July 11, 2021 12:55:56 pm
Written by Rory Smith
Lee Anderson will not be watching the match. He has not seen so much as a minute of England’s progress through this summer’s European soccer championship. He missed the drab, underwhelming early games, the thrilling, cathartic victory against Germany, the smooth dismissal of Ukraine and the gripping, tortuous defeat of Denmark.
A hitherto low-profile Conservative lawmaker, he does not plan to change now. Born seven months after England won the 1966 World Cup, he has never seen the team he has supported all his life reach a major final. Now, at last, it has: if it beats Italy at Wembley on Sunday, England will be crowned European champion.
Anderson, though, objects to the fact that England’s players had declared they would take a knee before each of their games.
But as England has swept to the final and the country has grown giddy with euphoria, his boycott is an increasingly lonely position.
Tens of millions of fans will be watching avidly, glorying not just in the team’s success on the field but off it as well — as a microcosm of a nation seemingly more enthusiastic about its evolving identity as a more tolerant, multiracial and multiethnic society than is often suggested.
As the Migration Museum has pointed out, most of the team’s players have parents or grandparents born outside the country. Unlike their World Cup-winning predecessors in 1966 and the team in 1996, when England hosted the European Championships, they are not wholly, or overwhelmingly, white.
The players had made plain that the kneeling gesture was a simple act of anti-racism. Anderson saw it as political, linked to the Black Lives Matter movement.
“For the first time in my life I will not be watching my beloved England team whilst they are supporting a political movement whose core principles aim to undermine our very way of life,” he said.
He was not alone. Priti Patel, the home secretary, chided the England squad for indulging in “gesture politics.” Jacob Rees-Mogg, one of the governing Conservative Party’s most prominent figures, described taking the knee as “problematic.” Prime Minister Boris Johnson supported fans who booed the players when they did.
But a month on, much has changed. Patel has been photographed wearing an England jersey. Johnson has taken to sporting one with his name on the back. This week, Rees-Mogg — more given to quoting classical authors — recited the rap section from World In Motion, a 30-year-old England song, in Parliament.
The band Atomic Kitten is best remembered for “Whole Again,” a No. 1 single in 2001 that has long since been adapted by England fans as an homage to the team’s coach, Gareth Southgate. A new version, hurriedly recorded recently, broke into the Top 40 within a few hours of its release, and later rose to No. 24. Several other songs evoking the European Championships, too, have climbed in the charts.
If anything, the audiences that England’s games are attracting are even more eye-catching. ITV, the channel that showed the semifinal against Denmark, attracted a peak of 27 million viewers — roughly as many people as tuned in for Prince William and Kate Middleton’s wedding ceremony in 2011, and considerably more than watched the wedding, seven years later, of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.
Euro 2020 has become, in other words, a moment of genuine national unity. That is not unprecedented. In the English imagination, the nation has bonded together around soccer at least twice before: in 1996 and 30 years earlier, when it won the World Cup. There is, though, one significant difference this time around.
“People of color and marginalized people know we are a tiptoe away from racism and bigotry, which is why Gareth Southgate’s inclusive England team is winning so many hearts,” anti-racism campaigner Shaista Aziz wrote in the Guardian. “This team is playing for all of us.”
On the opening day of the European campaign, as England’s players took up their positions at Wembley, Harry Kane, the captain, glanced at the referee and slowly sank to his knee. All of his teammates followed.
There were, at first, audible jeers from some sections of the crowd. As soon as they started to echo around the stadium, the rest of the crowd responded, cheering and applauding the players until the boos could not be heard.
The activism of this England team stretches far beyond taking a knee. Marcus Rashford, a Manchester United striker, has forced governmental policy changes on feeding underprivileged children. Raheem Sterling has been an outspoken advocate against racism. Kane has worn an armband festooned with the colors of the Pride flag. Jordan Henderson has publicly opposed homophobia and transphobia.
Soccer has always helped articulate a vision of Englishness.
“England is a stateless nation,” said Sunder Katwala, director of British Future, an identity and integration research institute. He noted that, unlike the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it does not have its own Parliament. So today, he said, “what it is to be English is very much left to sport.”
The version of Englishness that this team has demonstrated, over the last month or so, is an open, inclusive and modern one.
“Normally, it is show and don’t tell,” Katwala said of the racial undercurrents. “That was the case when France won the World Cup in 1998. It was unspoken. But this team is having that conversation, too.”
The ecstasy of seeing England in a major final has not been dulled by the players’ willingness to stand up for what they believe in, as Anderson and others warned would happen. Johnson is reported to be considering a national holiday if England beats Italy on Sunday.
That, to Katwala, is a victory. “It offers an ideal and a vision for what the future might look like,” he said. “It is only afterward that you get the choice of whether you want to do the spadework to make it more lasting.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.