Today
Wed 29 September 2021

Journalist and sports commentator Philippe Auclair looks at the social significance of the Euro 2020 final, and compares it to the famous World Cup victory of France in 1998

There is no more revealing a prism to look at a society through than sport. Every wart is shown in unforgiving detail with the clarity of a hyper-realistic painting; whilst what is best and most noble in it acquires a new, quasi-mystical dimension when the individuals which compose this society embrace the wholeness of a communal experience.

In this regard, the progress of England throughout Euro 2020 – building on the foundations which were laid in Russia three years ago – told us more about the state of this country than any other competition had done in the past. But what it revealed is paradoxical, just as the whole tournament was – simultaneously, the best and the worst of all European Championships. Perhaps it couldn’t be otherwise in our troubled times.

It was the worst because, despite the Coronavirus pandemic, the organising body, UEFA, refused to re-consider the hare-brained idea to host matches in 11 countries and forced the few fans who had the means – and the right – to travel to trek as far as Baku to support their team. It also dictated attendance levels which, at least potentially, transformed stadiums into oversized petri dishes in which the virus could proliferate – as it did in the case of St Petersburg, where an estimated 300 travelling Finnish fans were infected.

Meanwhile, VIPs were exempted of all quarantine rules by the UK Government at UEFA’s insistence. This meant, for example, that the FIFA president Gianni Infantino was allowed to attend the Wembley final unmasked, as almost everyone else was in the stadium, having flown in straight from Brazil – a red list country – in a Qatar executive private jet which took him straight back to Zurich.

But it was the best, too, in terms of the football which was played by players whom we thought would be running on empty after the most demanding of seasons, but still produced moments and games that will live long in the memory – not least Roberto Mancini’s magnificent Italian team. Its encounter with a rejuvenated Spain produced one of international football’s most beautiful matches in living memory.

England, too, played far more than the part that many of us had assigned to it before the competition began. But, from the outset, it was clear that this would be about much more than football for Southgate’s young squad. Euro 2020 was not just a tournament, this was a conversation which England, as a team, forced England – as a country – to have with itself.


A Gentle, Inclusive, Hopeful Patriotism

The moderator of this conversation was a man whose dignity, intelligence and palpable decency shone through; who was able, as only he knows how, to walk unscathed on a road littered with traps; a Pied Piper who played the kind of tune that no other England manager had played before him, but which most of us were keen to hear and sing along to. Or so we thought, until the final.

There have been calls – there would always be – for Gareth Southgate to quit his position after a penalty shoot-out deprived England of the trophy the country craved and, in some cases, demands. This is what a sense of entitlement leads to; and entitlement and expectation are two very different things.

A friend who was at the final at Wembley remarked that the stadium was almost empty – bar the Italy supporters – when UEFA president Aleksandr Ceferin placed medals around the necks of the night’s victors. Five years ago, when Portugal stunned France in the final of Euro 2016, the same friend remembered that the Stade de France had been almost full to applaud the team which had just defeated the host country. Magnanimity in defeat does not sit well with entitlement – be it towards those who win or lose.

Yet there is a feeling that the losers had still won – won the argument, that is. As well as the hearts of many who, until then, and for a very long time, had found it impossible to fully get behind a national team which attracted the most toxic of supporters and had become both a magnet and a refuge for brainless drunks indulging in xenophobia, overt racism and violence under the ambiguous cover of ‘patriotism’. These were the fans who staged pitched battles with Russian provocateurs at Marseille at Euro 2016; the louts who were jeering child beggars and throwing coins at them in Lille at the same tournament.

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Then came the caveat: that most England fans are not like this. That the thugs are a minority – a sizeable minority, yes, but a minority all the same. Which is true. But another thing which is true is that ‘hoolifans’ are not the preserve of England. There are plenty of those in continental Europe and elsewhere, but they tend to associate themselves with clubs, not with their national teams. This is where England is unique. It’s long been honey to those flies, who rot everything they touch, and revel in the corruption that they spread.

England had to be reclaimed from these ‘boisterous’ men for whom masculinity is defined by the need to intimidate and hurt others, be it with racist and abusive words or fists – a trait that is not exclusive to England, but which, here, has acquired its own kind of legitimacy. And Southgate’s England did precisely that. For the first time, it was possible to paint a St George’s cross on your child’s cheeks without being suspected of being a nationalist looking for a fight. 

Students at a Muslim seminary in Blackburn could explode with joy when Harry Kane scored England’s second goal against Germany. The red and white of the national flag could blend into the colours of a new English rainbow – or so we started to believe. That kind of gentle, inclusive, hopeful patriotism could be re-appropriated by anyone, including people such as me – a European migrant who made his home here more than 30 years ago and couldn’t help but see in that flag a threat; a signal of potential danger.

How Southgate, his staff, his players and the Football Association managed to do this is something of a miracle. It flowed naturally from an untainted source and was also the fruit of what Southgate himself, in his admirable ‘Dear England’ column in The Players’ Tribune, called “introspection” – a process of soul-searching which he had gone through himself and encouraged a whole nation to accept and share in.

Surrounded by young players of different races, ethnicities and backgrounds – who had chosen to fully engage with society through their off-the-field work – he took on a leadership role which previous England managers had always been careful to keep at arm’s length, in case it could be deemed ‘political’. But political it remains. Standing – or kneeling – for equality and inclusion in Britain in 2021 could not be anything else.


Drawing Out the Poison

Gareth Southgate’s first aim was to federate a team and bring a fractured country together to support it wholeheartedly. It was both a moral and a pragmatic approach in the execution of his job and, only by adopting both, could England achieve the success that it did.

It was his responsibility to take forward an under-performing team, which had failed to reach a single major final for 55 years, and this he did – regardless of what unfolded on the Wembley pitch late on Sunday night. In the space of three years, his England, which hadn’t been involved in a single semi-final of an international tournament since 1996, has taken part in the semis of the World Cup and the Nations League, and reached its first-ever final of a European Championship.

The entitled will say that it is not quite enough, as they only recognise excellence in triumph, in confirmation of their own innate superiority. But here, they are wrong. And what enrages them the most is that, deep down, they know it. What’s more, many of the players who proved them wrong were not white. No other England team in history has ever reflected the country’s multi-cultural fabric as fully as these players did, with obvious pride. 

This has led some observers to draw a parallel between the progress of Southgate’s England and the French team’s victories in the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 – the former, in particular, when a group of players who had been born on four continents gave France its first World Cup. In both cases – so the narrative goes – a football team had come to embody a new national identity; that of a ‘rainbow nation’ which was learning, through football, to accept its ethnic diversity.

In 1998, it was hoped that the team’s success was a sign that post-colonial France had finally embarked on a transformative process. This, at least, was the discourse abroad – particularly in Britain, where every newspaper printed world maps on which pins indicated where every single one of Les Bleus had been born. A common theme was: ‘surely, this is why they are so strong, they’ve broken the mould, they’ve accepted difference and, therefore, they’ve been able to call on the best of best‘. It was a narrative which, looked at more closely, had darker undertones of Darwinian natural selection as understood by early 20th Century eugenicists. 

To anyone who had any knowledge of the history of the French national team, this constituted a colossal misinterpretation, regardless of what today’s ‘nativists’ might say. French football, almost from the outset, had been built in large part on the contribution of players and coaches whose origins were not ‘French’ in the sense that Marine Le Pen’s followers would understand it.

If Viv Anderson, the first black man to play for England, was given his first cap in November 1978*; Guyana-born Raoul Diagne, ‘The Spider’ (a nickname he owed to the length of his limbs), of Senegalese descent, was a mainstay of the French national team from 1931 until 1940, playing in France’s quarter-final against Italy at the 1938 World Cup. Fascinatingly, his presence within the national team did not cause any debate or elicit negativity at the time, in the press or in the stands. The colour of his skin went unmentioned. Diagne would be in charge of the Senegal national team when it registered its first win over its former colonial power in 1963.

Since the 1930s, France had derived its, often relative, strength from its acceptance of players of multiple national and ethnic origins, to the point that it became a joke of sorts to single out those whose names ‘sounded French’. The first ‘indigenous Algerian’ to represent France, in 1936, was Ali Benouna; the first ‘indigenous Moroccan’ was the legendary Larbi ben Barek two years later. Many more followed. Colonna, Wisniewski, Piantoni, Ujlaki, Hnatow, Kopa were only a few of the players of immigrant background who took France to third-place in the 1958 World Cup.

By the late 1970s, France was the only European team to regularly field a number of black players, such as Gérard Janvion or Marius Trésor – one of the country’s greatest-ever central defenders. Its birth as a global force in football in the early 1980s coincided with the blossoming of Michel Platini, Bruno Bellone and Bernard Genghini (of Italian extraction), Manuel Amoros and Luis Fernandez (born in Spain), Mali-born Jean Tigana and others. Cantona, Angloma, Ginola, Vahirua and Boli would follow in the 1990s.

In truth, the only reason why the supposedly cosmopolitan make-up of the 1998 World Cup team became such a topic of discussion was not that it had broken with a tradition and integrated players from multiple ethnic backgrounds. The difference was that it had won. The team was, in essence, no different from previous incarnations – certainly not that of Euro 1996, which was just as diverse as the the group which lifted the trophy at the Stade de France two years later. Yet nobody commented on it at the time, imbuing the team’s success with a political signification which baffled those who were part of it.

That is not to say that some of the World Cup winners did not seize their chance to promote the causes that were the dearest to them. The Kanak Christian Karembeu – who, for political reasons, never sang the ‘Marseillaise’ – publicly advocated the cause of New Caledonian independence. Lilian Thuram – who sang it louder than any of his team-mates – was one of the first French sportspeople to denounce racism and has since become a noted human rights activist. But these were two individuals speaking out, not a group of players affirming a common moral or political stance – something which their manager, Aimé Jacquet, would never have condoned. The fantasy of a ‘rainbow team’ was projected onto them.

England is different. To start with, diversity has come later to its national team. More importantly, its stance on ethical and social issues is a collective one; an integral part of the image it has presented itself to the nation and which the nation has overwhelmingly accepted. The question now is to what degree this acceptance has been linked to the team’s successes on the field.

Leaving aside the flip-flopping of right-wing politicians who first defended the right to boo England players taking the knee, before realising that they had completely misread public opinion; the horrendous racist insults directed at the three black players who missed penalties; as well as the awful xenophobic abuse to which German, Danish and Italian supporters were subjected at Wembley (which has gone largely unreported) suggest that it will take a very long time to draw out the poison which now circulates freely within English society.

The successes of France’s national team since 1998 have had no noticeable impact on the path that the country has taken; a path which will probably lead to another face-off with Marine Le Pen in the second round of the 2022 Presidential Election.

But, for a few weeks at least, we have had the dream of a different England; one which offered a glimpse of what a better future could look like and which, at the same time, felt like a nostalgic, sentimental return to the gentler, more tolerant society of ‘before’. Before UKIP, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Priti Patel, Vote Leave and Brexit.

It would be foolish to believe that this England is everyone’s England. To some – to many – Gareth Southgate’s England will remain the enemy within.

*The first player of colour to play for England, Paul Reaney of Leeds United, played the first of his three games for England in 1968. But Reaney was considered ‘white’. It was only much later that he was recognised as ‘black’, something he never claimed for himself

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