The Opinionated

It Still Came Home

Football can be cruel, but in England's diverse and mighty team, they have reminded the world of this nation's values, and their triumphs on and off the pitch will forever drown out the racism they have faced.

JULY 12th, 2021

© Getty Images


s there any crueler sport than football? One which combines the contrasts of ecstatic jubilation and the soul crushing devastation of defeat seconds apart? Last night every England fan reaffirmed that yes, football can be cruel, but more so it can also inspire and unite. As England took to the sacred ground of Wembley Stadium to face their Italian rivals in the Euros 2020 final, the adrenaline pumping through every stadium seat, pub, watch-party and home was palpable. England was in a major football tournament final for the first time in fifty five years. Win or lose, they had already captured the imagination of the entire country. But the ultimate dream of victory alluded us once again, thanks to a dreaded word which has haunted England for decades - penalties.

In the coming hours and days of the defeat there will be much analysis, praise and criticism, but sadly for some of the players, particularly those from ethnic backgrounds, within seconds of England's fate being sealed, the dark clouds of racism emerged. Bukayo Saka, Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho - three players who unfortunately missed their penalties in the final minutes of the game - were bombarded with abuse. Gorilla emojis, racial slurs and appalling abuse littered across social media. It was abhorrent to see, and all the more depressing considering the magic these players have cast across the nation.

Bukayo Saka consoled by Harry Kane at the Euro 2020 final against Italy. - © Getty Images

Over the last five weeks England have ignited the Euros, the country and the sport of football. After fifty five years they made the nation dare to dream again and after eighteen months of division, confusion and loss due to the ongoing pandemic, they brought us all together under the banner of inclusivity, respect, decency and determination. They have also regained the trust of the fans in the beautiful game after the scandal of the European Super League.

All of these accomplishments are by no means easy to achieve. At a time when the entire United Kingdom is facing a reckoning against racial and social injustice; where trust in politics is at an all time low; when the imagery around the Saint George’s flag is unfairly tangled with racism and shame, and when a pandemic has left facets of our society ostracised and feeling like an afterthought, along came Gareth Southgate and his team of lions to go beyond delivering us sporting hope.

In losing the final they have won the hearts and minds of the nation, but they’ve also done so much more. Their historic achievement has cemented a memory for the ages. For generations of young people these men are heroes, defined by not only their talents on the pitch, but their conduct off of it. Decent, calm, collected and gracious in defeat and celebratory in victory, they have reminded the world of the values England holds dear. Sadly a small minority of the fans have reminded the world of the values we don’t.

After England’s defeat to Italy, it is easy to focus on the negative, and of course it is hard to hide the feeling of upset knowing that we were so close, but the positives outlast the negatives. We have a young team, a diverse team, one which consistently looked hungry for success. There were moments of football genius - Luke Shaw’s record-breaking goal, the quickest ever scored in a Euros final; Raheem Sterling’s lighting skill and speed; Jack Grealish’s monumental abilities at assisting goals, Jason Pickford’s dynamic reactions when in goal.

Fans watch the England team against Denmark in the semi final. - © Getty Images

There will inevitably be questions of decisions made by Gareth Southgate in the final. Why not bring on Jack Grealish earlier in the game? Why keep a defensive front instead of transferring to an offence strategy? Why keep more experienced players like Raheem Sterling from taking the final penalties of the game? These are questions that Southgate and the England team will have to answer and work through, and no one will be more desperate for those answers than them. But what this final reminded England fans is that this isn’t the end.

For five weeks we sang “Sweet Caroline” and “Football’s Coming Home” with undeniable passion. And whilst England’s detractors may revel in the belief that they stopped the beautiful game from returning to these shores, that football’s coming ‘Rome’ and not home, then they are mistaken over what that song actually means to England fans.

It was never really about the trophies or accolades. Of course winning should be the driving force for stepping on the pitch, otherwise what’s the point of turning up, but “football’s coming home” is an ideology, a belief system in a sport which is rooted in the heart of England’s very existence. Football is a lifesource for many in this country. Forged from the hands of the working classes, there is no other country, or sport which captures the hearts and souls of its people. We feel every success and defeat, we look away as adrenaline pumps through our veins when we are faced with penalties. Football is the essence of who we are, and whilst for a time there has been a feeling of exclusivity, this diverse England team broke that boundary, decimated the belief that football is a white man’s sport. It isn’t.

It is for everyone.

Gareth and his team of young players have reminded us of that, and there’s no going back now. Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Bukayo Saka, Joden Sancho, Kalvin Philips, the list goes on - these are young men who are the new diverse face of England football. Standing alongside Harry Kane, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and more, they are part of a team, a movement that is the future of England. Diverse, proud and socially aware.

Gareth Southgate has ignited a new England. - © Getty Images

As we reflect on England’s defeat to Italy, it will be one which will sting for a long time to come. Yet this is a young team hungry for more, willing to fight for more, and proud to represent the three lions, of whom down to them, roared louder than ever before. They brought pride back to these shores, unity to the masses, normality at a time when we’ve never needed it more. They made us smile, cry, scream and cheer. They made us sing “Sweet Caroline” until our vocal chords ruptured. They reminded us what the beautiful game is all about, and above all else, with or without the trophy, thanks to these remarkable men, football still came home.

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