(Photo by Alex Morton - UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Pitch inversion

Boris Johnson may rue the day he gave a footballer a gong for something other than football

In October last year, Marcus Rashford was awarded an MBE. Not many 22 year olds are granted such an accolade, even those who have played football both for Manchester United and for England, but the honour was granted in recognition of Rashford’s sterling services campaigning against the government on behalf of the 1.3 million schoolchildren who were subsequently granted free school meal vouchers. The recognition, which Rashford described as a “nice moment”, seemed an attempt on the government’s part not only to dispel the lingering controversy that the contretemps had created, but to bring a charismatic and popular young man back into the fold. The cynical might even have called it a bribe.

Nine months later, Rashford, along with his England teammates, is preparing to play the biggest match of his life against Italy at Wembley. He would not be human if he did not feel a mixture of excitement and trepidation, knowing that the hopes of the entire country are riding on what twenty-two players manage to accomplish on a football pitch in an hour and a half. It is confidently expected that, should England win the match, that the team’s hugely popular manager Gareth Southgate would certainly be awarded a knighthood, and the likes of Rashford, Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling could expect similar distinctions. After all, did Geoff Hurst, Bobby Charlton and Alf Ramsey not all (eventually) receive accolades after 1966?

In the first instance, I — along with virtually everyone in England — hope for a resounding victory on Sunday evening. My anticipation of the evening is all the more surprising, given that I know virtually nothing about football and its practitioners, but, like many of my similarly ignorant peers, we have been caught up in the drama and excitement of the Euro 2020 event. Match after match has proceeded with the aplomb of a high-velocity Hollywood thriller, complete with suitably heroic performances by the leading men. That we are almost painfully close to success is both a cause of celebration in and of itself, but also a question mark. In both sporting and political terms, it is tempting to wonder what comes next. 

Boris Johnson might eventually be caught in the political equivalent of the offside trap by the England manager and his team

As someone used to seeing the England football team and its manager trashed on a biannual basis in the tabloids, it is a surprise to see them being praised to the skies and regarded as both inspirational and decent. The old adage that rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen and that football is a gentleman’s game played by hooligans has seldom been so tested by the current tournament. The young players represent the best of modern, multicultural Britain, even if Harry Maguire seems to have a temper on him and if Jack Grealish has a suitably 90s Beckham-esque flounce. Yet they have also been much criticised by some quarters for religiously taking the knee at the beginning of each match, even being booed by their own supporters for so doing. Only the remarkable run of form has silenced the naysayers, who are now only too happy to laud the team at every opportunity, rather than sneer at the “woke England footballers’. 

In a thoughtful essay that Gareth Southgate (or his ghostwriter) wrote before the beginning of the tournament, he attempted to set out his credo about how a modern football team and, by extension, its fans should behave. Southgate wrote of what patriotism meant, and stated explicitly that “Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognise the impact they can have on society. We must give them the confidence to stand up for their teammates and the things that matter to them as people.” Then he announced his credo. “I have never believed that we should just stick to football.” He talked of tolerance and respect, of progressive attitudes towards inequality and inclusivity, and concluded that “When England play, there’s much more at stake than that. It’s about how we conduct ourselves on and off the pitch, how we bring people together, how we inspire and unite, how we create memories that last beyond the 90 minutes. That last beyond the summer. That last forever.” 

There was little that Southgate said that anyone other than the most committed of anti-progressives could object to, and yet the subtext was an intriguing and unprecedented one. Footballers as Beckham and Wayne Rooney barely felt any need to make a political statement in their lives — Beckham publicly supported Remain, and Rooney has done valuable missionary work for the sex worker community — but now it is all but de rigueur for players to be as committed to issues of social justice off the pitch as it is for them to have peerless ball skills. And this is unlikely to change, given the current popularity of both the squad and their inspirational, gentlemanly manager. 

Rewarding Rashford for services to vulnerable children may have seemed like a clever way of defusing a ticking time bomb

Yet politics and football have never been an especially easy or happy pairing, and the intriguing possibility exists now, given Southgate’s unprecedented personal popularity, that if he used his public platform to make controversial statements that he would not only receive a hearing, but could even end up inspiring people. Or radicalising them. It seems inconceivable that he would, in the event of an England victory, celebrate by calling for the monarchy to be abolished or the return of capital punishment, but, as Rashford’s successful advocacy of a social movement last year proved, personal popularity counts vastly more with many people than any elected office. It would be one of life’s more amusing ironies that the noted non-football fan Boris Johnson, running a populist government, might eventually be caught in the political equivalent of the offside trap by the England manager and his team.

Rewarding Rashford for services to vulnerable children — whereas his teammate Harry Kane’s MBE was explicitly awarded for his footballing prowess and winning the Golden Boot in the last World Cup — may well have seemed like a clever way of defusing a ticking time bomb of controversy. And yet now, with the team and its manager occupying a unique place in popular affection, the government may yet rue the day that they decided to open themselves up to this particular penalty kick.

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