A dark reality of England’s story is that more than a few players from the last 30 years haven’t enjoyed national service. One sure way to smother the fun for Gareth Southgate’s Euro 2020 side is to boo them at Wembley on Sunday for challenging hate and discrimination.
In Russia at the 2018 World Cup, Southgate set about removing the old obstacles to English success. One was a press pack that felt detached from the team and therefore more inclined to be grumpy and then unsympathetic when things went wrong. The barriers and mistrust were dismantled in a social experiment with biscuits and darts.
Another was the alienation felt by England supporters after the nadir of the Iceland defeat in 2016. If Southgate could win over the media and the public back home, two big items would go from his complications list. This mix of noble intent and rational self-interest helped England to their first World Cup semi-final since Italia 90.
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But international duty isn’t always the sacred duty and privilege many think it to be. It can be an ordeal, a let-down, a post-mortem foretold. Southgate has expended much energy in his five years in charge persuading the players to “buy into” the England ride and transcend the fatality and negativity of the past.

England's manager Gareth Southgate (L) and Steve Holland, Assistant Coach of England (R) 'take a knee' ahead of the international friendly football match between England and Romania at the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough

Image credit: Getty Images

Which is why the boos when England took the knee against Austria and then Romania in Middlesbrough are dangerous on many levels beyond the obvious one of suggesting dishonesty and disrespect among those doing the jeering.
Again and again over the past 15 months football has explained what taking the knee is about. It’s a rejection of racism and a call for equal treatment. It asks nobody to deface Winston Churchill’s statue or join a Marxist revolution. Those doing the booing know this, but continue to invest a simple humane act with insurrection and conspiracy theory. You can make your own guess about why they choose to ignore football’s clear explanations.
At the heart of Southgate’s management has been a quest to make multi-millionaire Premier League stars glad to walk through the England door. And many of those stars are now of black British ethnic origin: one of the groups on the wrong end of racial abuse white people are able to observe from a safe distance - a point brilliantly made by Southgate when he said he has “no right to be tired” of a scourge that attacks not him but the black players in his charge.
Below the bigger societal right of England’s players not to be abused at work (or anywhere), there is the football issue, and England’s chance of winning their first tournament since 1966, 25 years after Wembley presented a brief Arcadia of togetherness at Euro 96 (two years later, a throng of England fans went berserk in Marseille at France 98).
In Southgate’s 2018 World Cup squad, 12 of the 23 players were of black heritage. That passing of the halfway point opened up a future probably frightening to people poisoned by prejudice. Three years on, what should be a welcome flashback to Euro 96 and a Covid-defying moment of release against Croatia threatens to start with England fans actually heckling the best squad of players the country has produced since 2002-2006.
In warm-up week for Euro 2020 we had boos and then counter-clapping, doubts about whether the players would continue taking the knee, a squad declaration that they would not be booed into submission, and a brilliant oration from Southgate, displaying all his empathy and intelligence. Then, against Romania in the final prep game, the boos rang out again.
The fight for black players not to be marginalised and rejected in their own country’s team isn’t a product of the social media age. Ask John Barnes about having the National Front on an England flight in South America and being told after his wonder goal at the Maracana, “a ******’s goal doesn’t count.”
Taking the knee, as a specific act, has become a fixation for its opponents. It’s not the knee that matters so much as what it represents. So footballers could “stop doing it” straight away but the need to take a stand would remain. Wilfried Zaha deciding not to kneel is a personal choice about a particular action. He’s not saying racism has gone away or encouraging people to boo that form of protest.
The real Euro 2020 build-up is upon us and Southgate will be looking round his squad to gauge fitness and energy. More nuanced measures in summer heat after a gruelling season are enthusiasm, commitment, belief. To reverse England’s under-achieving, Southgate needs something all international managers yearn for. They need players to feel part of it; that this is their team. They need them to feel they belong.
Southgate says his players are sick of justifying themselves and want to get on with winning the tournament. But if they step out at Wembley on Sunday and hear boos and jeers when they lower a knee in support of racial justice then you can be sure the dream will die a little for some of those players. Maybe they’ll try to win it to defy those condemning them for wanting a fairer society. Perhaps that old chestnut, the “siege mentality” will kick in.
Let nobody in the stadium, though, claim they’re an English “patriot” if they can’t even respect the team’s right to free expression. They’re damaging the thing they claim to love.
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