Beyond football

FROM A DISTANCE - Veronica Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

For weeks, instead of the customary “Hello, how are you?” the national greeting in England was replaced by “It’s coming home!” It’s a reference to “Three Lions,” a song that’s been on everyone’s lips during the success of the England team at the Euros Championship. On Spotify, you’ll see the track has been played some 30,750,000 times; that’s far less than we’ve been hearing it in real life in England. When I played it the other day in quarantine, my sister threatened to flee screaming from our hotel room.

European fans have been criticizing England fans’ apparent bombast for singing it, but if you actually read the lyrics you’ll see it’s a rather forlorn ditty that hopes against hope, despite all the defeats and sneers, that England might once again reign in international football – it hasn’t since 1966.

“Everyone seems to know the score

They’ve seen it all before

They just know

They’re so sure

That England’s gonna throw it away

Gonna blow it away

But I know they can play

‘Cause I remember…

So many jokes, so many sneers

But all those oh-so-nears

Wear you down

Through the years.”

It’s that weird English sense of humor at play again. As footballing national treasure Gary Lineker put it in a social media post: “Dear non English football fans. Football’s coming home is a fun song highlighting the lack of success of our football team for decades. No one really thought we’d win it I totally get why you might think it was arrogance, but it’s more our self deprecatory sense of humor.”

So for England fans it was really an extraordinary thing that the team made it to the European Cup finals on Sunday evening, beating European giants like Germany and France to face Italy. You could compare it to the Philippines’ following of Manny Pacquiao, it’s just that England never wins.

This team in particular has captured the imagination of fans, not just because they’re doing really well but because the players represent a new multicultural generation of young people that have made a stand against hot social issues like poverty and racism. Their success made them a kind of lightning rod for the most fiercely fought issues in society and it turned very ugly at times.

Marcus Rashford, one of the England players, is only 23 years old but he stood up to the government when they threatened to stop providing free meals to poor children during the pandemic. He emerged as one of the heroes of the COVID-19 crisis in the UK. Rashford revealed that he himself would have gone hungry as a child without the free meals, before he was sent to train at Manchester United Football Club. “As a family, we relied on breakfast clubs, free school meals and the kind actions of neighbors and coaches. Food banks and soup kitchens were not alien to us; I recall very clearly our visits to Northern Moor to collect our Christmas dinners every year. It’s only now that I really understand the enormous sacrifice my mum made in sending me away to live in digs aged 11, a decision no mother would ever make lightly.” It’s been an extraordinary thing to witness the way Rashford has managed to really help people who needed it, while remaining humble and determined as well as a top athlete. He’s forced the government to back down twice already, making the privileged and powerful accountable to the poorest in society. He was accused by some commentators of being some kind of communist as a result; nevertheless, he continues his campaign.

About a month ago the team was booed by some fans for taking the knee to show their stand against racism, and black players received racist abuse online. The England manager, Gareth Southgate, wrote a letter to the nation that was widely read and shared. In it, he made a call to the nation that seems all the more relevant today.

“Dear England,” he wrote, “this is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves. Our players are role models. And, beyond the confines of the pitch, we must recognize 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.

“I have never believed that we should just stick to football… I have a responsibility to the wider community to use my voice, and so do the players. It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness and educate…

“Of course, my players and I will be judged on winning matches. Only one team can win the Euros. We have never done it before and we are desperate to do it for the first time.

“Believe me.

“But, the reality is that the result is just a small part of it. 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.

“I think about all the young kids who will be watching this summer… No matter what happens, I just hope that their parents, teachers and club managers will turn to them and say, ‘Look. That’s the way to represent your country. That’s what England is about. That is what’s possible.’ If we can do that, it will be a summer to be proud of.”

At the European Championship final itself, the three missed penalties that cost England the championship were taken by some of the youngest players who are also black: Rashford, Jadon Sancho who’s 21 and Bukayo Saka, 19. The apparent pride that was only a few hours old transformed into truly nasty racist abuse online against the players, including on their social media accounts.

To me that’s been more heartbreaking than the defeat, but I am prouder than ever of the team, perhaps perversely, because of the defeat. And I’m not even English.


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