Defeats always hurt – but very few have hurt more than last night’s final. The biggest of dreams came tumbling down in the most heartbreaking of circumstances but once the dust had settled, the TV coverage ended, and Wembley went back to being how it had been for so much of the past 18 months – empty – we felt something beyond pain. We felt gratitude.
We were thankful to a group of players who had given something so many of us had never felt with the England national team: a sense of representation, a sense of belonging, a sense of pride.
It’s always been difficult to fall in love with the circus that can surround the England team. Whether it’s decades of watching travelling fans lay siege to the streets of unsuspecting European cities, countless examples of newspapers and journalists baselessly pulling apart the characters of young Black players, or politicians disrespecting the social diversity of our team (only to co-opt it at a later date for an easy photo opportunity) – it’s not been easy to want England to win, and to give validation to so many powerful people and institutions who constantly act in bad faith.
That’s started to take a backseat over the last few years as a new generation of young players carry themselves with fearlessness and ambition on and off the pitch. This squad is filled with inspirational stories and positive role models from front to back.
Marcus Rashford helped to raise £200m for vulnerable children over the pandemic and showed politicians what real leadership looks like. Raheem Sterling kickstarted conversations on racial equality over two years ago and was England’s outstanding player in a tournament that took place in his very own Borough. Jadon Sancho broke glass ceilings when he left Man City for Germany as a 17-year-old and paved a path for young players that will never be forgotten. Jordan Henderson is someone who’s never been afraid to lend his voice to worthwhile causes, reminding everyone how valuable allyship really is. Even the England captain, Harry Kane, scored goals this summer while wearing a Rainbow captain’s armband borrowed from Stonewall FC.
On the pitch? The most talented team in our lifetimes. All discussions of ‘96 and ‘66 were dimmed as the nation dared to dream of new possibilities. The reality is this current team has now reached two semi-finals and one final. They’re far closer to greatness than they’ve ever been before. With players from all over the country and different backgrounds, this team showcases what happens when people come together as one. This is a new England.
“The pain of last night still stings, but it only stings so much because we see ourselves in these players for the first time.”
And so much of that is down to Gareth Southgate. The best leader English football has seen in modern times. He has understood the assignment that success means more than what you see on the pitch. From racism to homophobia, Southgate has used his role and enabled his players to stand tall and tackle what’s right and wrong, even in the midst of political interference.
He may be white, and he may not have the lived experiences of many others, but he used his position as a way of educating everyone of the daily fights faced by people within this country. That is worthy of real respect and he’s never stopped being an ally for football’s marginalised communities.
The pain of last night still stings, but it only stings so much because we see ourselves in these players for the first time. Football is decided on fine margins but it’s important to see light within darkness. The youngest England team ever reached the country’s first final for 55 years – and they did with grace, purpose and power way beyond their young years.
Success is not a destination, it’s a journey, and the next stop will be a World Cup tournament that takes place in just 16 months’ time. They will go again.
But until then – and while so many players will still be hurting from what happened last night – we hope they take comfort in the fact they inspired love and joy in so many people. We’ll always thank them for it.