Managing the England men’s football team is often referred to as the ‘impossible job’, not just because England hasn’t won a significant championship since 1966, but because the fans expect it to happen nonetheless: we cling to the notion that we’re the greatest footballing nation in the world (which tells you something about English egotism). If adding to the trophy cabinet proves beyond England this time too, Gareth Southgate has at least pulled off a PR coup. It’s an interesting time to be an English football fan, and especially to be a person of colour navigating the current wave of nationalism in football, wanting to unreservedly support a country that doesn’t always see you as one of its own.
On 8 June Southgate published an open letter on the website The Players’ Tribune in which he described the team as a ‘special’ group: ‘Humble, proud, and liberated in being their true selves’. He knows that if the fans are to be kept onside, they need to see themselves reflected in the players. The fans want players who care about the team’s success, who are just as invested as they are in national pride. At the same time, he wants an end to online abuse. ‘I have never believed that we should just stick to football,’ he wrote. ‘In fact, I feel like this generation of England players is closer to the supporters than they have been for decades. Despite the polarisation we see in society, these lads are on the same wavelength as you on many issues.’ He was asking that England’s black players be left alone.
On 27 June the Guardian, in association with the anti-racist organisation Hope Not Hate, published an extensive report detailing the online abuse targeted at England footballers during the tournament. Analysing Twitter messages ‘directed at and naming the England team during the three group stage matches identified more than two thousand abusive messages, including scores of racist posts’. Southgate received the highest number of hateful messages (clearly it’s an impossible job many people think they could do better), followed by Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling – last night’s goal scorers.
The round of sixteen began in Amsterdam with Wales against Denmark. The Danes won, impressively, 4-0. Footballers aren’t the easiest people to sympathise with, but when Gareth Bale was asked immediately after the game if this had been his last game for Wales, you had to feel for him. He walked out on the interview. On the same day in London, Italy v. Austria went to extra time: Italy scored twice to get through to the quarter-finals.
The following day Portugal played Belgium (my current faves) in Seville. It was an unruly and undisciplined game. Pepe complained theatrically of needless time-wasting. Thorgan Hazard scored for Belgium; his brother, Eden, left the match late in the game with an injury. Belgium managed to retain their lead, going through 1-0. In Budapest, the Netherlands played the Czech Republic in exactly the kind of game you hope to see when you’re not invested in the outcome. The Dutch captain, Matthijs de Ligt, was sent off for handball; the Netherlands’ various tricks to regain the initiative went unrewarded. 2-0 to the Czech Republic.
Monday’s two games were the most exciting of the tournament so far. In Copenhagen, an abundance of goals: Croatia 3, Spain 5. The striker Álvaro Morata is disliked by Spanish fans for missing easy chances but Luis Enrique, the team’s manager, said earlier in the week that ‘it will be Morata and ten others because he does so many things well for the team in attack and defence.’ His faith was rewarded as Morata scored Spain’s fourth goal. Bucharest hosted France v. Switzerland. Switzerland scored first; France equalised; Switzerland missed a penalty; France scored a second goal, putting them ahead; Switzerland missed a chance to equalise; Paul Pogba scored for France – his first since the World Cup final in 2018 and a strike from well outside the box, a true ‘worldie’. But Switzerland scored a second, and then an equaliser in the 89th minute. The game went to a penalty shootout. Kylian Mbappé, who hadn’t scored all tournament, missed his penalty too. Switzerland had knocked out the reigning world champions. Most matches fade into obscurity; this won’t be one of them. Les Bleus indeed.
A rainy Tuesday in London was the backdrop to England v. Germany. England may have had home advantage but Germany had already won the battle of the brands: in order to prevent them going to Nike, Adidas have provided the German team with a lavish temporary home at the Adidas campus in Herzogenaurach. After a steady first half for both teams, Raheem Sterling scored in the 75th minute. When Germany’s Thomas Müller broke through on goal in the 82nd minute I held my breath, but he pulled his shot wide. Minutes later, Harry Kane scored England’s second and decisive goal. The current England squad isn’t so burdened by the nation’s history with Germany on the pitch or off, but the win felt poignant nevertheless.
That’s Wales, Austria, Portugal, the Netherlands, Croatia, France, Sweden and Germany out. England are through to the quarter-finals, where Ukraine await.