Euro 2020(1): The Final, Part Two – During & After

by | Jul 13, 2021

The binary nature of football results and the polarised nature of social media make for a toxic couple, especially when invited to join a menage-a-trois with that favouriet pastime of the English public, scapegoating, but the fact that England lost last night shouldn’t mask how far they’ve come, as a team. Some might argue that there have been parallels with the 2018 World Cup, right up to leading and losing at a critical point, but reaching the final and taking it to penalty kicks in the first place is a huge achievement in itself.

Italy’s narrow margin of victory – taking they were behind for an hour and didn’t create very much themselves until after half-time – shouldn’t mask the fact that mistakes were made, on the England side. The lack of substitutions earlier in the game seemed odd, and the choices made for the final three penalty takers odder still. Gareth Southgate has already acknowledged that this was his mistake and his reposibility.

Others have criticised Southgate’s tactical set-up as too defensive. Considering how effective Italy’s experienced central defence have been throughout the entire tournament, though, there seemed little point in committing to anything more attacking, especially if it meant the possibility of leaving gaps at the back. It certainly made sense after a couple of minutes, when some Kane and Trippier trickery on the right led to a deep cross, from which Luke Shaw half-volleyed England into the lead.

Having grabbed such a precious early lead, the temptation to ultimately sit back and defend that lead proved too much, again. England have had a habit of going off at full pelt for twenty minutes and then slowing down in order to control it. The problem was that Italy were quite happy to slow the tempo, work out England’s game plan, and close them down. England attempted to take control again in the first ten minutes of the second half, but Leonardo Bonucci’s 67th minute equaliser had “BEEN COMING” printed all over it.

England couldn’t again get control of the pace or tempo of the game, andy the second period of extra-time, what had started out so brightly was starting to look like a trudge towards the inevitable. The momentum had decisively swung Italy’s way, and this feeling grew into the penalty shootout. Jordan Pickford even managed to give England and advantage to briefly hold with the first of two superb saves from the spot. The goalkeeper couldn’t have done much more to keep them in the compeitition. Eventually, though, came the last kick from Bukayo Saka, a save from Donnarumma being enough for them to lift the title after three straight England misses. The goalkeeper at first didn’t even seem to have realised that his acrobatics had been enough to win the tournament for his country.

So, the horrible English have been vanquished and everything just returns to normal then, right? Well, not quite. Not this time. There was some degree of succour to be taken from the fact that the worst people were hurting as a result of the loss, but this was pretty soon swallowed up by a wave of revulsion at the behaviour of those who somehow felt entitled to the a share of that celebratory feeling despite not having the same values as the players and being prepared to shower them with abuse in the event of it all going wrong.

In Manchester, a mural of Marcus Rashford was defaced. Bukayo Saka’s Instagram replies were a cesspit of racist abuse. There have even been renewed calls for people to be forced by law to be instantly identifiable through their social media accounts despite the cost that this would have to the marginalised, who don’t have the option of surrendering all their personal details to the government for the right to post on social media. As the poison clogged the air, some of those who’d sought cheap political points by effectively saying that it was okay to boo players bending the knee jumped ship from one bandwagon to another, as the hate they’d been deliberately fomenting started to look rather, well, unfashionable.

The players, however, were not going to take it. Over the course of yesterday evening, posts from Jack Grealish, Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Tyrone Mings covered a lot of ground. Grealish confirmed that he didn’t ‘bottle’ taking a penalty. Kane told the racists that they are not welcome as supporters of the national team. Rashford’s post-tournament statement has, at the time of writing, been shared 180,000 times on Twitter alone. Mings directly called Priti Patel out on her rank, rotten hypocrisy, and his comments were shared 140,000 times.

If there’s one thing that we can say for certain about these players, it’s that they’re not cowards, and that they will stand up and make their voices heard when they consider it appropriate. We also know that, in a media market which has changed more than most people over 50 even realise, these players now have greater reach than the racist, xenophobic rags that have been stoking flames of hatred for longer than any of us care to remember.

The newspapers and the hate-mongers have tried all attempted a volte face over the last 48 hours or so, an attempt to rewrite a very recent history that they purposed for their own ends without apparent due care for the consequences of their language, but it doesn’t seem to be cutting through. The Sun’s front page this morning has sought to claim that “We’ve Got Your Back”, but it doesn’t feel very much as though this group of players either wants or needs their tainted support.

If we needed confirmation of why this should be, we only need to look towards that mural in Manchester. Daubed with abuse, over the course of yesterday and afternoon people started arriving, a true silent majority with a message for both Rashford and all of those who have been pouring petrol on racist hate for their own gains for the last few years. Over the course of the rest of the day and the evening, the abuse was removed and the mural was covered in flags, hearts, and messages of support for both Rashford and the team itself. By midnight last night, it really looked rather beautiful.

This is what we should be taking, for the future. Once the cheap coke, over-priced booze and ‘roids had worn off, once the gnashing of teeth had stopped, once the weirdly desperate yearning for a the right to climb a traffic light in the middle of the night, arms spread wide open and with a flag draped around one’s shoulders, had stopped, came a silent roar from one city. They weren’t going to take it. They weren’t going to allow hate to win. Not this time.

We can’t deny that we live amongst terrible people when the evidence is overwhelmingly to the contrary, but there’s still enough of us to drown them out and marginalise them. If the lesson of this summer does turn out to be one that forces more people off the fence, then perhaps we can cauterise the hateful element of England after all. It might not work, but we live in strange times, in a country in which the moral compass is in safer hands with its national football team than with its government. But if we were to ever turn the tide in the dismal ‘culture war’ that has been launched upon us, it was always likely that we’d need heroes beyond a Tory government. We have them, now. The rest is down to us.