Thu. May 19th, 2022


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Opinion | I Love England’s Football Team. I’m More Conflicted About England.

4 min read

BERLIN — It is an odd thing, to watch your country of birth from afar. Having been in Germany for seven years, I sometimes feel the connection to England with an even greater intensity than I did when I was living there. I find myself being more passionate about its politics — and, of course, its football.

This sense has been all the more pronounced over the past month, as I’ve watched the English national team proceed through the Euro 2020 tournament, a continentwide championship whose final will be played today between England and Italy. England’s men’s team has never reached this stage before, and it would be an understatement to say that people are excited. The footage from back home is appropriately euphoric.

I’ve been excited, too. When I watched the semifinal match against Denmark on Thursday, I was on the edge of my seat until the last minutes of extra time; I spent the night celebrating the win. I love how Gareth Southgate, the team’s coach, has refused to panic and stuck to the tactical plan. I love how Bukayo Saka, still only a teenager, has played as maturely as if he had been representing England for years. I can’t wait to see Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish, two of England’s best attackers in years, seize their moment.

So no doubt a big part of me longs to be in the middle of an English beer garden during today’s game, spilling my pint during a goal celebration, surrounded by strangers who have suddenly become my best friends. But another part is glad to be detached from the hysterical jingoism of the nation’s tabloid papers, which have predictably gone for xenophobic jokes at most available opportunities.

My conflicted relationship with England is personified by two men: one who is driving government policy to alleviate the suffering of some of the most vulnerable people in society; the other the prime minister.

The first man, Marcus Rashford, is a 23-year-old footballer who not only plays with distinction for Manchester United and the national team but has also devoted his spare time to advocating for social justice. (His activism has attracted the praise of, among others, Barack Obama.) The second, Boris Johnson, presides over a government that regularly breaks the law, that faces allegations of corruption for its mismanagement of the pandemic, and that aims to make criminals of peaceful protesters and of those who would rescue asylum seekers from peril or death.

For better, and for worse, both of their respective messages resonate greatly across England.

Mr. Rashford’s and Mr. Johnson’s paths crossed twice over the past year: Last summer, the footballer took to social media to ask why children from impoverished backgrounds were not being provided with free meals at school. At first, Mr. Johnson brushed him aside, but so persistent and perfectly pitched was Mr. Rashford’s appeal that Mr. Johnson was forced to pay attention. The result was millions of pounds in funding toward his cause.

For the last few months, Mr. Rashford has been one of the footballers taking the knee before matches in support of Black Lives Matter, an action met with extreme scorn — if not outright fury — by members of their government, prominent commentators and far too many fans. Once more, though, the dignity of Mr. Rashford and his teammates appear to have won the day. Even if some booed this political gesture at first, it’s now impossible for the vast majority of people in England not to cheer for them.

Mr. Rashford has played only a small part at Euro 2020. Yet in terms of his activism, he remains in excellent company. Raheem Sterling, perhaps the player of the tournament, has defied horrific racism from the nation’s papers to speak out about discrimination. Jordan Henderson, a midfielder, has been vocal in support of queer, nonbinary England fans. Mr. Southgate, the coach, recently penned a beautiful essay to England’s supporters in which he praised his players for engaging with issues of which our hard-right media try to make us ashamed: equality, inclusivity, racial injustice.

This is the England I love and fight for: a country where caring about anyone beyond your immediate circle of family and friends is a virtue, where senior politicians do not express contempt for citizens who have died in horrific tragedies. For too long, the other England has had its way on the global stage: the England where compassion is unfashionable, whose major papers that display less outrage when its government slashes foreign aid than when one of its most prominent Black footballers gets a tattoo.

When England faces Italy today, Mr. Rashford’s England and Mr. Johnson’s England will be united under the same flag; if my country wins, they will be indistinguishable in their elation. But on the morning after the game, and for the years to come, I know whose vision of England I’ll be rooting for. And maybe — just maybe — the essential decency of this team, beloved by almost everyone in the country, will win out in the long run.

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