Football’s coming home
Home truths from the Euro 2020 tournament

England players line up during the penalty shoot-out following the UEFA Euro 2020 final at Wembley Stadium, London. Image © Nick Potts / PA Wire 

As the English team marched through the bizarrely named Euro 2020 tournament – which ended this week with England’s loss to Italy in the final, and the tears of the future king – the English media fanatically narrowed the tournament to the mere fortunes of the Three Lions. This was predictable. Slightly less predictable was that much of Australia’s coverage would suffer from a similar myopia. We may be one of the most multicultural countries in the world, but it’s rarely reflected in our football coverage. There, we are still the sons and daughters of Britain.

You had to squint to learn that England was, in fact, playing another team in the Euro final, or that there were other “narratives” more impressive or inspirational than England’s (which boiled down to the anguished inventors of the game deserving an end to their long drought of major trophies).  

Enough can’t be said about Denmark’s tournament, for example, a country that made the semifinals despite having lost their first two matches and their best player, Christian Eriksen. The reason for Eriksen’s absence was that he had technically died on the pitch in their first game. Against Finland, Eriksen made a short, simple pass before collapsing like a felled tree. His heart had stopped. Then his breathing. As medics tried to revive him on the pitch, his teammates encircled him to offer some privacy in this dramatically intimate moment. As they did, they variously wept, trembled and prayed.

Eriksen survived, and once news of his recovery reached his team, play resumed hours later. But so traumatised were the Danish – and so torridly trivial did football now seem – that, with the blessing of their manager, several players didn’t return. Denmark lost the match to their considerably inferior opponents, and lost the next one too. This was the same team that nevertheless made the semifinals against England – and the same team that English fans booed when the Danish anthem played before kick-off.

Part of the “England narrative” – beyond a vaguely expressed but passionately felt entitlement to the trophy – was that the country’s successful advancement was deserved compensation for the ravages of the pandemic. Fair enough. Britain was one of Europe’s most affected regions – largely attributable to the obscene complacency of its leader, the same man who was now leveraging this moment of national pride and optimism.

That England’s tournament was a balm to suffering millions is true, and not to be resented. The Euros coincided with minimal restrictions and relatively high vaccination rates, and England’s parks, pubs and housing estates brimmed. But England does not have a monopoly on the nightmares of the pandemic, and their opponents in the final had experienced their fair share. Italy was something of a vanguard of the virus, once experiencing nearly 800 daily deaths and the world’s first lockdowns after China. As it is, Britain and Italy have a similar death toll: about 128,000.

A less abstract appreciation of Italy is possible too: manager Roberto Mancini had overseen a dramatic recovery of fortune since Italy’s historic failure to even qualify for the previous World Cup. Not only were Italy excelling under his tutelage, they were playing an atypically exultant kind of football.

To be fair, the England team comprises charming and gifted players, and is managed by the conspicuously sane and decent Gareth Southgate. The team shouldn’t be conflated with the fans that profess to love it, before racially vilifying its players after loss. After Italian tourists, perhaps no group was more victimised by English fans than the English team itself.

Yes, once more would England be scandalised by its supporters. After a tournament hosted by 11 countries, the final was played at London’s Wembley Stadium (as were the semis). Before kick-off, streams of violent, ticketless England fans rushed security guards at the stadium, injuring children as they did. Like the breach of the US Capitol six months earlier, here were ecstatically thuggish mobs, draped in flags, enacting violent fantasias of patriotism – none aware, or chastened by, the lessons of Heysel. Thirty-nine fans died that afternoon in 1985, 32 of them Italian, when Liverpool fans stormed a Juventus section and triggered a stampede and partial stadium collapse. Unlike the domestic tragedy of Hillsborough, four years later, it’s rarely mentioned in England.

Then there was London’s Leicester Square, the designated “fan zone” for this week’s final, and a discrete area it was vainly hoped might contain the witless furies of shirtless men. Many hours before kick-off, the square resembled a zoo – if occupants of zoos loved cocaine, Carlsberg Special Brew and the intimidation of shopkeepers.

In Leicester Square, a fan jammed a lit flare up his arse, while another headed a flying traffic cone. You could see plenty of smashed windows, but very few women. But they were right: football was coming home. In fact, it was already here – right there in the fearful, incredulous eyes of tourists.

What percentage of these drink-soaked goons – now so eager to watch their team that they would storm the stadium – were also booing the very same team only a month before, in pre-tournament games when the players took the knee?

This hypocritical conversion was also experienced by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who had previously equivocated on the booing, but now, as England marched to the final, piggy-backed national euphoria and promised a bank holiday if they won the title. It was as transparent as Jadon Sancho’s intention to place his penalty to the keeper’s left.

After England’s dramatic but deserved loss in the final, aggrieved fans waited outside the stadium to bash Italians. There’s plenty of footage, captured on shaking phones, of screaming groups punching and kicking the heads of lone men who lie pleading on the ground.

With the exception of a stagnant extra-time, the game itself was good, as far as finals go, but every time a major match is decided on penalties there is the same hand-wringing about the injustice of the method. This despair usually comes from fickle spectators, who don’t realise that football fans secretly love injustice – it breeds folklore, and a kind of self-pity that we luxuriate in like pigs in filth. Football would be vastly diminished without its operatic drama, and operatic drama requires a minimum level of injustice, arbitrariness and raw human failure.

England’s manager, in whom public faith has fluctuated irrationally, was acutely criticised for his penalty strategy. I’ll admit that I thought it strange that a 19-year-old who had never taken a professional penalty was nominated as the fifth – and final – shooter. Especially so when England’s star of the tournament, the experienced striker Raheem Sterling, had not taken one.

But Southgate’s penalty strategy is a distraction. His ruinous cautiousness – his denial of his own abundance of creative offensive talent – is where England failed. England scored a wonderful goal after just two minutes of play, but you can’t defend a lead for the remaining 88. After early and fluent dominance, England effectively resigned the midfield. Italy was the better team – by some margin – and football was coming to Rome.

As England’s players disgustedly removed their runners-up medallions from their chests, and young Prince George was consoled by his parents, there was a sharp spike in calls to domestic violence hotlines. Football had come home. 

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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