It is hard to adequately capture the mood in England at present, as the nation contemplates the latter stages of the Euro 2020 football tournament. This is heady territory for football fans here. Despite the modern origins of the game being in England, and the country’s worldwide reputation, the national side has desperately underperformed at the highest level, with only one World Cup win in 1966 to its credit, and no European Championship titles at all. The standard tournament experience is, having easily qualified, a buildup of expectation that is inevitably dashed at some stage, often by Germany or by a penalty shootout — and, occasionally and despairingly, by both.
Such feelings of hope, and the reality of them crumbling, are best understood through the lyrics of the most popular song ever written about football here: The 1996 hit “Three Lions.” This song contains the memorable line, “Thirty years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming,” in a reference universally recognized as being to the failure to win anything after that lone World Cup in 1966, but also the perpetual longing that such a day would come again, underscored by the wry English sense of humor that doubts it ever will. One of the game’s most popular broadcasters and brightest former stars, Gary Lineker, coined the phrase: “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and, in the end, the Germans always win.”
And yet, something is truly stirring this time. Like all other nations, the UK has endured the pandemic outbreak, much loss of life and uncomfortable restrictions on freedom over the last 18 months. The national mood that our vaccination program has heralded a change for the better, and that the summer sunshine aids the fight against the virus, means that we can get outside again. And doing so as the England football team appears to be a serious challenger for a top honor has produced a national fervor unseen for what is now some 55 years of hurt.
It is hard to overemphasize the cultural importance of the game in England. The Premier League is one of the country’s most successful exports ever. Twenty million people watched England’s Euro 2020 games against Germany and Ukraine live — an 80 percent audience share. It dominates sporting coverage in the media, often to the irritation of lovers of other sports, in which the UK has often done much better, producing world and Olympic champions in athletics, motor racing, cycling and tennis, but all to little avail in terms of knocking football off its perch.
I sympathize but understand. I have watched the game through my local club with my father — the traditional route — since I was five years old. I played with the UK Parliament team at Wembley and Old Trafford, alongside Bobby Charlton at the latter, scoring a competitive goal at each, and hardly any memory of my parliamentary career comes close to the feeling of joy at having achieved something every amateur fan dreams of.
But this year there is more to the emotion than just the quality of play that has taken England to its semi-final destiny with Denmark on Wednesday night. The team itself has developed an articulacy of expression that has captured a nation still uneasily divided by its politics. Its young men defied a section of their audience who objected to them taking a knee in support of a campaign against racism. Black footballers, and their teammates, know how cruel, vicious and damaging social media campaigns by racists can be to all who suffer. That the national squad as a whole was prepared to confront those who publicly booed them before games, and have turned such a reaction into a positive one, showed character.
The team contains players who have shone through adversity in their backgrounds to champion social causes during the pandemic, such as Marcus Rashford, who successfully challenged the government to reverse its policy on free meals for the children of the poorest families.
And, in their manager Gareth Southgate, England has found a talisman of quiet decency and achievement to induce admiration at a time of national longing for such a figure. His own footballing redemption — having missed the vital penalty in the 1996 European Championship semi-final (against Germany, of course) but now steering his young charges to a similar opportunity — is a lesson in professionalism and resilience. But his pre-tournament letter to the nation, entitled “Dear England,” captured a sense of unity and humility, with quiet ambition, which outclassed and put to shame those whose loud protestations and flag-waving fail to understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism.
England go into this game hoping to advance to a first major final for 50 years, against a Denmark team that has overcome the horror of seeing young star player Christian Eriksen fight for his life on the pitch, putting all things into perspective.
Both teams, to my mind, have already won. Football — and a world emerging into a brighter future — owe them much.
* Alistair Burt