I was too young and probably too busy toddling to have read it but it was a life defining opinion. A leading broadsheet was in no mood to mince its words, “football was a slum sport….watched by slum people”. The malignancy of this analysis may well have resonated elsewhere in the way football and its supporters were treated in “slum stadiums” with negligent oversight. A dark time.
And yet. The sunlight of the future is often the best antidote to the darkness of the past. As everyone from royalty to the noisy bloke in the pub queues up to have their say, football once again has lit up the country even for those who never thought it could.
Ultimately, England were knocked out on Wednesday night for the usual reason: they just weren’t good enough. But that is to miss so much of the story. There is at least the possibility that Gareth Southgate achieved a richer victory than a glittering gold trophy.
I wrote at the start of this competition that football, for all its ills, has an almost unparalleled capacity to show nations in a better light than the more traditional forms of embassy. I don’t think I’ll change my mind now. Especially when the evidence has been bolstered by what you can see with your own eyes.
England is a country riven by schisms in almost every part of its national discourse. How to deal with the haves and have nots, how to deal with settled nationals and the immigrant, how to deal with its changing place in the world. And those are just themes that related to the football a few months ago. And yet. Even in defeat, it was a prime symbol of English nationalism that offered its own rebuke to problems that this contentious worldview is supposed to be tied to.
Maybe you’ve tired of the happy clap that surround a team that repeatedly lost to sides of genuine quality. You say it was “only” Tunisia, Panama, Columbia and Sweden that were beaten. Maybe it grates that a waistcoat is now a measure of an England manager. But consider this before you attempt to address the heat of the summer passion with the coolness of your scepticism. An England team reached the semi-final of a World Cup for the first time in 28 years.
They also did it at a tournament where shared excitement was more important than fractiousness and malevolence when we spoke about foreign countries. We had no concerns about immigration because a football shirt was a ready bond between the first generation immigrants and settled nationals. There were England players who have lived both the life of the 1% and one close to that of the homeless people who littered the streets of our cities throughout the tournament. There is something in that which is more nourishing than the unease about our ball retention.
We have better educated, better experienced and possibly better dressed women and men to deal with the problems within our country than Gareth Southgate, his waistcoat and the England squad. However, I find it hard not to be as impressed, as many others were, that these men were prepared to shoulder the burden of delivering some sliver of happiness. Politicians, on both sides of the divide, queued up to laud praise on England’s efforts because they knew that.
It’s not for footballers to solve all our problems. They cannot. It’s not for the English national team to always deliver our dreams. They have not. Poverty, discord and misery stalk this land like a vulture no matter who wins what. Sometimes though, it’s the glimpse of what might be that spurs a nation on to better things.
Football may not have come home in the form of gold but something was swept over from the Russian summer. As the World Cup competition prepares to expand to 48 teams, other nations will look to have a taste of it. It’s called hope. It can’t feed you, it can’t pay you, but it’ll make you feel good. And as England found out this summer, perhaps that could be for more than a little while.
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