England the country – not the football team – needs to take a look at itself | Barney Ronay
And so, back to black. The Wembley gates have been rushed. Anthems have been booed, stewards punched, murals defaced, racism paraded across social media. The lads are gacked up on Cake and Russel Dust outside Bella Pasta, flicking Vs in little Italy, abusing passers-by in the tube station.
A prime minister who has done more than any other person in Britain to enable division and stupidity, has sent a message condemning division and stupidity. A home secretary who employs cynical and divisive rhetoric is “disgusted” to find people have taken her seriously.
And football may not be home but England football certainly is – staring at the walls the morning after the night before and wondering, a little dimly, why there might be such satisfaction outside these borders at Italy’s victory. Maybe the real coming home was the friends we made along the way. Except, there don’t seem to have been many of those either.
There will be time to talk about penalty choices and the entries of profit and loss in Gareth Southgate’s tactical balance sheet. But first the other stuff. England 2021, a nation that feels, once again, all played out.
It was always a fundamentally misguided idea that Southgate’s fine young team might somehow “unite” a country that has profound structural and social divides. Football is just football. Winning matches is not a shortcut to education, decency and fit leadership elsewhere.
There is an obvious conclusion to be drawn from the wretched abuse of England’s black players. Clearly there is a group of people in this country that needs to be identified, censured and made, failing some divine conversion to the light, to shut the fuck up.
The idea social media companies can’t police this abuse is laughable. This is their property, their coding. Never mind algorithms. A teenage intern could have policed these players’ accounts on Sunday night with a smartphone and a delete button. All that is required is the genuine will to do it. This is step one.
Step two, a very long and detailed step, is to take a full and honest inventory of a country where racism and charmless yobbery are now normalised for so many people. This is on the one hand a football problem, because football is an industry with governance and a set of controls.
Run badly, staffed by people who don’t care enough, that industry will offer a muster point for bigots, a place to fester and harden in those views. But it is also a problem football can police rather than solve.
In the past England tournament exits have come with a root-and-branch review fitted as standard. This time it is the country itself that should be creeping out shamefacedly into the light wondering what, exactly, is wrong with it.
So. How about that football anyway? It is worth zooming out a bit at this point. England lost in a penalty shootout in the final of Euro 2020. They played well for 45 minutes at Wembley, then were pushed back as Italy showed they also know how to play this game.
Beyond that England went unbeaten through the tournament with two central midfielders who have never played a Uefa club game. They got past Croatia, the Czech Republic, Germany and Denmark, also known as four-time world champs, the World Cup finalists and two previous winners of this tournament (one as Czechoslovakia). It is only unearned English arrogance that suggests these are unworthy opponents for a nation that hasn’t actually ever won this competition.
At the end of which it really does seem that this is the impossible job, that there are some who believe Southgate has simply been lucky, or has done a bad job as England manager.
This conclusion requires a degree of cognitive dissonance. Under Southgate England have reached two semi-finals in two attempts. Pre-Southgate England had reached three semi-finals in 70 years. Pre-Southgate they lost to Iceland, and were so bad at Euro 2012 it was hard to watch without developing a migraine and feelings of nausea. The manager can’t claim all the credit for this improvement. But he is a big part of the solution.
This is not to suggest Southgate handled every aspect of Sunday perfectly. In terms of fine details and in-game management, he has yet to show he has the instincts and talent of the most successful club coaches, none of whom are, by the way, queueing up right now to manage England.
Southgate will be accused of letting the final drift, of failing to inject some other energy – essentially Jack Grealish or Jadon Sancho – as Italy began to dominate. There is another version of this timeline where Southgate heard the echoes of Croatia 2018, when England sat in and were overwhelmed, and decided instead to attack.
It was probably the right thing to do, now we know England will go on to lose. But there are two reasons why this is not a conclusive note of failure. First, this is not how Southgate’s cautious England have worked. There is a method here. It got them to that point. Live by the shield, die by the shield.
Secondly England still drew with the best team in Europe and would now be Euro 2020 winners had they taken better penalties. This is the other area of concern. There have been objections over the identity of England’s penalty takers. Why did Southgate select, or indeed allow, Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford to take penalties? Two of these had only just come on to the pitch. One is 19 years old and doesn’t take penalties for his club.
The obvious response is that England will have trained and planned for this. These are some of the team’s most skilful players. Rashford regularly takes penalties for Manchester United. Sancho has scored from the penalty spot for Borussia Dortmund in the Champions League. There is no lack of logic here. The players will have declared themselves ready. The objections only arrive out of the subsequent failure to score.
Saka is a more difficult case. He is inexperienced but game. He would of course say he was ready. And there is an opportunity to cast Southgate here as some kind of nightmare sports-dad, with Saka as his talented young mini-Gareth, a Southgate 96 by other means – new to the team, versatile, mature – and now being asked to rewrite Southgate’s own sporting failure, to score the hundreds he never scored, to make the county teams he never made.
This story is best resisted. Saka isn’t a child. He is a talented and resourceful professional footballer. Four other players also missed. He will survive this. The urge to protect him, the fear of abuse, can’t be allowed to drive what actually happens.
And here’s the real point. Southgate has been praised, rightly, for giving a stage to younger footballers, for trusting them, offering an open door and responsibility, with all the jeopardy and hope that brings. Saka on penalties is entirely consistent with this. It is a Deep Southgate move, true to the team, true to the manager, a call made with only the collective in mind. And while the details of a shootout can be managed, they are also capricious, and as close to meaningless as any small part of this sport can get.
England will keeping moving towards Qatar, in the bloom now of the most successful period in their tournament history. The players emerge with nothing but credit. The manager has mainly positives, with some flaws in the plan under the brightest of lights. As for the country, the comedown, those voices at the edges, well, that’s another matter altogether.