Football is political, so are this England team, and that's why we love them

By Jake Verity
External Affairs Officer, Best for Britain

England’s win on Wednesday night against Denmark was a historical moment. Gareth Southgate’s team qualified for their first major final since 1966, and this Sunday’s game against Italy will be their first ever appearance in the final of a European Championships. This weekend gives England the opportunity to bring football home, and to stop it from going to Rome.

England fans have rightly responded with admiration and adulation for Gareth Southgate’s team. 

Granted, a big part of the celebration around this squad is down to their performances under the Wembley arch (and on one night in Rome). But make no mistake, this is a team who are mightily impressive both on and off the pitch. 

Four members of the current squad have been awarded an MBE or major honours: Raheem Sterling; Jordan Henderson, Marcus Rashford and captain, Harry Kane. As well as all being exceptionally talented footballers, it is their dedication to social justice, and improving the lives of others that has found them in the Queen's Honours list.

Marcus Rashford helped over 1 million children by ensuring they were given free school meal vouchers over the summer holidays. Raheem Sterling was given an MBE for his services to racial equality in sport. Jordan Henderson received his MBE for services to charity by establishing the Premier League Coronavirus Fund. Harry Kane got his MBE on the back of his Golden Boot at the World Cup in 2018, but he helped launch the #PlayersTogether initiative last year focused on raising money for the NHS, and is a vocal supporter of mental health work.

It is Political

British politics, and the Government, remains highly divisive, often stoking culture wars. 

Overlooking the exploits of the former Health Minister, few acts have been given more prominence this year than footballers ‘taking the knee’ as a stand against racial inequality and injustice. Opposition to this has been voiced by a small minority, but that has been quickly drowned out, with the majority of fans applauding their players for it. The Home Secretary publicly talked about how fans have a right to boo players for these “gesture politics”, although that was before England did so well, tweeting her support for the team just before the Denmark clash. The booing was also something which the Prime Minister also refused to condemn for a period of time before quickly u-turning, with him later being pictured in his own gesture on Downing Street, standing on a huge St. George’s Flag. And in perhaps the most unpatriotic move yet by a British politician, the  Member of Parliament for Ashfield said he would ‘boycott’ England games for the gesture of 'taking the knee’. A gesture of his own that he might soon regret.

Beyond taking the knee, there have been other poignant moments during the tournament that have brought politics to the forefront of Europe’s flagship tournament. UEFA denied the mayor of Munich’s request to light up the Allianz Arena in rainbow colours for LGBTQ+ rights; a move that didn’t stop German fans from turning up in rainbow colours of the Pride flag. It didn’t stop German Football Clubs lighting up stadiums across the country in the colour of the rainbow, and it wasn’t enough to stop a German fan from running onto the pitch proudly brandishing the LGBTQ+ flag.

It is impossible to “take the politics out of football” because ultimately it is one of the most universal, and widely followed, geopolitical dramas of our time. Football is an opportunity, even a tool, that politicians use to their advantage. The Prime Minister isn’t a football fan, but conveniently turned up at the semi-final of the tournament for the photo-op. You could forgive this for being a diplomatic visit, but he wasn’t interested in supporting our team until we progressed through the tournament and he saw the political benefit in doing so. You can see his ulterior motive for turning up at Wembley for the semi-final; as the saying goes, ‘success has many parents’.

When you consider Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal has 300 million followers on Instagram, and the G7 leaders have a combined Instagram following of around 28 million followers, you realise the global outreach that football has. Small political acts can go a long way. Whether it’s Harry Kane running out with a rainbow armband on, or Raheem Sterling scoring a crucial goal against Germany after taking the knee at the start of a game. Solidarity matters.

Unity beats Division

As we find ourselves moving away from the old divides and battles of Leave and Remain, it is somewhat ironic to think that the present uniting factor for the country is a cross-European tournament, with a squad built on immigration, who are taking a stand for tolerance. That same team is the first in 55 years to make a major final.

This only proves to show that Internationalism is very much alive and working in the interests of humanity. Rather than being introspective in our outlook, we are accepting of our fantastic football team for their political beliefs and their diversity. We are proud to play in a tournament as part of a wider collective, and to compete against the finest and best football players across Europe.

I was fortunate enough to be at Wembley for the game against Germany, and I was proud to see the performance England put in against a team who have historically always found a way to beat us. The atmosphere was incredible, welcoming and inspiring. This is part of the legacy Gareth Southgate has created with his tolerant and progressive team, but it’s also part of the reason why football is a force for good.

England and German fans were chanting together outside the stadium before the match, stood next to each other inside the stadium, and left the stadium as friends too. We learn so much from each other, and our German friends will have hopefully enjoyed their experience at Euro 2020 (before the full-time result at Wembley, anyway). Our fans, should we qualify for the tournament, will no doubt have a fantastic time visiting Germany when they host Euro 2024.

Arise Sir Southgate

An article in the Financial Times suggested this week that some Conservatives see Gareth Southgate as a “tool of deep woke”. The very definition of ‘woke’ is somebody “alert to injustice in society”. That doesn’t sound like a bad label to me.

Following the full-time whistle against Denmark, the ever-bold Gary Neville remarked how Southgate is “everything a leader should be” and it’s hard to disagree with him. Not least has this England team been exceptional to watch, but Southgate has united a country for a common cause, something that is increasingly rare. His political stock is arguably at an all-time high now, and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be. He speaks eloquently about why his England team is as principled as they are, he is strong in his convictions, but ultimately he is a good football manager and deserves the success he is getting. 

Much like his players who have given so much off the pitch, the country should repay him off the pitch too. There’s tube stations, supermarkets and streets renaming themselves after the England manager, and it’s more than deserved. Arise, Sir Gareth, for you are the best of Britain.

While he focuses on the final game of the tournament, we should remember his guiding principles for this team and the letter named “Dear England” that he penned to the nation.. He wants his players to be “humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves”, and he has brought a nation together around those values.

So while 50 million us will be nervously glued to our TV screens on Sunday with the hope of a historic victory for England, let’s take a moment to appreciate the politics that have got us here, to our first final in 55 years.  If this tournament has taught us anything it's that patriotism doesn’t have to be jingoistic or divisive. Quite the opposite. It should be inclusive, liberal and tolerant - a space welcome to all. As a country, let’s hold onto, cherish, and live by these values - and never look back. Because, whatever happens on Sunday, whether we win or lose, whether football comes home or not, if we live by the values of Southgate’s team, we’ll all be winners.

Jake Verity
External Affairs Officer, Best for Britain