While most of the country has enjoyed a glorious summer of football, politicians, pundits and the most pompous of tweeters have pondered the political significance of the remarkable performances of the England team.
Perhaps this should not be surprising. Politicians rarely see a bandwagon without leaping on board, and there is no musician-bearing vehicle more tempting than a popular England team drawing in 30 million television viewers. During Euro '96, Tony Blair felt the hand of history on his shoulder and declared, "Labour's coming home." In 1966, Harold Wilson quipped, "Have you noticed we only win the World Cup under a Labour government?"
It is no surprise, then, that the Prime Minister has attended matches wearing an England shirt , and posed for photographs standing on a giant cross of St George. But in our divided times, Boris's support has sent his opponents into spasms of fury. "This England team aren't playing for the Tories' version of the country", screamed a headline in The Observer .
But for what version of the country were Harry Kane et al supposed to be playing? Were they playing for Remainers, not Leavers? For those who believe in open borders, not immigration controls? For those who dismiss displays of patriotism in any other circumstance as "vile or racist"?
Of course the truth is that the team was not playing for The Observer 's version of the country any more than it was playing for "the Tories' version" – whatever that is supposed to mean – or for Brexit or for anything else relevant to our political divides. They were playing for their teammates and for their country. And they did us all – whatever our political beliefs – proud.
There is very little logic or consistency in the campaign to appropriate the team for political purposes. Harry Kane, we are reminded, wore a captain's armband in the colours of the Pride rainbow. But what does that tell us? The Prime Minister was among the earliest supporters of gay marriage and once wore a pink Stetson to a Pride march in London. Raheem Sterling uses his fame to combat racism , but is that a party political divide? Mr Johnson's Cabinet is more diverse than any appointed by a Labour prime minister, and his post-Brexit policies will increase non-white and non-European immigration.
The projection of politics onto the team is not only unfair to the players – who avoid talking publicly about how they vote or their broader political beliefs – but also highly selective. We are supposed to discern from Marcus Rashford's admirable campaign against holiday hunger among schoolchildren that the whole squad stands for "progressive" politics. Yet we are expected not to draw any such conclusions from the silence of most of the squad on questions of politics.
Like his players, Gareth Southgate, the England manager, cannot escape the appropriation game. When, before the tournament, he wrote an essay on football, identity and love of country, he was lauded – and claimed as one of their own – by different sides. Sir Keir Starmer tweeted in appreciation. Liberals praised his articulation of "progressive patriotism". Post-liberals – critics of liberalism who advocate a politics of belonging – declared him an ally.
But then Southgate committed the cardinal sin. In an interview before the final, he mentioned the war. "People have tried to invade us," he said, "and we've had the courage to hold that back. You can't hide that some of the energy in the stadium against Germany was because of that." He went on to complain that, "we are always looking at the negatives of our own country."
This did not fit the narrative at all. On Twitter, academics and armchair diplomats fell into a pit of anguish and despair. But the politicians and pundits hell-bent on appropriating the team simply ignored it. For them, there was a bigger picture: the need to use the football team to legitimise and promote their own political beliefs and denigrate those of their opponents.
And so they go on. The tendency of England supporters – regrettable as it is – to boo the national anthem of the opposing team is blamed on "the downward lurches we've taken since the Brexit boors dominated our culture."
Forget the fact that such booing has occurred for decades, and supporters of other nations also boo our anthem. The point is made: Brexit has turned England into a country of thugs. It is not just Brexit of course. After the victory against Germany, the Migration Museum published a poster showing the England team, with the names of players with "foreign ancestry" crossed out. It was odd for a "progressive" institution to imply that some English-born citizens might be more or less English than others, but their point was made too.
As a Left-wing commentator claimed elsewhere, "English football has benefited immensely from its 'open borders' policy." The implication that every other aspect of life would benefit from open borders was left obvious, but unsaid.
And the silliness continues. We are told that the multiracial composition of the England team is new and of vital political significance, which would strike Paul Parker, Des Walker and John Barnes – English heroes of Italia '90 – as strange indeed. We are told that European football is free from racism, violence and impolite chanting, despite voluminous evidence to the contrary. And we are told that "the three lions are French" – a dubious account of 12th-century English royal heraldry anyway – as if that should detach us from the moorings of our identity.
That the appropriation game is played mostly by people who would not normally be seen dead waving the flag, attending a football match, or spending time with the working-class families from whom the game still draws most of its players and fans is aggravating. But in the end, political attempts to lay claim to the team will fail.
This is after all the beautiful game, and we should enjoy it – with its nerve-shredding tension, highs and lows and patriotic pride – for what it is. As England have shown, that is enough to bring us all together.
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