7 July 2021

Southgate and his team are ambassadors of an England that belongs to us all


It is a day of hope for England and three words are on everybody’s lips: “football’s coming home”.

We have been singing this unofficial national anthem since England hosted the Euro ’96 tournament – but it is not a confident boast of expectation about England lifting the trophy. After all, the lyrics talk about how “thirty years of hurt” have never stopped us dreaming – and there are now another 25 years to add to that total.

What the Three Lions song really captures for me is what it means to be a nation. Win or lose, these are the moments that millions of us share together. They create memories and legends that become part of the story. Those mentioned in the lyrics – “Bobby belting the ball, when Lineker scored, and Nobby dancing” – can be joined by new memories, of great goals, saves and near misses; of the fear of the penalty shoot-out, or the catharsis of overcoming it. As Gareth Southgate has said, every game has the potential to create new memories and legends for supporters – the biggest games most of all.

The Three Lions anthem mattered to me a generation ago because of how Euro ’96 helped to change the English footballing culture. It fostered a softer, more inclusive kind of pride and patriotism, that was particularly noticed by black and Asian fans, and by those of all backgrounds going to watch games with their children. “Football is coming home – and it’s a home we all share” says Imam Qari Asim, chair of the Imams and Mosques advisory board. He is supporting the #EnglandTogether campaign in which a range of civic and faith voices are inviting everybody to celebrate how an inclusive England is coming together behind our team, tweeting #ItsComingHome and #EnglandTogether with images of support for the team.

Euro 2020 has strengthened that sense of inclusive pride, despite initial controversy over the team’s determination to continue taking the knee after some fans booed in the pre-tournament friendlies. Those arguments largely subsided once the football itself began. Most fans supported the decision to take the knee. For younger people and the majority of black and Asian supporters, the team’s stance has strengthened the sense that Gareth Southgate and his young, talented and diverse team are ambassadors of an England that belongs to us all. Almost all of the sizeable minority who would have preferred the players to choose a different anti-racist gesture, particularly older supporters, have moved on to get behind the national team.

So only the tiniest fringe of the Twitterati are involved in the performative unpopulism of pretending to support Croatia, Germany and Denmark against England. We should be wary of turning our national team into a culture war battleground. So it is a good day to hold out an olive branch to those engaged in their own gesture politics of boycotting the Three Lions. This should be a moment for everybody and it is not too late for them to join in and cheer on their home team tonight.

Because if Gareth Southgate’s proved anything, it’s the appeal of being an empathetic bridger. His pre-tournament essay spoke of his own strong sense of patriotism being about pride in tradition – playing for Queen and country, pageantry and national service. And he reflected too on how younger generations – like the players he mentors – may have a different balance of emphasis in how they voice their own national identity. A caricature can’t capture a team that sees no contradiction in proudly singing the national anthem, then choosing to take a knee before kick-off.

It matters that we have something that brings us together in England. In a democratic society, we have plenty of things we can disagree about – and we are a more anxious and fractured society than we would want. Finding things we have in common creates a shared sense of identity, promotes contact between people with different backgrounds and experiences and pushes back against prejudices. Inclusive patriotism is one of the strongest forces binding society together.

We can carry that spirit through to Sunday – but there is a football match to win tonight first. England must not underestimate Denmark. We should hope to see a game of mutual respect tonight, both on the pitch and in the stadium.

An impressive Italy will await the winners on Sunday. Personally, I have found myself much more invested in the idea of England getting to the final than winning the trophy. That would make this Sunday one of the biggest parties England has seen in 55 years – a party to which everybody is invited.

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Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.