“A single priest often does the work of a thousand soldiers”
– Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens
There are a couple of days until the start of Euro 2020 and the England team is preparing for their team suits. Raheem Sterling arrives without a word, almost distant, as if on a higher plane of consciousness. Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham argue over which one of them looks more like a science teacher. Mason Mount gets distracted by his partner Declan Rice and ends up tying his tie too short.
But what’s really interesting is seeing how everyone around Jordan Henderson behaves. Henderson is still injured and has little chance of playing in Game 1. It is not the captain. He is not the best player. And yet there is something strangely poignant about the way many of the younger players seem to gravitate towards him. Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish ask him to fix their ties, which Henderson likes as a proud father. There is a silent and reverential magnetism in him.
On the morning of England’s first major men’s championship final in 55 years, it can seem a bit strange to read an anthem to a player who can’t even play. Henderson has started all six of England’s Euro 2020 matches on the bench, played a total of 106 minutes, and aside from the fourth goal in the win over Ukraine, hasn’t really made a significant contribution. And, in another sense, it has been the key to everything. To understand the importance of Henderson is to understand the very point of this England team: a 26-man team with a single conscience, who have put ego, reputation, pride and hierarchy aside, and have emerged stronger as a result. .
Henderson had a conversation with Gareth Southgate a few weeks ago, just before the start of the tournament. He hadn’t played a minute for Liverpool since groin surgery in late February. The idea of throwing him into the chaos of an international tournament midfield without having played a competitive game for more than three months was absurd. Henderson knew it. Southgate knew it. His acting role would be tangential at best. And yet the thought of leaving it at home never crossed Southgate’s mind.
To understand why, it is necessary to study some of the behavior on the sidelines of this England team during the tournament. The way Henderson, standing on the sidelines, celebrated Harry Kane’s second goal against Germany with as much enthusiasm as any fan in the stadium. The way the team reacted when they realized it was Henderson who had scored England’s fourth goal in Rome, the first of his career in England. The whole bank explodes. Phil Foden, a club rival, jumps for joy. Marcus Rashford cries towards the touchline. This is no ordinary fourth objective.
Southgate is a great student of psychology and social sciences, and one of the books that has stuck with him is Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari’s best-selling anthropological study. One of the observations in the book is that successful societies cannot function solely through coercion. A system of rules and a government can only be enforced if those at the top believe in it. Therefore, the greatest challenge for complex societies is not maintaining order, but maintaining faith.
This is where the priests come in. Henderson is the second-oldest member of the team after Kyle Walker, the second-most international after Sterling. He is the only one who has won both the Premier League and the Champions League. And watching him sit humbly and uncomplainingly on the bench, behind two midfielders from West Ham and Leeds, offers the kind of immensely powerful motive that no other member of Southgate’s party, least of all Southgate himself, could provide.
Southgate was referring to the “tribal elders” on the Denmark team before the game, but he wasn’t just talking about seniority or experience or leadership for example. He spoke of relationships: the brief conversations and words deprived of encouragement, the acts of self-sacrifice and moral fiber that unconsciously sets the standards for the whole group. I was talking about the players who define the cultural and behavioral norms that the younger members of the group instinctively follow.
There is something moving and reassuring about the way this England team has steered clear of the club cliques and intergenerational tensions that defined many of its predecessors. Many of England’s rivals in this tournament (France, Portugal, Germany) have felt somewhat torn between the old and the new, struggling to bridge the gap between them. On the contrary, England and Italy have derived their success from the successful synthesis of antiquity and youth.
There is talk that Henderson could be deployed against Italy in the final to counter his powerful center. He remains, let’s not forget, a supreme passing midfielder: intelligent and measured in possession, wise in counterattack, a more effective attacking force than many remember. And yet, in a strange way, Henderson’s contribution has somehow transcended everything he does on the field. He has become England’s emeritus midfielder, their sensei and guru and ethical center, the missing link between the coach and the players, the players and us.
Perhaps the main reason this England team has captured the imagination of the country as a whole so much is not their exploits on the field, but the feeling that on some level these young people represent the best of us: honest, selfless, tireless, compassionate, moral. Ahead of this country’s biggest football game in half a century, there is perhaps no greater tribute to this England team than the idea that one of their biggest players doesn’t even play for them.
Wisdom, generosity, leadership with a silent example rather than a showy gesture, unity over division, the greater good over personal ambition, the pleasure of being a part of something greater than oneself – in many ways, the story of Henderson is the story we wish we could. talk about England.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism