What kind of bizarre moral universe is one living in when it is professional football managers and players, rather than Prime Ministers and their governments, who find themselves having to provide moral leadership to a country?
All too often in the past the England football team has given the impression of being populated by talented but grossly overpaid and underperforming egotists who were as incapable of behaving themselves off the field as they were unable to subordinate their own egos for the good of the team on it. England football managers have come and gone in recent years with varying success where results were concerned, but seldom with any great conviction when it came to integrating those multiple egos into a harmonious whole.
How very different are the present manager and team. The wholly unflamboyant Gareth Southgate is, besides being a shrewd tactician, a thoughtful and articulate student of the game and an outstanding leader. He is almost superhuman in his ability to remain calm and in control on the touch-line. His young team are highly talented and superbly integrated, in every sense of the word. They play for each other and look after each other, and very clearly respect their manager – to the point where there was never any sign of resentment when they were substituted, even on the one occasion on which Southgate found himself needing to substitute Grealish, who had relatively recently come onto the field as a substitute himself. The togetherness of the team was very impressive when they were winning, but even more so when they eventually lost in the final. The footage of the other players and Southgate himself crowding round to hug and console the three players who had missed their penalties was starkly different from the footage, shown often over the past fortnight, of Southgate walking off the field on his own after missing his crucial penalty in the semi-final in 1996.
There was a sickening inevitability about the torrent of racial abuse that was unleashed on social media as a result of the fact that it just happened to be three of the black players in this very diverse team who missed their penalties on this occasion. But that has also served to demonstrate the off-field strengths of this manager and team and the affection in which they are now held by a great many supporters. At one level that affection is visibly demonstrated by the sticking of multiple messages of support for Rashford and, by implication the team, on a mural in Manchester that had been defaced with racist abuse, as seen in the photograph.
At another level the strength and self-belief of the team are clear from Tyrone Mings’ preparedness to call out the hypocrisy of our inimitable Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and by implication our Prime Minister, who both went on record to condemn the racist abuse of the three players, having spectacularly failed to condemn the booing that greeted the team’s ‘taking of the knee’ as soon as football fans were allowed into the stadiums to watch the matches. Mings, who has been one of the less prominent of England’s players where speaking out against racism is concerned, was commendably forthright: ‘You don’t get to stoke the fire at the beginning of the tournament by labelling our anti-racism message as “Gesture Politics” and then pretend to be disgusted when the very thing we are campaigning against happens.’
By contrast with the principled stand against racism taken by the England football players, one wonders how it is possible for a ridiculously expensive and pretentious public school like Eton to imbue its pupils with so little self-awareness that Boris Johnson can condemn the ‘appalling’ racist abuse of English players and expect anyone to take him remotely seriously. This is the same Boris Johnson who talks unapologetically about ‘piccaninnies’ with their ‘watermelon smiles’ and Muslim women in burqas looking like ‘letter-boxes’. The same Boris Johnson who is quite happy to persuade enough of his disgusting Tory MPs to vote for an indefinite prolongation of the cut to Financial Aid to see off those of his more principled Tory colleagues who think that allowing hundreds of thousands of children to die entirely unnecessary deaths isn’t a good idea. Why would Johnson worry? None of those children are English, and the vast majority of them of them will be black, many of them no doubt in his view just ‘piccaninnies with watermelon smiles.’
Who would ever have guessed that a time could come when one can be absolutely certain that England would be a more principled and better country if it were to be led by a team of football players and their manager? It might also, of course, be a better governed country if it were to be run by a group of brave and idealistic footballers rather than our present bunch of corrupt and self-interested Tory politicians, forever playing to their xenophobic right-wing constituents. It could hardly be run much worse.