“So many jokes, so many sneers…”
For too long, the England football team has been the butt of jokes and songs, and a symbol of failure – sometimes glorious failure, sometimes simply abject failure. But England’s soul-nourishing run to the final of Euro 2020 has restored its pride, and should inspire generations to come both on and off the pitch.
HEALING A FRACTURED NATION
Since 2015, England has been a nation almost at war with itself. With three General Elections in five years, and a bitterly fought referendum squeezed in between, the country has been beset by division, disputes and rancour. The covid-19 pandemic, and all of the suffering it entailed, felt like another nail in the coffin of a frankly cursed and fractured nation.
And then, as covid restrictions began to ease, Southgate’s young men took centre stage…
ROLE MODELS LIKE NEVER BEFORE
The England squad is made up mostly of lads from humble, working class backgrounds – such as Raheem Sterling, born in Jamaica but raised within view of the famous Wembley arch, Marcus Rashford from Wythenshawe, and fearless young talents like Bakuyo Saka and Jadon Sancho. They have grown to become articulate young men with a social conscience. For many of us a certain vintage, this is a very new kind of England team.
This England team has delivered over and over again – on and off the pitch. Whatever your views on Rashford’s free school meals campaign, Sterling’s work fighting racism, Jordan Henderson’s efforts for the NHS, it is quite clear to see that this is a very different England squad.
They are inspiring children and adults alike, in new ways. The abhorrent and unforgivable racist abuse aimed at Rashford, Saka and Sancho, after their missed penalties, has been utterly overshadowed by a huge outpouring of anti-racism, love, goodwill and support for England’s young stars.
This week, Kudos staff paid a visit to the defaced Marcus Rashford mural in Withington, Manchester, and spent an hour reading some of the thousands of heartfelt messages adorning the wall to cover the no-longer-visible vandalism. It was striking that most of the messages were from young children – simultaneously inspired by Rashford’s work on and off the football pitch, and sickened by racism. It is plain to see Rashford and co are role models in ways that previous generations of England players simply were not.
INFLUENCE ON THE GRASSROOTS SET TO SOAR?
And so how will this pan out for the current generation of school kids so taken by this England team?
The latest FA grassroots strategy Survive, Revive, Thrive launched back in March of this year, will commit over £180m into grassroots football to serve and lead the game over the next four years.
The strategy includes a commitment to equal access for girls in schools and clubs and 5,000 new pitches.
An FA research report shows the social and economic value of playing grassroots football in England is worth more than 10bn each year. Speaking about the importance of grassroots football to the national side, Southgate said:
“We always have to remember that every player starts within a grassroots club. Even if they go to an academy really early, they’ve played some football somewhere else before, whether that’s a school or a club.
With what has happened to us all in the past 18 months, there is an additional reminder that it isn’t just about developing elite players.
The key is enjoyment, and exercise, and the involvement for kids from whatever background they are, whatever part of the country and whatever facilitates may be available.
We always think about creating international players, but grassroots, for me, really is about enjoyment, engagement and involvement of the next generation. GARETH SOUTHGATE, ENGLAND MANAGER
It appears the new strategy from the FA was launched in the nick of time, and England’s run to the final seems certain to serve as a gigantic shot in the arm for grassroots clubs and participation levels in this country. After Kalvin Phillips’ man of the match performance against Croatia alone, participation in his homeland of Yorkshire soared by over 100%.
And we believe this influence can stretch beyond football alone. Sporting successes and near misses, particularly those played out on terrestrial TV – the Euros final was watched by a colossal 42 million viewers – tend to have far reaching influence, way beyond its normal sphere. Inspired kids might not take to football and may try their hand at other sports, stirred by the thrilling and unifying spectacle of Euro 2020 and the positive effect sport can have on people and on a nation.
THANK YOU ENGLAND!
Sport is our passion. It’s our livelihood. It was our first love, and remains our biggest love. Sport is what we do. And after the turbulent past 18 months we’ve all been through, we are convinced only sport could have galvanised the nation in the way Southgate, Sterling, Kane and co have done.
So thank you to them all, and let’s all do what we can to maintain this forward momentum, this unity in overcoming racism, hatred and division, and – in the words of Rashford himself – “let’s wrap our arms around each other and stand together”. This might just be the start of a bright new era for us all.
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