ootball was assigned the lofty social responsibility of distracting and entertaining us at the height of the pandemic but the challenge for the national team this summer is altogether bigger still.
Gareth Southgate and his squad again find themselves tasked with uniting a divided nation and providing another welcome period of togetherness during the European Championship.
England set a precedent with the glorious summer of 2018, when supporters danced in the streets and box-parks as Southgate’s side reached the World Cup semi-final.
With England set to play the majority of their Euros games here in the capital at Wembley and the weather having finally turned, the delayed finals will have the feel of a home tournament for Londoners and, as the country re-opens, the sporting summer is simmering with potential.
“It’s just nice to be on home soil for once, breathing some great British air and the weather’s nice outside — I can’t stop smiling!” said Raheem Sterling, capturing the mood of optimism from England’s Midlands training base this week.
The air of the unexpected enhanced England’s run in Russia three years ago but, even with expectations firmly raised, this summer’s tournament promises to be more special and unifying for a country still deeply divided down social and political lines.
Southgate and his players are not shirking the challenge, and the manager struck an inspiring note in an open letter to the country on the eve of the tournament, offering a compelling and defiant narrative of Englishness which managed to bridge the chasm between those looking to a brighter future and those still inspired by Britain’s war-time past.
“Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of [abusive] behaviour, I have some bad news,” he wrote in The Players’ Tribune. “You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.
“I understand that 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 also claimed the current generation of players are “closer to the supporters than they have been for decades” and his 26-man squad certainly feels more humble, likeable and relatable than previous teams — including the last Golden Generation — even if the manager acknowledged that his stars remain less accessible than in bygone eras.
The squad, too, are embracing their responsibilities as role models, as their unity in response to England fans who booed the players taking the knee demonstrates.
A sizeable minority jeered the anti-racism gesture in England’s two warm-up matches in Middlesbrough and the issue exemplifies the divide facing the country, as well as the competing narratives over what it means to be English.
The debate, which has predictably been seized upon by populist politicians, threatens to overshadow the tournament and more than anything could derail England’s hopes of uniting the country.
Southgate and his players have decided to avoid excessive discussion of the issue, leaving the responsibility with supporters and the media to ensure it is not the story of the championship.
The controversy has only appeared to increase the togetherness of a squad that should offer England their best chance of winning a tournament since the last European Championship on home soil in 1996. Almost everyone connected to the national team grew wary of bold predictions long before the humiliating defeat by Iceland in France five years ago but now there is no hiding from the squad’s potential.
“Once upon a time when I first came in the national team I wouldn’t dare to say, ‘we should be doing this, we should be doing that’,” said Sterling. “But with the players we’ve got, of course, the most important thing is trying to qualify out of the group but we want to be challenging.
“We want to get to the final. That’s the whole reason why the FA has set up that beautiful building over there [at St. George’s Park], somewhere as comfortable as possible. But, yeah, we have to be challenging. It’s as simple as that.”
The remarkable development of the squad is best illustrated by the debate around England’s attack and who should play either side of captain Harry Kane.
When Southgate was preparing for the original tournament 18 months ago, there was serious debate over whether his front three was the finest in the world and the only question was whether Marcus Rashford or Jadon Sancho should play alongside Kane and Sterling.
The emergence of Phil Foden, Mason Mount and Jack Grealish means there is no guarantee that any of England’s speedier, more direct forwards will start against Croatia on Sunday, with Southgate now blessed with the kind of technical playmakers that England were so missing in their defeat by the same opponents in Russia.
Given the development of our young players, also including Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham who could be the midfield two in the opening match, there is a strong case that no country has benefitted more from the year-long delay.
Southgate’s defence remains a concern, however, and if Harry Maguire is not fit enough to play a part, England face trying to win a tournament without their two best centre-backs after Joe Gomez was ruled out through injury in November.
Maguire’s situation has contributed to what Southgate has described as his toughest period as manager, as England were forced to navigate the first of their warm-up matches without 11 European finalists from Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea, with just the three fit United players returning for their second and final pre-tournament friendly on Sunday.
Along with Jordan Henderson’s own fitness concerns, Trent Alexander-Arnold’s withdrawal from the squad and the debate over the knee, it has been a troubled build-up to the tournament but all of that will be forgotten on Sunday, with Croatia’s visit inevitably and deliciously coloured by the teams’ last meeting.
For every football fan on the continent, the Euros have been a long time coming but the hope for England is that they will prove worth the wait.