I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Football unites. It unites people, it unites peoples, and it even unites divided countries. That’s exactly what’s happened with England over the last three and a half weeks.
The semi-final last night against Croatia was devastating – for the first time during this World Cup, this great young team just didn’t seem to be able to stand up to the pressure; or maybe Croatia was just that tiny bit better. Anyway, nobody here in England blames them or holds a grudge against them; they gave their best in this tournament, which was much more than anybody had expected. Throughout the competition, they gave a wonderful display of unity and comradeship, something we hadn’t seen from an English National Team in a while.
Gareth Southgate, who had taken over the English National Team two years ago, has done an incredible job – he transformed a mediocre and somewhat listless bunch into an eager young squad hungry for victories and willing to give everything. And that was exactly what England needed right now: something to celebrate, something to believe in. For England has always been a great football nation; the rules of modern football were devised in England, and they won the World Cup in 1966 – a triumph of which people still keep talking and dreaming, because ever since, there hasn’t been any such success. Last night, though, Southgate’s team came SO close – if they’d beaten Croatia, they’d have played in a World Cup final for the first time since Wembley 1966, 52 years ago.
So, today’s newspapers all over the country sing the praises of our defeated heroes – we love them, we adore them, and we’re looking forward to seeing more of them as they’ll mature and get even better. England has got new idols – ALL of England, not only the football fans. Southgate and his boys are everybody’s darlings, they’ve united the country that has been divided for two years now, ever since the Brexit referendum.
The UK is on his way out of the European Union after the narrow victory of the Brexiteers; half the country wants to stay in Europe, the other half wants to leave it. Even the English flag had become a symbol for English nationalism, for Brexit fans, for anti-Europeans. But now? During the past three weeks, lots and lots of English flags have made their appearance on England’s streets, in shops, in pubs, everywhere – and certainly not as a political symbol, but as a tribute to our National Team; and to just feeling English, not better than others, just different.
I’ve honestly seen things here in London lately that I’d never expected to see – even in our Irish pub, right next to all the Irish flags, there’s a huge St George’s flag on the wall now! The English and the Irish have been bitter enemies for centuries; but the spirit of this great new English team has managed to reconcile even them, and to make even the London Irish feel a bit English.
And, of course, the new team is a wonderful example of a multi-cultural and multi-racial family: almost half of the 23 lads who really seemed like brothers all throughout the competition are black; racism doesn’t stand a chance against such unity. We’ve got to know and love them all; they’re all English, and we’re all English. (And this from someone who was born in Germany, has lived in Greece for 20 years, and only just started living part-time in London two years ago!)
It was a heart-breaking night yesterday for everybody, the manager, the boys, the fans; but there were also very touching moments that made us love them even more – how Gareth comforted them one by one, like a father, how the fans in Moscow gave them standing ovations; even the TV presenters were moved to tears.
Yes, those are the new heroes of England – the heroes of a peaceful game that unites, that brings joy to the world, that brings people together; football, the Beautiful Game.