(Bloomberg Opinion) — England has progressed to its first major soccer tournament final in 55 years. Having shrugged off a history of underperformance in a game the British invented, the clouds of doubt and despondency that ordinarily follow the national team have lifted. The country — apart from the grouchiest of Scottish nationalists — has been united in support.
The great English writer George Orwell defined patriotism as, “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people.” He said this was not to be confused with nationalism, which “is inseparable from the desire for power.” Football, however, has tended to combine the two attitudes.
In the past, many England supporters saw performance in soccer as tied to national glory. Whenever the team was in the doldrums, they yo-yoed between aggression and depression. Today the fans are keeping things in proportion even when success has returned. Footie fervor has been good natured and fun this time round. This is a distinct patriotism the country has been missing.
I write as a soccer fan who saw his first England game at London’s Wembley Stadium before the age of ten. But even the non-footballing folk have smiled at the wave of hysteria sweeping homes, offices and pubs.
Although the dregs of the old hooligan element may have chanted anti-German war songs in the bars, the vast majority of crowds have been well behaved. Even the television commentators and tabloid newspapers have kept their chauvinism muzzled; there haven’t been quips about “two World Wars and one World Cup” leveled at German teams.
The English, it seems, are growing up at last.
Even Britain’s class system seems to have been suspended. Typically during big football moments, snobs come out to sneer that soccer is a game for gentlemen played by hooligans, while rugby football, played in elite private schools, is the reverse. The snobs are silent now.
Before the tournament, Gareth Southgate, the serious England manager, published an essay on patriotism, entitled “Dear England,” about the national identity. He mentioned his grandfather being a World War II veteran and paid more than the ritual homage to the Queen. But he avoided nationalistic bombast: “On this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions — as we should — but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”
Southgate has been adamant in supporting his players to “take the knee” and kneel at the beginning of games — to peacefully protest against injustice — despite booing from a small minority in the stands and the disapproval of more than a few Conservative politicians, including Home Secretary Priti Patel. One Tory MP, Lee Anderson, has been boycotting matches because of the gesture (although he admitted to checking the scores on his phone).
Prime Minister Boris Johnson hopes that the national uplift from football, coinciding with the dismantling of pandemic restrictions, will boost his government’s popularity and plans to shower honors on the team. Opposition Labour party supporters, however, are determined that the prime minister will not share in the fruits of victory.
Southgate’s emotional maturity and unselfishness stands in sharp contrast to rackety Johnson. A former England player turned multi-millionaire businessman, Gary Neville, used the manager’s achievements as a stick to beat Johnson on prime-time TV. The left-winger, who is also a critic of Labour leader Keir Starmer, told 26 million viewers at the end of England’s July 7 semi-final against Denmark: “The standards of leaders in this country in the last couple of years have been poor. And looking at that man [Southgate] there, that’s everything a leader should be: respectful, humble, telling the truth, genuine.”
The Tories cried foul at the insult, but one high-ranking Conservative I spoke to laughed it off: “So what — the PM is the winner when England is up.”
The players may be overnight millionaires from working-class homes but they have a modern social conscience. Marcus Rashford, a striker, has done a better job than Labour at reminding the government of its responsibility to feed poor children. Midfielder Jordan Henderson has campaigned to help the National Health Service. Raheem Sterling, one of the team’s leading goal-scorers, has spoken out against racism. Harry Kane, the captain, has worn a rainbow armband in support of gay rights.
Much of the squad is made up of the children and grandchildren of migrants. Kane is the son of an Irishman who moved to London from Galway. Sterling was born in Jamaica. Bukayo Saka’s parents came from Nigeria. Half of the 26 players could have opted to play for another country by line of descent. They chose England.
The liberal American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama observed in an interview this week that, “You can’t be a citizen of the world — modern democracies essentially really do need a sense of national identity.”
An internationalist through and through, Fukuyama endorsed English soccer mania as a healthy safety valve: “If you want to have a successful liberal order, you’ve got to channel all these desires to feel pride in yourself and your people into activities that are safe. One of them would certainly be football.”
He’s right, of course. So you can find me roaring, “Come on, England,” at the TV screen with a clear conscience.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Martin Ivens was editor of the Sunday Times from 2013 to 2020 and was formerly its chief political commentator. He is a director of the Times Newspapers board.