Stay alert. Control the faux support. Save lies. England, favourites to win their first major tournament since 1966, need to be sanitised from the virus of opportunism and the scourge of trying to divorce the team from who and what they are.
To rephrase that: keep politicians out of this football party. Specifically, the ones that have demonised the sport, these players, and Gareth Southgate over the past year, many still going studs up short days ago.
We should not forget their true feelings as they slather their social accounts with #ItsComingHome, pose with giant flags and captions that counter their entire history while falling over themselves to praise young men providing hope, relief, and an escape for the nation from Brexit, the horrid mishandling of coronavirus, the “slap to the face” of NHS workers…
The list seems endless.
So where to start? Priti Patel, the home secretary, who gave licence to fans to boo England’s players at the European Championship for taking a knee and amplified that she “just doesn’t support people participating in that type of gesture politics” is gushing over them reaching the semi-final.
It feels like only yesterday when Nigel Farage was frothing that “Southgate is putting himself out of touch with his own fans – and the country,” but here he now is as chief cheerleader for “superb England”.
Those two are already too much to mention.
There will be an avalanche of attempts to unlink the team’s results and performances from their anti-discrimination stance: to be told you can heckle their call for equality, but go hard on the beer-soaked celebrations. That you can hate what the rainbow symbolises, but love clean sheets.
You can scream “millionaire woke babies” when the lads spotlight issues that are important to them and shout “FOOTBALL’S COMING HOME.”
Scrubbing England of what they believe in, represent, and have been galvanised by, is a framing they do not want. It is counter-intuitive to the “more tolerant and understanding society”, to pinch Southgate’s description, that the team can help forge.
It spits in the face of their experiences and the path leading to the collective standing up and speaking out, which can be traced back to March 2019 when England’s black players were racially abused in Montenegro.
Southgate’s reaction was strong and mirrored the squad’s take. “It’s unacceptable,” he said. “We have to make sure our players feel supported, they know the dressing room is there and we as a group of staff are there for them.”
In October of that year, England’s Euro 2020 qualifier against Bulgaria in Sofia came close to being abandoned for the same reason. Going through those disgusting episodes and hearing the testimonies of the black players ignited a fire in the manager and the group to switch up the status quo.
This was hardened by the scapegoating at the onset of the global pandemic, when footballers were told to “do their bit” and that they operated in a “moral vacuum” by a man who consistently votes against paying higher benefits to those unable to work due to disability or illness and was in favour for reduction in spending on welfare benefits.
Last April, the players’ salaries were used as a diversion by the government, who were failing to get coronavirus test kits in place for health workers.
And in January, when the botched handling of Christmas led to another lengthy lockdown and hospitals in Britain were running out of oxygen, goal celebrations were being discussed by ministers as “an insult to the NHS”.
In-between all that, the killing of unarmed George Floyd by Minneapolis police and its wider connotations was the petrol on an already flaming desire for change.
This England do not care whether you agree with their off-pitch approach or the reasoning for it, they care about each other and carving out a better future.
“There are decisions that aren’t universally popular – and they haven’t been – but they are what we stand for as a team and a group,” Southgate explained, touching on the taking of the knee after external attempts to bully the squad out of it.
“Even though that might have disappointed some people, it was critical for us to support our teammates and support each other.”
This England, it should be emphasised, is a product of immigration. If you removed players with at least one parent or grandparent born overseas from the squad, only Jordan Pickford, John Stones and Luke Shaw would remain.
This England is diverse. This England is different. This England is plugged into what’s happening in the world and doing the right thing without fear.
This England’s standout contributor at the tournament, Raheem Sterling, was born in Jamaica and has been at the forefront of highlighting how the media fuels racism in the country.
This England possesses a 23-year-old that relentlessly fights child food poverty, while the government that should be guarding against it initially told Marcus Rashford to stick to football.
This England’s manager is a good man, with a golden heart that is sensitive to the contrasting life journeys of his players and fully subscribed to the betterment of society.
This England has Jordan Henderson, who drove the Players’ Together initiative to fund the NHS and spends his time on social media fighting cyber bulling and responding to a fan who feared discrimination for being queer at Wembley.
This England has the incredibly gifted and incredibly exciting Bukayo Saka, whose mum and dad moved to the UK from Nigeria…
This England is diverse. This England is different.
This England is not just a scoreline or a political opportunity. It cannot be severed from the identity it is proud of, shepherded wonderfully by Southgate.
This England takes a knee. This England takes a stand for what is right. This England is what they want and need to be. This England, quite frankly, is an infinitely better advertisement for the country than the people running it.
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