Win or lose on Sunday, England have given us something to be proud of

iot was a night of unparalleled hyperbole. Football might not have yet come home, but poetic licence certainly had. “The next 30 minutes could change your life,” warned the ITV match commentator, Sam Matterface, portentously as we entered extra time. “The good times have never felt so good,” he panted as England took the lead. And then the final whistle. “Open your eyes as wide as the Wembley arch and take note of where you are and who you’re with.”

And so it came to pass that England’s men’s team reached the final of a major football tournament for the first time in 55 years – courtesy of an own goal, a saved penalty (ovviamente) successfully followed up by Harry Kane, the substitution of substitute Jack Grealish for looking dangerously creative, and a massed defence holding out against an exhausted 10-man Denmark. Still Matterface wasn’t done. “Call your boss, you ain’t coming in in the morning,” he commanded. Pandemic, Covid, WFH – WTF? It was as if the past 16 months simply hadn’t happened, and we were back in 2020 living the dream.

And in a way, we were. Nel mese di luglio 2021, England were playing in the semi-finals of Euro 2020. There was something Kafkaesque about it all – and, ovviamente, capitalist-esque. Uefa issued a statement explaining exactly why Euro 2020 would stay as Euro 2020 even though it was actually now 2021. “This choice is in line with Uefa’s commitment to make Uefa Euro 2020 sustainable and not to generate additional amounts of waste,” European football’s governing body stated with a heroically straight face, before admitting in the next sentence that it would be crazy to let all its lucrative branding go to waste. Cynicism knows no bounds among the football mafia.

And yet despite the verbiage, the crass nationalism, the political exploitation (the PM in a number 10 Boris England shirt, natch) and grotesque product placement (thank you, Cristiano Ronaldo for sliding the omnipresent two bottles of sponsored Coke out of sight in his televised interview and encouraging us to drink agua), there has been something fabulously uplifting about the tournament that goes well beyond England’s success. This has been a championship in which football has rediscovered its sense of fun, beauty and solidarity.

It started horrifically, con Christian Eriksen having a cardiac arrest and having to be resuscitated on the pitch. But the lasting image is of his anguished teammates forming a military guard around him to protect his privacy. When Denmark’s match with Finland resumed a few hours later Finnish fans chanted “Christian” with the Danish fans responding “Eriksen”. Proper lump-in-the-throat stuff, and particularly moving after the absence of crowds throughout the pandemic. Best of all, Eriksen is making a good recovery.

The football itself has been a joy – by and large open, adventurous and uninhibited (ironically, with the notable exception of Gareth Southgate’s pragmatic England). On one glorious day Spain beat Croatia 5-3, followed a few hours later by Switzerland knocking out the World Cup holders, France, on penalties after a 3-3 draw – possibly the greatest day ever of tournament football.

Refreshingly, youth has been given its head. Su 13 giugno England’s Jude Bellingham became the youngest player to appear in the Euros, a 17. Six days later, Poland’s Kacper Kozlowski superseded him. As for the fun, at the other end of the age scale was Italy’s veteran captain, Giorgio Chiellini, joshing with Spain’s Jordi Alba, play-punching, and wrapping him in a huge bear hug just before the penalty shootout to decide which team got through to the final. Alba may not have enjoyed it, but we did.

Even VAR has behaved itself in this tournament, playing second fiddle to the referees and overturning decisions only when there have been unambiguous mistakes. Infatti, VAR has been so well behaved, it even kept its mouth shut when there had been an unambiguous mistake in the awarding of the penalty that led to England’s winning goal last night. As for the refs themselves, they have controlled the games quietly, competently, and with matinee-idol good looks. German ref Felix Brych could give prime-time Warren Beatty a run for his money.

And then there is Inghilterra – now the second most successful men’s international football team in the country’s history, eclipsed only by the World Cup winners of 1966. It’s hard not to kvell over their achievement (albeit in the far easier half of the draw, and playing all but one match at Wembley), their unity and humility.

But there is something even more impressive about this group. After decades of seeing players get rich quick and keeping schtum in the face of social injustice, here is a generation of footballers with values. Many struggled in their childhoods, experienced first-hand what the years of Tory austerity stripped from society, e stood up to racism. Now they are determined to use their clout and wealth to support today’s disadvantaged kids. Marcus Rashford won an MBE for his campaign against food poverty, e Raheem Sterling won one for his services to racial equality in sport. Jordan Henderson and Harrys Kane and Maguire raised millions for the NHS in the pandemic, Jadon Sancho helped build a state-of-the art pitch for youngsters in south-east London.

If England beat Italy on Sunday and win the European Championship, they will write themselves into history. But in the end, that’s just football. Far more impressive is that in an era when our politicians have shown themselves to be inept, amoral and hypocritical, these young men have proved to be genuine role models for us all. Regardless of whether the team win or lose on Sunday, this is something we – and they – should be proud of.

I commenti sono chiusi.