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How football united a nation

12 July 2018

4:57 PM

12 July 2018

4:57 PM

England did not expect. That was the key to this summer’s World Cup. Last night’s defeat by Croatia was a gut-wrenching disappointment. Yet four weeks ago, any England fan told that the World Cup run would end in extra-time in the semi-finals would have jumped at the prospect.

On and off the pitch, it has been a summer that has changed how we think about England. Is football just sport? Yes. But sport can do things that nothing else can. Nations are imagined communities of millions where we share something with people we do not know. There are few other things than sport that thirty million of us can share that captures such an idea so powerfully.

England embraced Gareth Southgate as a national leader because he told us things about ourselves that we needed to hear in 2018. Southgate’s great strength is that he understands identity. Having been appointed to manage England’s first team, Southgate spoke about why football is more than a game. He would, he acknowledged, be judged primarily on football results. But he was comfortable to volunteer that his team could do something more important than that: help to define the sense of identity that modern England has been missing.

Gareth Southgate’s England this summer has shown us that we do have more in common than that which divides us. The England team have been a shared symbol for a national tribe of tens of millions of people. Those who cheered on the team were Tory and Labour, Leave and Remain; they came from across the country and were from all ethnicities, faiths, generations and social classes.

As England progressed through the tournament, an anthem was found to draw people together: Three Lions returned to the top of the charts because it captures so brilliantly what it means to be an England supporter, and what it is that makes a nation. England fans who watched the games were drawn together by shared experiences of happiness and, in the end, despair. It was not to be in 2018. But our time will come again. We do not need to wait four years, or even two. Let us put out at least as many flags when the Lionesses play next summer, as well as when the men’s team might get to compete for the European Championship at Wembley in 2020. 

Gareth Southgate’s England is a work in progress. And we can all dream of what the current talented crop of our footballers might achieve in the future. But while we liked the picture of England that we saw this summer, it is a vision which cannot be left to Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane to realise on their own. Football – and our England team – are now coming home, albeit without the trophy, and so we should welcome them with a bus-top parade. Perhaps in one of the great cities of Yorkshire, the county from which so many of these players hail.

From next week, we need to take that inclusive idea, of the England we would like to build, beyond the stadium. Football has helped to define the positive vision. We will need to go beyond sport if we are indeed to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. 

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