, and from the millennium on only the Scot Alex Ferguson interrupts what is otherwise a continental managerial monopoly on winning in England. It has culminated gloriously over the last four years in the era of Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp who at Manchester City and Liverpool have engineered a near-perfect synthesis of English and continental features, their teams at best allying heads-up technique and football intelligence, long lacking here, with speed and energy.
Southgate has observed and learned from these improvements, not to mention picked young players schooled in the new methods. One implication, of course, is that England’s Euros win over Germany, far from being a blow for Brexit, as one idiotic Tory tweeted, was precisely the reverse: a reflection of Southgate’s eager participation in the fizzing trade in ideas and people between the European footballing nations, each learning from the others, that over the last two decades has raised the bar across the continent and made Europe currently the most progressive footballing region.
As the FT’s astute Simon Kuper observed, Southgate has binned football nativism. ‘To him, football isn’t war, or art. It is a system’, Kuper writes, and the coach has constructed a team to compete with other systemically inclined European teams on an equal basis. His players are young, hard working and resolutely diverse, and Southgate has brought the best out of them as enlightened managers do in any workplace: by treating them as adults and giving them confidence to express themselves both in their work and outside it.
Their football, although still a work in progress, speaks for itself. But unexpectedly, it’s outside football that the players have been handing out the sharpest lessons. And my, haven’t they done it well. The unselfconscious, natural way they have taken the knee; the direct calling out of Priti Patel’s hypocrisy; the straightforward acknowledgement and apology for their mistakes; all these have rattled and wrong-footed Johnson’s government at every turn – the equivalent of a football nutmeg – and made ministers’ belated scramble on to the bandwagon of the team’s success look both risible and desperate, as Marcus Rashford did earlier over school meals. As Marina Hyde asked rhetorically in The Guardian, while footballers barely out of their teens find it necessary to own up publicly for missing a penalty, when has the government ever acknowledged responsibility for its much more serious mistakes over the last two years, let alone said sorry for them?
Yet while Southgate has decisively modernised its football team, and through his endearing and diverse young team given us a glimpse of an England as we would like us to be, the scenes at Wembley both before and after the final are a sobering reminder of an older one that lingers on in half life: the England of the long ball, battlers and in-your-face aggression on the football pitch, magnified into xenophobia and violence off it.
Taming our tribal traits once and for all won’t happen overnight, or even at all, without political and management of a consistently high order, one devoted to calming passions rather than arousing them, unifying round a shared purpose rather than dividing, and cultivating diversity rather than stoking confected culture wars. Although rare, that kind of modest, thoughtful leadership does exist. Just a pity for our wider politics that it’s in the English football camp, rather than in Downing Street or Westminster.