There are many ways to tell the story of an international soccer tournament. Twenty-four ways in the case of Euro 2020, as it insists on being called, despite the fact that the pandemic pushed the tournament into 2021. Twenty-four teams, each with its own heartbreaks and triumphs, its own jagged line of peaks and valleys — twenty-four narratives that, as the defeated nations fall away, eventually flow into a single overarching narrative that culminates in a winner.
We will reach this tale’s end on Sunday, when Italy plays England in the final at London’s Wembley Stadium. But even before the victor’s name is etched forever into a silver trophy, relegating all those competing narratives to the margins of history, it’s clear that the story of one country, through tabloid hysteria and political intrigue and monomaniacal levels of self-involvement, has dominated this summer of soccer. That is the story of England.
If Italy wins on Sunday, the world of soccer will have a perfectly good story about a proud footballing nation, fallen on hard times, that has been rejuvenated by a group of young, inventive players told to “have fun” by their effortlessly stylish coach Roberto Mancini. If Denmark had progressed beyond the semifinals, the story would have been even better: the country’s first game featured their star, Christian Eriksen, collapsing on the field from a heart attack, inspiring his teammates to mount an improbable run deep into the tournament’s latter stages.
So far, so sporty. But if England wins … well, I’m not sure I can bring myself to even speculate about what might happen. That is not only because England appears to be building toward some kind of volcanic catharsis, more than a half-century in the making, whose shape is both impossible to predict and a little frightening to imagine. It’s also because the English themselves seem utterly confused about what a victory for this particular team would mean.
The national team has long borne the weight of England’s collective fears and anxieties. That the team has not won a major international tournament since the World Cup in 1966 — a hallowed historical moment — has been taken as a metaphor for a once-mighty empire’s sad decline on the global stage. Unfortunately, this decline has not been greeted with a stiff upper lip. To the contrary, the English team’s perennial flameouts from the Euros and the World Cup have often been the occasion for nationwide paroxysms of baffled rage and unseemly finger-pointing.
The tortured psychology surrounding England’s national identity forms the backdrop for pretty much every tournament. The 2020 tournament, however, is different in two important respects: One, the English team is actually very good, an improvement on the squad that went to the semifinals in the 2018 World Cup; and two, it is the first tournament since the finalization of Brexit, which has seemingly reoriented every issue of importance along its tribal lines.
In friendlies leading up to the Euros, English fans booed their own racially diverse squad for taking the knee before games, a la Colin Kaepernick, to protest racism in European soccer (which is more pervasive than in American sports leagues). What should have been an anodyne statement by the team was hurled into the churning vortex of England’s culture wars, with commentators accusing the players of being BLM-aligned “Marxists” who would be better off sticking to sports.
The government naturally got involved. Home Secretary Priti Patel, whose anti-immigration policies are aimed at discouraging the kind of diversity displayed by England’s team, said that taking the knee smacked of “gesture politics” and refused to condemn the offending fans. Prime Minister Boris Johnson also refused to criticize them, while saying through a spokesperson that, when it comes to fighting racism, he “is more focused on action rather than gestures.” Conservative MP Lee Anderson went so far as to proclaim that he would, in self-sacrificing protest, no longer watch his “beloved England” play.
It was left to England’s manager Gareth Southgate to stand up for his players and practically beg the fans not to boo the team when the tournament started. In the absence of meaningful political opposition, Southgate has emerged as the country’s most prominent foil to Boris and his merry band of Brexiteers. His open letter to his compatriots prior to the tournament, “Dear England,” is a bland paean to English virtue that nevertheless struck a chord for defending his players’ right to fight against racial injustice. “I have never believed that we should just stick to football,” he wrote.
The essay was hailed by Labour — party leader Keir Starmer tweeted the piece with the message “This is England” — while putting Southgate in the Conservative Party’s crosshairs. “Some seem to believe that Southgate is becoming a tool of deep Woke,” wrote Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, “with one Tory strategist telling me that the England manager’s patriotism essay was ‘suspiciously well-written.’”
Meanwhile, as the team progressed through the tournament in surprisingly competent fashion, the country has been gripped by the mind-blowing possibility that England might really win this thing. This mania, this undying belief that a postwar legacy of thwarted ambition and diminished stature will be purged in the ecstasy of a footballing triumph, has been captured in the now ubiquitous phrase, “It’s coming home.” It stems from the song “Three Lions,” released in 1996 when England hosted the Euros; its chorus, “Football’s coming home,” is a reference to England’s status as the birthplace of modern soccer. The idea is that, if England wins, soccer and all its attendant glories will have returned, at long last, to their proper place.
That Euro ‘96 and its trappings have become a source of dewy-eyed nostalgia is somewhat undercut by the fact that England bowed out of that tournament in typically English fashion: felled by the Germans, in a penalty shootout. In fact, the player who dashed England’s hopes that year by missing his kick was none other than 25-year-old Gareth Southgate, and one of the myriad subplots of Euro ‘20 is the heartwarming story of the 50-year-old Southgate’s redemption. It is further testament, if any is needed, of the ways in which an individual’s personal demons can become conflated with his country’s own in the operatic psychodrama that is English soccer.
Even though the good times have been rolling, there has been plenty of division, particularly when it comes to Southgate’s team selection. The fan favorite is undoubtedly Jack Grealish, a b-list version of David Beckham with floppy hair, a goofy grin, and thighs the size of Iberico hams. Yet Grealish normally starts on the bench, and the ruddy fans in the stands at Wembley all but command Southgate to sub him in. It is not clear why, given that the team is bristling with talent equal or greater to Grealish. Rory Smith, writing in the New York Times, has suggested that familiar forces may be at work, citing a viral video of four white men in their twenties singing a “sea shanty.” (This poor American cannot explain it, you’ll have to watch the video yourself.) “It is not an attempt to pass judgment on their look — musclebound, tattooed, some clothes too baggy, some clothes too tight, unnecessary glasses — to suggest that they were decked out in what is an instantly familiar uniform to anyone who has been out beyond 9 p.m. in a provincial British city in the last five years,” Smith writes. “It is not an attempt to pass judgment on Grealish to say that he looks like he might be friends with them.” As it happens, the team’s actual best player in this tournament, Raheem Sterling, was born in Jamaica.
But all divisions, at both the national and sporting levels, have temporarily been smoothed over in the glow of success. After England’s semifinal victory over Denmark this week, which earned England its first finals appearance at a major tournament since the legendary World Cup of ‘66, Patel tweeted an image of herself celebrating with the message — what else? — “Football’s coming home.” Johnson has taken to wearing an England jersey with “Boris” emblazoned on the back. Daniel Moylan, a former aide to Johnson who sits in the House of Lords, took the patriotic campaign a step further following England’s defeat of Germany last week, tweeting, “Poor Germans. This wasn’t the Brexit narrative fed them by their press, was it?”
The gall of Conservative politicians appropriating the very team they had criticized for their wokeness was not lost on England’s liberal journalists. “The wider irony is that the England team of 2021 is one that simply would not exist if Patel had been in charge of the Home Office a generation ago,” Jonathan Liew wrote in The New Statesman.
It also points to the inevitable bedlam that will follow an England victory on Sunday. In the 1997 movie Fever Pitch, starring Colin Firth as an Arsenal-obsessed fan, Firth’s girlfriend claims that soccer is “only a game.” “Don’t say that!” Firth bellows. “Please. That is the worst, most stupid thing anyone could say. Cause it quite clearly isn’t ‘only a game.’” He’s right; it’s a story, too. What story will England tell? Will it be about a triumph of multiracialism and tolerance over bigotry and small-mindedness? Or a more chauvinistic notion of England made great again? The likely answer, unsatisfactory for all sides in England’s endless season of soul-searching, is that it will be both.