It is often said that football personalities are role models, or at least should be. For England at the World Cup, we were presented with admirable role models. The team has achieved more than any in decades – and they’ve achieved it with dignity and honour. That’s something worth celebrating on its own account, but also stands as a painful contrast with other aspects of national life.
At a time when our political leaders display such a pitiful sense of direction and purpose – selfish, out-of-touch, egotistical and hopelessly split, the England football team offered an alternative, and refreshing, vision.
Young, dedicated, level-headed, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, selfless and with a fine sense of fair play, they represent the very best of what England can be. When we look at the England team we do not look in the mirror at what we are, but at what we might aspire to be.
In this group, so many of them from humble backgrounds, and sometimes treated so harshly by the media, we see what we would wish to be. For a change, England were free of any sense of entitlement. There is a contrast there with the past. The manager, Gareth Southgate, and the captain, Harry Kane, have provided an object lesson in the quality of leadership. It has been a quietly impressive show.
Napoleon used to ask of his generals whether they were “lucky”. Many have sought to claim England have been lucky in their opponents in this tournament – but that was far from obvious at the start, and England have had their share of misfortunes over the years. Their achievements speak for themselves.
Sometimes, as at times when England make it past the group stage of an international football tournament, there is a temptation to think in almost mystical, elegiac terms about the significance of such an event. It is understandable, but we shouldn’t get carried away.
It is a little like the Brexiteers, as again this week, who believe that chanting about national “confidence” and “Global Britain” and invoking the Dunkirk spirit of 1940, and indeed 1966, is sufficient to overcome the vast economic damage and political isolation the UK’s withdrawal from the EU will inflict on everyone. It is just as well to be sober about that, if not about the football, as we come down to earth.
So, congratulations to Croatia, and good luck to them in the final against an outstanding French side. Thank you also to manager Gareth, captain Harry and all the players and staff for so bravely playing your hearts out, for providing such excellent entertainment, for the memories and, above all, for the inspiration. Thanks for rehabilitating the waistcoat, thanks for making “slabhead” a national treasure, and thanks for the relief of a distraction from Brexit. We are proud of you. Thanks for uniting us.