TOand so on, back to black. The gates of Wembley have rushed. Hymns have been booed, butlers beaten, murals defaced, racism has paraded on social media. The boys are trapped in Cake and Russel Dust on the outskirts of Bella Pasta, moving Vs in little Italy, abusing passersby at the subway station.
A prime minister who has done more than anyone else in Britain to allow division and stupidity has sent a message condemning division and stupidity. A home secretary using divisive and cynical rhetoric is “disgusted” to find that people have taken her seriously.
And football may not be home, but England football is: staring at the walls the morning after the night before and wondering, a little vaguely, why there could be so much satisfaction outside these borders with the victory of Italy. Perhaps the true return home was the friends we made along the way. Except there don’t seem to be many of those either.
There will be time to talk about the penalty options and profit and loss entries on Gareth Southgate’s tactical balance sheet. But first the other things. England 2021, a nation that feels, once again, that everything was played.
It was always a fundamentally wrong idea that Southgate’s excellent young team could somehow “unite” a country that has deep structural and social divisions. Soccer is just soccer. Winning games is not a shortcut to education, decency, and proper leadership elsewhere.
There is an obvious conclusion to be drawn from the miserable abuse of England’s black players. Clearly there is a group of people in this country who need to be identified, censored and done, in the absence of some divine conversion to the light, to shut up.
The idea that social media companies cannot control this abuse is ridiculous. This is your property, your encoding. It does not matter the algorithms. A teenage intern could have watched these players’ accounts Sunday night with a smartphone and a kill button. All that is required is the genuine will to do so. This is the first step.
The second step, a very long and detailed step, is to take a complete and honest inventory of a country where racism and nonchalant talk are now normalized 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.
Misdirected, with staff who don’t care enough, that industry will offer a rallying point for fans, a place to fester and harden on those opinions. But it is also a problem that soccer can control rather than solve.
In the past, England tournament outputs came with a root and branch patch installed as standard. This time it is the country itself that should be slipping into the light in shame, wondering what exactly is wrong with it.
Then. How about that football anyway? It’s worth straying a bit at this point. England lost on a penalty shootout in the Euro 2020 final. They played well for 45 minutes at Wembley, then were turned away when Italy proved they know how to play this game too.
Beyond that, England were undefeated in the tournament with two central midfielders who have never played a UEFA club match. They surpassed Croatia, Czech Republic, Germany and Denmark, also known as four-time world champions, World Cup finalists and two previous winners of this tournament. (one like Czechoslovakia). It is only the undeserved arrogance of the English that suggests that these are unworthy opponents for a nation that has never actually won this competition.
At the end of which it really seems like this is the impossible job, that there are some who believe that Southgate has just gotten lucky or done a poor job coaching England.
This conclusion requires some 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 lost to Iceland, and they were so bad at Euro 2012 that it was hard to watch them without developing a migraine and nausea. The manager cannot take full credit for this improvement. But he is a big part of the solution.
This is not to suggest that Southgate handled all aspects of Sunday perfectly. In terms of fine details and in-game management, he has yet to prove that he has the instincts and talents of the most successful club coaches, none of whom, by the way, are lining up at the moment to coach England.
Southgate will be accused of letting the final drift, of not injecting some other energy, essentially Jack Grealish or Jadon Sancho, when Italy began to dominate. There is another version of this timeline where Southgate heard echoes of Croatia 2018, when England sat down and was overwhelmed and decided to attack.
It was probably the right thing to do, we now know that England will continue to lose. But there are two reasons why this is not a conclusive failure note. In the first place, this is not how cautious Southgate England has functioned. Here is a method. It brought them to that point. Live for the shield, die for the shield.
Second, England still tied with the best team in Europe and would now be the winner of Euro 2020 if they had taken better penalties. This is the other area of concern. There have been objections about the identity of England’s penalty takers. Why did Southgate select, or indeed allow, Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford to shoot penalties? Two of them had just entered the field. One is 19 years old and does not charge penalties for his club.
The obvious answer is that England will have trained and planned for this. These are some of the most skilled players on the team. Rashford regularly shoots 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 arise from the subsequent lack of punctuation.
Saka is a more difficult case. He has no experience but is very brave. Of course, I’d say it was ready. And there’s a chance to cast Southgate here as something of a 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 he’s asked to. rewrite it. Southgate’s own sporting failure, to score the hundreds he never scored, to be on the county teams he never made.
It is better to resist this story. Saka is not a child. He is a talented and resourceful professional footballer. Four other players also failed. You will survive this. The urge to protect you, the fear of abuse, cannot be allowed to drive what really happens.
And here is the real point. Southgate has been rightly praised for giving younger footballers a stage, for trusting them, offering them an open door and responsibility, with all the danger and hope that that entails. Saka on penalties is fully consistent with this. It’s a Deep Southgate move, true to the team, true to the coach, a call made only with the team in mind. And while the details of a shootout can be handled, they are also whimsical and almost pointless as any small part of the sport can become.
England will continue to advance towards Qatar, now in full bloom of the most successful period in their tournament history. Players emerge with nothing but credit. The manager has mostly positives, with a few flaws in the plan under the brightest lights. As for the country, the downturn, those voices on the sidelines, well, that’s another matter.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism