Eleven years ago, I posted a blog venting my displeasure with the England football team of the time, and I haven’t watched another match until last week. Another defeat, but not a shameful one this time, so it seems fair to write another little piece, on how much they have improved over the years.
For much of my life, football stars have mostly been shallow, decadent playboys in their lives off the pitch, and so it was no surprise when they displayed a sad lack of character on the field. My interest in giving the new England team a watch for the first time in many years was piqued as much as anything by the personal publicity the members of the team were attracting. Manager Gareth Southgate has brought conspicuous personal integrity to the job alongside his tactical competence, and he has shaped his team in his own image, it seems. The culprits of the South African debacle I so despised are all retired, or at least past international football, now, and the generation replacing them are made of finer stuff. I am unused to seeing it from footballers, but, instead of feeling licence to behave shamefully, these young men have a sense of responsibility about their fame and fortune. Especially, Marcus Rashford, whose determination to use his own wealth and influence as levers for doing good for his country has been a heartening compensation for the lack of moral leadership from Parliament in these troubled times. However, not one of the current team has been exposed for scandalous behaviour; the worst thing I have seen about any of them is some huffing and puffing several years ago about the tastefulness or otherwise of a tattoo one of the oldest men in the team got when he was much younger.
This character showed in their performance on pitch, just as the 2010 team’s character showed in their performance. To be honest, Italy outplayed England for substantially longer periods of the match than England had the upper hand, but never by enough to overwhelm the determined defending, so different from the 2010 rabble. England were ahead or level for the entire game, and only lost when the final kick was well saved by an excellent goalkeeper. They were beaten, but as narrowly as a defeat can be, and, if the circumstances of the match were not such that there had to be a result, it would have been a very respectable draw.
In my 2010 blog, I worried whether the team were a true reflection of what our national character had become. I still have the same question, but it is now hope rather than worry. If England can follow the example of these men, then it should be able to rise above the linked disasters of Brexit and the Johnson government in due course. The fact that two of the unsuccessful penalty takers were mixed race, and another of full-blooded African descent, provoked a certain amount of nasty racist comment. The massive outcry that shouted the racists down showed that although we may still have a bit of a problem with racism, the racists are not winning and the country is on its way to getting better, and that is an important good thing to emerge from the fuss.
I look forward to seeing more games played by this generation of England, and I also look forward to the positive influence they will likely be able to exert on their country.