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Tuesday, 23 April 2024
England’s heartbreakingly historic defeat
Ian Black
England’s soccer defeat in Euro 2020 against Italy on July 11 was an historic event – after hopes had soared for the first win in an international football contest of that importance since the World Cup triumph over Germany in 1966 – more than half a century ago. It was one of the UK’s biggest ever sporting occasions – described as “a date with destiny” in wall-to-wall media coverage. In the end, however, Italy beat England 3-2 on penalties after a 1-1 draw.

Above all, it was a piece of devastatingly disappointing news after over a year of Covid social distancing, deaths and suffering. The 60,000 fans who attended both the final and semi-final against Denmark at London’s Wembley Stadium were pandemic numbers – a super-spreader event! And over 33 million people – well over half the population of the UK – watched this memorable match on TV – a record audience.

And of course the competition itself – formally called the UEFA Football Championship – was originally scheduled for last summer but was postponed because of coronavirus.

No surprise then, that the day after the thrilling 2-1 win against Denmark, the highest rate of Covid infections was reported since February, as the British government decided to use the summer weather and the success of the vaccine rollout (which has seen 63% of UK adults get two jabs) tFo ease social distancing and travel restrictions and return the battered economy to something approaching normal.

Beyond the actual defeat, there were several non-pandemic elements to the unprecedented mass interest in the Euros even for people who would not normally consider themselves to be football fans!

Every one of England’s games began with the players “taking the knee” in order to express solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement in both the US and the UK, which saw the toppling of the statue of Edward Colston, a slave-trader and philanthropist, in Bristol last summer.

And the star quality of black and other ethnic minority players – mainly the amazingly agile Raheem Sterling, who is of Jamaican origin, was a vivid reminder of the practical significance of racial equality and anti-discrimination activism.

Another high-profile black player is Manchester United striker, Marcus Rashford, who has urged Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson to do more to tackle child poverty. Harry Kane, the captain, wore a rainbow armband to celebrate Pride month during England’s victory over Germany.

England’s manager, Gareth Southgate, has won heaps of praise for encouraging his team to act as what he termed “role models.” Being defeated by Italy was the culmination of a task that in many ways was set out for him from the moment he stepped off the Wembley pitch after missing a penalty against Germany in 1996. The fact that the game ended in a penalty shoot-out had a sadly ironic quality. Despite the shattering loss, Southgate’s commitment won high praise.

“It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate,” he wrote. “It’s clear to me we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”

Football, of course, is not automatically associated with progressive views, rather with patriotism and nationalism and even jingoism. The England team has always worn three lions on their shirts  - the logo of the Football Association -  which dates back to the 12th century, when a standard with three gold lions on a red field was carried into battle to inspire troops and is taken as symbolizing the bravery of Richard the Lionheart.

Criticism of Johnson’s conservative government, especially of Home Secretary Priti Patel (who is of Indian origin), has focused on her hostility to immigrants and refusal to condemn fans who booed England for “taking the knee” before games to protest against racial injustice. Instead, she derided the players for engaging in “gesture politics”. In total, as one sports columnist pointed out, 13 of England’s 26-man squad could have chosen to represent another nation.

Since June 2016, Brexit has been a factor too. That landmark referendum decision to leave the EU after 47 years of UK membership has been a uniquely divisive issue in British politics since then. The pro-Brexit Daily Telegraph newspaper reported last week that France and Germany had sought back then to expel England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales from the UEFA Football Championship back then – but obviously that didn’t succeed!

Italian fans were urging their own national team, with its own staggering record of 33 unbeaten games, to secure yet another victory in order to avoid Euro 2020 being won by a country that had chosen to leave the European project.

In a rapidly changing and uncertain world, England's long and painful wait for a second major soccer tournament final is now over. It is a heartbreaking shame, of course, that Southgate’s team failed in a much-sought-after opportunity to change their country’s football history. But 11 July 2021 will still be a date to remember.