I supported France at Euro 2004. Arsenal had just won the league undefeated, with Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and, to a lesser extent, Sylvain Wiltord core components of The Invincibles. In Portugal, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and, to a lesser extent, Sylvain Wiltord would be core components of a France squad looking to defend their European Championship title. Les Bleus sported more Arsenal representation at the tournament than any other nation and, to this nine-year-old boy, it simply made sense to plump for the team most replete with the players I adored anyway. Why should I wish the team with Darius Vassell more success than the team with Thierry Henry when, for the rest of the year, this would be unthinkable?
You already know the answer.
Englishness, though, has not come easily to me. Despite undoubtedly inheriting many of the idiosyncrasies that are endowed by the norms and culture of any given place, I have never felt especially English, or British, or even European. Sometimes I barely feel human, although that should probably be explored in another post, or lying on a couch under the supervision of a trained professional. I have an “exotic” name, mine is only the second generation of my family to be born here, whose recent history is spread across the map like a Jackson Pollock splat on canvas. My identity has only definitively tied itself to the state of my upbringing in situations where my passport is in a minority, and I have assumed – or, more often, been appointed – a quasi-ambassadorial status.
Switching allegiance to France was justified at the time as a logical decision, but to attach so freely to a country of neither hereditary nor emotional link reveals a child sufficiently disconnected from his own. A plant with shallow roots is easily moved, as a Japanese proverb presumably says. As with *almost every* aspect of modern Jewish identity, this can also be viewed through the lens of the Holocaust. My life in England is a consequence of persecution, and a genocide that murdered members of my family. I do not write this as a plea for pity, but as an explanation for the sense of displacement that can pass through generations, even those removed from the trauma. I grew up in a household that was grateful and appreciative for finding home here, but one that was far more influenced by its Ashkenazi-Latin American heritages than any notion of English or British patriotism.
While my Gallic affair did not extend beyond France’s quarter-final exit to Greece, a distance from the England team remained. Their successes were never met with particular joy, nor their defeats with despair. In response to the entitlement that has flecked public discourse around the national side, exits from major tournaments instead brought a strange relief that this unwarranted superiority complex would not be somehow vindicated. Although jingoistic overtures are by no means exclusive to these shores, English tribalism has been the most immediate and, therefore, off-putting.
Because of this detachment, I have come to view the idea and expression of patriotism through three filters. One is wariness, born from a skepticism that it is simply a diluted form of nationalism; that underlying it all is something altogether more sinister. Another is envy, that many seem to be able to access a deep love for their nation and its football team – similar to my feelings for Arsenal – but in a way that unites them as part of a much greater whole. Finally, there is curiosity, a fascination for the mechanisms behind this phenomenon (and, apparently, for national anthems). What does it mean to be proud of the parts of your identity that you have not chosen? How is it possible to bear unconditional support for a place and its institutions to which only natal, geographical coincidence binds you?
It is quite probable that I misunderstand patriotism, as someone who has scant experience of it. But in the absence of feeling it innately, I have needed any semblance of national pride to be earned by its object. Within these limited confines, I suppose I have found little to be truly proud of in England and, even less, the England men’s national football team.
Enter Gareth Southgate.
Of course, what his England side has achieved on the pitch is remarkable. Two semi-finals in consecutive tournaments, for a country that had reached two in the previous 52 years, speaks to the psychological management of a man determined to change the inherited mentality of team and, in turn, fanbase. He has done the unthinkable and simultaneously raised expectations that England might actually win something – engendered a belief that it is genuinely possible – while somehow alleviating the pressure on the players in his charge. It is a balancing act that no England coach in my lifetime has handled with such dexterity.
It is off the pitch, however, where Southgate has effected the most impressive change. His practice of empathetic leadership has created an environment of emotional openness, where the mental health of English footballers is valued and self-expression encouraged. It is such a refreshing and significant shift from the traditional ideas of masculinity that have become entrenched, accepted and endorsed in football, not to mention wider society.
Any leadership style is nothing without the buy-in of the people it seeks to mobilise, and the fact that this group of England players have been receptive to Southgate’s holistic management when, in an alternate timeline, Sam Allardyce – lightning rod for all that is antiquated about English football and worldview – would still be in charge, is a credit to their character.
For all the hype and undeniable quality, England’s “Golden Generation” of the noughties was a distinctly unlikeable group. Off-field misdemeanours from a number of key figures did nothing to inspire public affection, while performances when it mattered left spectators cold. Personability matters less in sport when allegiance is firmly established, but for somebody looking for reasons to get behind a national team, the thought of seeing John Terry happy gives considerable pause for thought.
This current group exudes more wholesomeness and humility than their predecessors. Their charisma and chemistry are evident in behind-the-scenes access montages, interviews and moments like the video below, but it is more than pure approachable charm that has reignited a spark.
This England team represents an England with which I would be proud to be associated. It is comprised of the most socially aware and engaged group of players in living memory. I want Marcus Rashford to do well because he uses his platform to work to eradicate child poverty and hunger. I want Jordan Henderson to do well because he uses his platform to advocate for LGBTQ+ fans. I want Tyrone Mings to do well because he uses his platform to hold the powerful to account. I want Raheem Sterling to do well because he uses his platform to help disadvantaged young people. I want this England side to do well because they stand – or rather, kneel – for something, and continue to do so when others have not; when it would have been easier not to, and placate supporters who deliberately misconstrue its meaning, scared as they are to confront their privilege and complicity.
I want this group of leaders to do well not only because their performances provide hope that the future of the England men’s football team can be bright, but also because their words, actions and integrity provide hope that the future of England can be one of compassion, one of inclusion, one of equality.
They, with Southgate at the helm, have given a condition to someone for whom national pride and national love are conditional. Football might not have come home, but something else did.