LONDON – Daniele Orsato caught the attention of Harry Kane, the England captain, and pointed to the grass. He might have caught Kane a bit off guard – the forward was still going through a few final stretches – but he nodded in agreement. Orsato, the Italian referee, put his whistle to his lips, and gave birth to a six-second crop war.
It’s not particularly uncommon for England to find themselves putting the finishing touches to their preparations for a major tournament amid angst and acrimony. There is always something with England: an injured key player, a flavor of the month outside the squad, a worry about whether the squad is being treated with too much or not enough discipline.
The last few weeks have not been particularly fertile for this kind of traditional fretting. A fabricated row over whether coach Gareth Southgate erred in choosing to name four specialist right-backs – plenty of right-backs, by anyone’s standards – on his original roster offered the hope for a good old-fashioned controversy. He spat when one of them, Trent Alexander-Arnold, sustained an injury that excluded him from the tournament. Basically, no one thinks that having three right-backs is too much.
His decision to include Jordan Henderson and Harry Maguire, both suffering from injuries and neither likely to be fully fit for the group stage, might have been an acceptable alternative, but even that failed. Southgate had the luxury of naming 26 players to their squad, not 23; Henderson and Maguire, two of his most experienced activists in the two areas of the pitch where his options were slimmer, were clearly worth the risk.
All of this should have meant that England was welcome territory for Southgate and bewildering for fans and the media: approaching a tournament without waking up with a cold sweats in the night, without a grudge filling the airwaves or dismay populating the pages of news. .
Instead, Southgate and his players found themselves at the forefront in something much more serious. Like the vast majority of their peers in the Premier League, English players have been kneeling before matches for a year, a gesture adopted by sports activists in the United States and instituted – at the proposal of the players – in the wake . of the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a police officer last year.
When England entered the pitch for their last two tune-up matches ahead of this tournament – both took place at Middlesbrough – they did the same. This time, however, the players were taunted as they did: by a sufficiently large part of their own fans so that it is clear and clear to the public watching them.
For a week, the gesture and its welcome seemed to put the English players, and the staff members, against the core of their own support. Taking the knee, they told players, was divisive, it was political, it was a meaningless trinket that distracted attention from the live action, although none of their critics had anything to do with it. never took the time to suggest what real action might look like.
Several conservative lawmakers have denounced players’ support for what they say is a Marxist movement bent on eradicating the nuclear family and attacking Israel. One, Lee Anderson, has revealed that he will no longer watch his “beloved England”. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, did not initially condemn those who opposed an anti-racist act, although he later called on fans to support the team, “not boo”.
England was also shocked last week by the decision of a small group of students from a single Oxford college to remove a portrait of the queen from their common room. This is how a war of cultures is played out, in a series of what appear, in isolation, as entirely absurd skirmishes. Does anyone take offense at some students who don’t want to have a picture of the queen on their wall? Does anyone really think Jordan Pickford is a Marxist?
Even under this pressure, the players held on. Southgate offered not only support, but coverage as well: he had consulted his players, he knew their views and he would present them, drawing any fire that could come their way. The Football Association, the governing body of football in England, issued a surprisingly blunt statement describing that the players would kneel down, that they did not see this as a political move and that no hostility would change that.
So that was the test: by the time Orsato whistled but before England’s Euro 2020 opener, against Croatia, actually started, those who oppose what the players take the knee, those who believe that athletes representing their country should do as asked, faced what has now become an act of defiance.
It all happened in the blink of an eye. The taunts began the first offensive. Just as the music cut off, there was an identifiable chorus of disapproval. But the taunts were quickly repelled. A much larger proportion of the crowd began to applaud, to applaud, to suffocate the opponents. In six seconds, it was all over. Orsato stood up, followed by Kane and the rest of the England team. The game has started. Everyone applauded.
This is the myth, of course. Southgate had said, while he was chewing the deal last week, that he knew his team could count on the support of the supporters during the match. It’s true: the people who hooted wanted England to win. They celebrated when Raheem Sterling, as an advocate for the reflected causes taking the knee like anyone in football, scored the only goal of the game under bright, hot sun.
There is only a small leap from there to the belief that, if it was the first win of seven in the next month, should England finish this summer as champions? Europe for the first time in its history, then a sort of social victory will also have been secured.
This is what they said of the Black, White, Beur team which led France to the World Cup in 1998; this is what they said of the German teams of 2008 and 2010 and of those made up not of Jürgens and Dietmars and Klauses but of Mesuts and Samis and Serdars. These are the teams that could usher in a new post-racial future. Football liked to think that it offered a better vision of what a country could be.
It’s a pipe dream, of course. Everyone applauded at the end here too, once England knocked out a tame Croatian side, the kind of victory that is notable not for its spectacle but for its cold and calm efficiency. England barely got out of second gear because they didn’t need it, a lot; better to save power for the more difficult tests that lie ahead.
But that doesn’t mean that something has changed. It’s always possible that when Scotland comes to town next weekend, players will be taunted by another small part of the crowd.
It will once again be a minority, as it was here, and there is hope in that, a poignant metaphor for the dangers of assuming the loudest ones must automatically speak for some sort of broad constituency. . But they will always be there, the great anti-Marxist vanguard, inflexible, immutable and reluctant.
No victory on a football field will change that. The sight of Sterling lifting a trophy on July 11 at this same stadium wouldn’t change anyone’s worldview. Football is the stage we have these conversations on – in Europe, like Henry Mance written in the Financial Times last week, it’s often the only place where many of us really interact with our nation as a concept – but it’s a flawed place.
We want a team that reflects the country, we say, but we don’t mean it: we want a team that reflects us, and our perception of what that country is. England can win, or they can lose, over the next month, but that won’t make a difference in the larger context. It is too much to ask of a single sports team to reflect what a country means to 55 million people. It’s far too much to expect him to heal all of his divisions with just one victory no matter how acclaimed he is.