How England won our hearts

Until Euro 2020, England men’s football team had won every final they’d been in since 1966: The team’s famous World Cup win against West Germany remained the only time the three lions reached a major tournament final. Until now. This year, the pressure of a nation rested on the second youngest team in the championship. In Euro 2016, England’s youngest player, Jude Bellingham, was twelve years old.

According to popular belief, sport brings people together. 2021 might have just proven this. Gareth Southgate’s side is, quite possibly, the most watchable England team since Bobby Charlton won the hearts and souls of a nation many years prior. After attacking with confidence and defending with pride, England only conceded twice in the tournament.

The think tank, British Future, launched an #EnglandTogether campaign, supported by individuals and organisations from a variety of different faiths. Jasvir Singh of the nonprofit organization, City Sikhs, urged fans, “whether you’re wearing a turban, a kippah, a hijab or a baseball cap…to come together as one nation united by the Three Lions.” According to a poll, two-thirds of white and ethnic minority citizens in England agree that the England football team is a symbol of England which “belongs to people of every race and ethnic background in England today”.

The joy of watching England play this year has been to do with who and how, rather than what and why. In a recent interview on Channel 4, the football writer, Damien Lewis, called them “the most relatable England team in my lifetime”, a far cry from the all white squad which took to the field in 66’. After a dramatic semi-final win against Denmark, the Museum of Migration created a poster which showed what the England team would look like without the players who had a parent or grandparent born abroad. Missing were stars including Harry Kane, Buyako Saka and Raheem Sterling.

In the wake of the players taking a knee in recognition of the BLM movement, a minority resent what they see as the politicization of the beautiful game. Politics aside, it is impossible to imagine England without players like Sterling, England’s prolific talisman who moved to the UK from Jamaica after the death of his father.

Resilience is something this squad has had to learn the hard way. Tyrone Mings grew up in a homeless shelter before joining Southampton’s academy. In 2009, he was rejected by Saints for being “too small” before playing non-league football for Chippenham Town. After moving to Ipswich, he spent Christmas Day feeding homeless people. His inclusion in the England squad for Euro 2020 once again proved the doubters wrong.

Mings epitomises the perseverance of his teammates. Off the pitch, Marcus Rashford’s campaign against child poverty convinced the government to restore free lunches for thousands of poor children after mounting pressure. After receiving the Integrity and Impact award at the BT Sport Industry Awards, Raheem Sterling followed in Rashford’s footsteps by launching a foundation to help children from poorer areas. Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson have helped to raise £4 million for the NHS through the Players Together fund. England’s stars have promised to donate a large amount of their runners-up prize money to the heroes of the pandemic.

Like all great teams, this year’s success stems from the entire organization, including players, coaches and those driving the FA’s operations in other ways. Southgate reminded us of this when he told the press after Sunday’s final defeat “as the leader you get all the praise, but the work in the background is phenomenal in all departments. We don’t have the team we have without them.”

The success of England’s national team has had a profound impact on a nation still recovering from the devastation caused by Covid as well as the political divisions created through Brexit. The England team of 2021 has helped redefine what it means to be English,

setting the standard for generations to come. The terms footballer and role model rarely coalesce. For England, they do.

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Sam Gordon Webb

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January 2022
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