I’ve never been one to know much about football, I won’t be able to even explain the offside rule to you properly. Saturday nights were mainly pop music and TV comedy for me, rather than Match of the Day and either moaning or cheering about the latest football results. However, the International tournaments like the FIFA World Cup and Euros were always something that attracted my attention. Maybe it’s the thrill of it coming every four years, the idea of nations competing with each other in the backdrop of the long summer days and nights, the draws and competitions at work, the predictions, the colours, the unity of the country and the ever prediction of football finally coming home, only for England to crash out within the first few rounds, all fed into my appetite for it.
Throughout the years, it was hard to feel sorry for England each time they came stumbling out. The overarching egos of the players, the attitude, the disillusioned fans and the scapegoats made by the people and media, made it easier to accept their tournament reign coming to an end. We knew the narrative, it was always followed by the resignation of the manager – a Dejavu we all had become accustomed to.
That was until Gareth Southgate took over, the man who forever will now be remembered as someone who brought back class into the England Football Club, the embodiment of sportsmanship and probably one of the best England managers. A man well too versed with the scapegoat culture, needed to justify the poor attempt of the club. Who is still forced to carry the burdens of a missed penalty back in 1996, something that he is reminded of even to this day, by a nation with no regards to how much of a mental burden it puts on a person’s soul or like we are all free of error and didn’t miss a penalty opportunity in our own lives.
In 2018, we saw a glimpse of what he was capable of, taking a herd of young unknown players to the World Cup and progressing England into their first Semi Final since 1990, much further than the previous era of prima donnas and famous cologne wearing ego maniacs. For the first time the nation was given hope that we could finally get it done! Bring it home and I for one was happy. This was a team that you can get on board with. When they got knocked out of the semis, there was no scapegoats but just praise. Off the pitch, these guys were just as good, instead of signing up to promote the latest clothing or getting in the headlines for their parties in the club or dating pop stars, they got involved in social causes, making sure something as basic as free school meals are available to children.
As the Euro rolled in, the nation was in pain, a year of pandemic, lockdown, furloughs and deaths, not being able see our loved ones, had cut deep wounds in the society just like it had globally and we needed something to rise up of this unfortunate situation. This team did just that, we never thought it would happen. But as soon as they demolished our age old rivals Germany out of the tournament, people started dreaming the impossible. It was like Batman had finally killed the Joker. The streets filled with hope and Badiel and Skinner’s Three Lions coming out of every house. For the first time in my life, I donned the England red shirt, I’ve always favoured the red, never liked the white one. Anyone would think I was a true football fan, but I wasn’t. The red meant something more to me than football, it meant a country united, that we had moved passed some of the earlier controversies such as ‘taking the knee’, that sports as always will unite us. We were heading for once in a lifetime moment and when we thrashed Denmark, I knew we were in for a generational moment.
On the day of the final, as I run through London Bridge, the site was something else. Young, old, men and women in groups, all in England shirts and flags lighting up the summer day. It was a surreal vibe, something I never witnessed before. Random people stopped me to ask for my prediction. Every Instagram feed was of people having parties in their houses as the BBQ in my mum’s house was also garnering flame for all us siblings to get together.
The night ended in tears and maybe so did the unity? Mindless thuggery of some age old fans, who trampled all over Piccadilly Circus, gate crashed Wembley, assaulting people started surfacing. Then came the online abuse towards the black players who missed the penalties. A culture so entwined in finding scapegoats and abusing them, also thought it would be nice to add the colour of their skin to the mix as well. It opened up deep wounds and showed us we are still coming to terms as a society of the deep diversity of our nation. A society so cruel, that a 19 year old player who is still a child and not born in the century that England won their first and only World Cup, has to deal with so much hatred and agony. A boy who wasn’t around for 36 years of the so called hurt we had been facing. We failed to applaud that he took it upon himself to take a penalty and the burden of the nation, we all had been waiting for 55 years. A boy who thanked his Mum and God for his opportunity before a match. That was his innocence, his naivety. Maybe it is that naivety that is missing from all our lives, part of us that we have hardened as we grew up. But as I donned the England shirt the next day, it was in the spirt of Southgate hugging Saka, the spirit of the majority who came out to support the English Football team, it was the spirit for the first time in decades, the mainstream media along with the rest of the nation, made no excuses, but clapped their hand in support of the Three Lions! It was in the spirit that in Southgate, there was leader with qualities that we had been sorely missing from our politicians.
We may not have brought the cup home, but we brought integrity, class and sportsmanship back and we can’t let bigots outshine the great team.
I only hope the boy who thanked his Mum and God, is still inside him and this aftermath did not change that.