There’s an irony that this Sunday England will once again face an opponent from the Apennine peninsula. Football may well be coming home, but, ultimately, the notion of the mass sporting spectacle was one that the Italians’ forebears, the Romans, brought home to us long ago.
After initially resisting the Roman invasion of 43AD, the people of Britannia then assimilated much of the civilisation and culture their Roman adversaries brought with them.
Two thousand years ago the citizens of London would assemble not in Wembley Stadium, but in a great amphitheatre, the ruins of which still exist today beneath the City of London’s Guildhall. Like their modern cousins they would watch a spectacle between opposing sides and experience triumph and disaster together as a crowd.
What made Ancient Rome great was that it knew how to win in war and in trade. Roman religion was not of pious belief but of action and self-belief. It was dictated by the stories of what their ancestors had done before them and what they would do.
The Roman Republic reached extraordinary heights in the third and second centuries BC, conquering most of Western Europe and ranging into North Africa and the Near East. But after the brutal assassination of Julius Caesar in 44BC it was plunged into a Civil war, which ended in the defeat of Mark Antony by Octavian at Alexandria in 30BC.
Octavian became Emperor Augustus after his victory, and his rule ushered in the ‘Pax Romana’ and the new Roman Empire, the change of system of rule proving a blessing for Rome which underwent significant expansion and centuries of great prosperity. Augustus brought peace through change. As I set out in my book, Pugnare: Economic Success and Failure, this new peace brought with it a new focus on wealth creation, money creation for private businesses, infrastructure building, public private partnerships in building and a renaissance of art and culture. It unleashed the competitive spirit that worked in war bringing it to trade and commerce. A competitive spirit raucously celebrated in the crowded arenas of the amphitheatre.
The England football team over the last 60 years has followed a similar trajectory, though without the bloodshed. After reaching their peak by winning the 1966 World Cup, the proceeding period was marked by its wilderness years, failing to reach the heights expected since their world cup victory. Italia 90, Euro 96, on both occasions reaching the semi-finals but failing to achieve their true potential.
Since then the team has been marred by poor performance, weak leadership, and a disconnect from the fans, who began to approach England games with a sense of dread rather than hope.
But England is now experiencing its rebirth, with its own Augustus at the helm: Gareth Southgate. It has seen a renaissance of exciting football, mirroring the change from the tired Roman Republic to the forward-thinking, positive Roman Empire. In a way, Gareth Southgate has also been reborn. From the defining image of failure at Euro 96, drawing anger from England fans everywhere to now receiving redemption and adulation from a grateful nation.
This rebirth has also changed the way the English look back on historical performances. The stories of Gascoigne, Beckham, Lineker and others who have come so close and yet so far, when once used as sources of pain and regret, are now used as sources of motivation, to give new energy to a team for a new era. In the same way, Emperor Augustus retold ancient stories to give new energy to a people with hundreds of years of history, and define a new era of Rome
As Roman citizens 2000 years ago packed into the Colosseum to see their heroes battle for glory on the greatest stage of them all, so will English fans this weekend. They will hope against all hope that their modern day heroes can break the luck that has dogged English football for over half a century. They will also hope that, as Rome saw centuries of prosperity after falling to its lowest low, England are on the verge of a new era of footballing greatness. Then again, the modern-day Romans may have something to say about that.
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