Back to business as usual. Avalanches at the gates of Wembley Stadium, boos to national anthems, beaten up reception staff, graffiti on murals and racism parading on social media. Standing outside the Bella Pasta, boys make the victory sign in Little Italy and assault passersby at the subway station.
A prime minister who has contributed more to division and stupidity than anyone else in the UK sends a message against division and stupidity. A Minister of the Interior who employs confrontational and cynical rhetoric says she is “disgusted” to find that there are people who have taken her seriously.
Looking around after England’s defeat at the European Championship, one vaguely wonders why it is that Italy’s victory seems to generate so much satisfaction outside these borders. Perhaps the real achievement could have been the friends we’ve made since the invention of soccer, but we don’t seem to have many of those either.
There will be time to talk about the choice of players for penalties and the profit and loss on national coach Gareth Southgate’s balance sheet. But first, the other. England 2021, a nation once again feeling exhausted.
What to do now
To believe that the beautiful young Southgate team was going to “unite” a country with serious structural and social divisions was always a deeply wrong idea. Soccer is just soccer. Winning games is not a shortcut to the education, decency and leadership that are lacking in other areas.
There is an obvious conclusion to the miserable insults against England’s black players. Unless there is a heavenly conversion and they can see the light, it is clear that in this country there is a group of people who need to be identified, censored and made to shut their mouths.
The idea that social media companies are unable to control these attacks is ridiculous. They are your property and it is your computer code. No algorithms are required. A teenage intern with a smartphone and a delete button could have checked these players’ accounts on Sunday night. All it took was having the genuine will to do it. That is step one.
Step number two, a long and meticulous step, is to make a comprehensive and sincere recognition of a country where so many people have normalized racism and graceless scoundrels.
It is a problem in which football has something to say, because football is a business with leadership and with a set of rules. If this is managed poorly, with a staff that does not take it as seriously as it should, the football business will serve as a meeting point for fans, a place to radicalize and intensify opinions. But it is a problem that football can control, not solve.
In the past, every England team outing from a tournament included a comprehensive review of everything by default. This time, the whole country should expose its shame and wonder what exactly is happening to it.
And about the game, what happened? At this point it is worth opening the perspective a bit: England lost in the penalty shootout in the final of the European Championship. It was 45 minutes of good English play at Wembley Stadium, until they were pushed back when Italy showed that they also knew how to play this sport.
Beyond that, England were undefeated throughout the tournament, with two midfielders who had never played a UEFA Cup match. They passed over teams that had been four times world champions, that had been finalists in the World Cup, or that had already won the European Championship, such as Croatia, the Czech Republic (when it was part of Czechoslovakia), Germany and Denmark. Only undeserved English arrogance could make them seem unworthy of a nation that has never won the Euro.
Between those who believe Southgate was just lucky and those who say he did a poor job as a coach, it seems in the end that this is the impossible job. To reach that conclusion requires a degree of cognitive dissonance: since Southgate has been the coach, England have reached two semi-finals in two attempts. Before him, England had reached three semi-finals in 70 years. Before Southgate, the national team had lost to Iceland and played so poorly at Euro 2012 that it was difficult to watch games without migraines or feelings of nausea. The coach cannot be given all the credit for the improvement but he is a big part of the solution.
This is not to say that Southgate perfectly controlled every aspect of the game on Sunday. In the fine details and management of the game he has yet to demonstrate the instincts and talents of the most successful club coaches. By the way, right now not a single one of those is lining up to coach England.
They will accuse Southgate of having left the final adrift, of failing to inject some extra dose of energy by putting players Jack Grealish or Jadon Sancho when Italy began to dominate. In another version of events, what happened was that Southgate heard the echoes of Croatia 2018, when England fell back and was overwhelmed, and that is why he decided to attack.
It is not a failure
That was probably what had to happen, now that we tell ourselves that England are going to continue with the losses. But there are two reasons why this should not be construed as an unequivocal sign of failure. In the first place, this is not how the prudent selection of Southgate has worked. Here was a method that got them to that point. Live by the shield, die by the shield.
Secondly, England is still the team that has drawn with the best team in Europe and would now be Euro 2020 champions if they had taken better penalties. This is the other issue of concern. There have been objections about the identity of the players who took the England penalties.
Why did Southgate choose, or allow, Sancho, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford to take penalties? Of that group, two had just entered the field of play. One of them is 19 years old and in his club he is not the one who shoots penalties.
The obvious answer is that England had trained and prepared for this. We are talking about some of the most skilled players on the team. Rashford often takes penalties at Manchester United. In the Champions League, Sancho has scored a goal from the penalty line for Borussia Dortmund. There is no lack of logic here. The players will have felt prepared. The objections only come with the bad result on the scoreboard.
Saka’s case is more complicated. He has no experience but I do play. Of course, he will say that he was ready. And there is the temptation to present the national coach as a kind of nightmare father of an athlete son, where Saka would be his young and talented mini-Gareth Southgate, new to the team, versatile, mature, and expected to rewrite failure himself. Southgate sport when he missed the penalty in the 1996 Euro Cup final, to score the hundreds of goals he never scored, to play for local teams he never made it to.
It is better to resist that story. Saka is not a child. He is a talented and resourceful professional footballer. You will survive this. There were four other players who also failed. The impulse to protect him, the fear of aggression, cannot be allowed to prevail over what really happens. That is the real question. Southgate has been rightly praised for giving younger footballers space, for trusting them, offering them an open door and responsibility, with all the danger and all the hope that that entails. Putting Saka on penalties is totally consistent with that strategy. It was a momentous decision by Southgate, true to the team, true to himself, and made with the team in mind alone. Handling the details of a penalty shootout is possible but there is also an element of whim. Within this sport, they are the closest there is to absurdity.
The England team will continue to advance towards Qatar in the flowering of the most successful period in its history at the tournament. The players leave this Eurocup having earned the credit. The coach has mostly positives, with some flaws in his plan under the most intense scrutiny. As for the country, the downturn, those marginal voices, well, that is a totally different matter.
Translated by Francisco de Zárate