England manager hails a summer to be proud of

Use your head: Southgate backed players doing “their duty” off the pitch by speaking out.

Has sport become the source of our deepest values? An open letter by Gareth Southgate before tomorrow’s opening game in Euro 2020 won praise for its thoughtful version of patriotism.

The stadiums will be less than half full, but the roar of the crowd will be heard around the world. Tomorrow night, millions will tune in to watch Turkey take on Italy in Rome. Euro 2020 is here. It is a little late, but the beautiful game cannot be stopped.

On the eve of the championships, fans were also cheering a letter from England manager Gareth Southgate. In it, he laid out a vision of what the national team – and the nation itself – meant to him and the “lads” he was taking into the competition.

The reaction was enthusiastic. Some commentators even wondered why politicians’ visions of the nation were so thoroughly outclassed by a man who spent his life kicking a ball around.

But, as Southgate himself points out, football has deep ties to people’s sense of nationhood. In his letter, he told players that they would enter “the collective consciousness of our country”.

Over 26 million Britons watched England’s final match in the 2018 World Cup – more people than voted for Labour and the Conservatives combined in the 2019 election. And around the world, 3.5 billion people tuned in.

People come together around football. Clubs, cities and countries create an identity; cheering, singing and watching their side win or lose.

Millions in England mourned Southgate’s penalty miss in Euro 96. In 2018, they rejoiced as he redeemed himself, leading England to their best World Cup performance in years. Meanwhile, France celebrated their win that year as a victory for a modern, diverse nation.

Other societies have different stories of heroism. Diego Maradona was a villain to English fans, but in Argentina and Naples he was adored for his support for the underdog as much as his brilliance.

Southgate defended his players’ right to speak out on issues beyond football. He wrote that “we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that”.

Footballers “using the power of their voices”, as he puts it, have not been universally praised. England’s Marcus Rashford forced politicians to backtrack and provide free school meals during the lockdown. But the sport has been mired in rows about players taking the knee to protest racial injustice.

Southgate said he saw no conflict between such protests and national pride. “We are independent thinkers”, he wrote, also praising the “Englishness” of fans who protested against the European Super League.

Some historical politicians – Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela or Czech president Václav Havel – have been able to bring a nation together around a shared story. There is little sign of that in Europe today.

Southgate on the other hand thinks that his team can get the job done: “Despite the polarisation we see in society, these lads are on the same wavelength as you.”

Has sport become the source of our deepest values?

The sporting life

Yes, say some. In sport, we see both individual excellence and cooperation. These are values we all aspire to. Athletes’ achievements command our respect. Thanks to this, they can shape conversations and encourage change. When Naomi Osaka takes her stand on mental health or Marcus Rashford campaigns for school meals, they embody the voice of everyday people the same way the team embodies the nation.

Not so, say others. Just like politics, sport is in thrall to money, which often destroys the values we hold dearest. The Euro tournament itself is spread out across multiple nations in order to save governments money while taking more from fans. Then there is the failed Super League. Athletes are certainly no wiser than anyone else.

You Decide

  1. Would you rather be in government or be an athlete?
  2. Would banning all protests succeed in taking politics out of sport?

Activities

  1. In pairs, assemble an 11-person team of heroes from any walk of life, who you think represent the best values of society. Draw each member and write a sentence or two about what they have achieved and why you think they should be included.
  2. In groups of three, write a sketch in the style of a post-match analysis, where the three pundits discuss whether footballers who take the knee are patriotic or not.

Some People Say...

“The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”

Eric Hobsbawm (1917 – 2012), British Historian

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is widely agreed that international football has become hugely important to many nations’ identities. Teams are cheered on with a passion that means occasionally players have feared for their lives after making mistakes. In 1994 Colombian goalkeeper Andrés Escobar was killed by an angry fan after scoring an own goal which led to his team being knocked out of the world cup that year.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate concerns whether it is possible to keep politics out of sport. While some see protests such as players kneeling as an intrusion into their apolitical entertainment, others see the uncritical celebration of the nation, and the expectation that Black players stay quiet about racism as just another form of politics. Everything from the cost of tickets to the ownership of teams is seen as political by some people.

Word Watch

The beautiful game
The origins of the phrase are disputed, but it became synonymous with football thanks to the legendary Brazilian player Pelé.
Collective consciousness
By using this phrase, Southgate is signalling a debt, perhaps unconscious, to the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim, who used the phrase to describe the generally held beliefs and attitudes of a given society.
Penalty miss
In the semi-final against Germany, England lost in a penalty shootout in the tournament they hosted. Southgate was the first to miss his shot, costing the game.
Underdog
Maradona came from a poor background, and when he made the move from Argentina to Italian football, he played for Naples, a city in the south of Italy often looked down on by the richer north of Italy.
Taking the knee
The gesture was introduced in American football by Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid in 2016. It spread beyond the USA following the murder of George Floyd in 2020.
European Super League
A plan by 20 of the largest European teams to form a breakaway league to rival the current Champions’ League.
Václav Havel
The playwright and dissident became the leading voice of resistance against the communist dictatorship in Czechoslovakia. When the regime fell, he became president of the country.

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