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England carry the ability to unite a divided country at Euros

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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.

England’s vibrant attack, spurred on by home advantage, has the best chance at a tournament since Euro 96 — so long as the defence holds strong

/ AFP via Getty Images

“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.


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