Gareth Southgate: the best of us

Meme by the author

Whatever the result of the final of the Euros, Gareth Southgate has already won. To rise to the heights of playing for England, only to miss that penalty against Germany in the EUFA Euro 1996 semi-final, but to then pick himself up, continue to play for his country for a further 8 years, until becoming a club and finally England manager, taking the team to their first international final since 1966, is an epic story worthy of the gods of Mount Olympus.  It is as if, to borrow a phrase from Albert Camus, in the midst of his winter of misfortune, Southgate found within himself an invincible summer.

My goodness, how brightly Southgate’s life-story shines. It is the antidote we need to the toxicity of Boris Johnson, who turns everything we try to teach our children on its head. “Don’t tell lies.” Johnson is only sitting in N°10 because he told whoppers. “Do unto others as you’d have done unto you.” Riiiiight. Clearly that wasn’t on the curriculum at Eton. “Cheaters never prosper.” Um, Brexit, anyone? (Not that Brexit means we as a country are prospering, but it is what propelled Johnson to power.)

Now we can hold up Gareth Southgate — as well as many on his team — to our children as superb examples of the embodiment of British values. Decency just drips off of Southgate. One of his old class mates remembers him as a “kind boy”, despite being constantly bullied for having a big nose. Apparently, he was told by his youth team manager, Alan Smith, now his business partner, that he would never succeed in football because he was too nice. Southgate had only gone and congratulated the opposing team on their victory.

Thank goodness young Gareth did not take that advice to heart, for now he is managing the England team on his own terms. And yes, sometimes that might mean giving a hug to a member of the other team who has just missed a penalty and eliminated his country from an international contest. After all, Southgate is probably the only other man on the pitch who knows exactly what that feels like.

For years after the 1996 penalty shoot-out debacle, so-called football “fans” would walk up to Gareth on the street and abuse him. Who better to choose to manage a team that includes players from first and second-generation immigrant families, some of whom have been subjected to monkey impressions and racist taunts on the pitch by “fans”?

Before the start of the delayed UEFA Euro 2020, Southgate felt the need to pen a letter to England fans. “Dear England,” it began, as it acknowledged a difficult 18 months for all of us due to the pandemic, and went on to speak about the definition of Englishness and the acceptance of different values across the generations, before landing on the topic of racism.

“Why would you choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin?

Why? ” 

This is no fancy-pants band-waggon-jumping wokeism on Southgate’s part. He has long been concerned about the corrosive impact of racism, not just on the beautiful game, but also on our communities and our country. As he explains in the below video, his opposition to Brexit stemmed from its racist undertones.

Don’t forget Dominic Cummings specifically targeted football fans with his toxic propaganda, because he thought the natural tribalism of football would make them susceptible to the kind of conditioning that prioritises emotions over facts, leaving them vulnerable to VoteLeave’s lies. He used a competition offering the chance to win £50 million, specifically aimed at football fans, to harvest their data. In the event, one person won £50,000, but the data was used to profile the fans and pump content likely to appeal to their mindset, including exacerbating any nascent feelings of racism they may have had.

The objective was to provoke an emotional response, particularly anger, and then gradually feed in VoteLeave messaging. By linking messaging to deeply felt emotions, it became deeply embedded. We know all this because Dominic Cummings boasted about it on one of his blogs after winning the Brexit referendum.

Despite Southgate’s letter, when the England team took the knee to show respect for the Black Lives Matter movement, they came in for a lot of criticism, not least from fake football fan Boris Johnson, and his pet minister for racism, the UK’s one and only living heart donor, Priti Patel. “Gesture politics,” she hissed. Oh dear. Has she not noticed that, when it comes to politics, her boss is fond of a gesture or twenty-two? Besides, on the day she gave that comment to The Times, wasn’t she photographed observing two immigration officials escorting a man from his home?

One Tory MP even announced he would deprive himself of the pleasure of watching England’s matches and would instead get updates on his phone. Why? Even for Lee Anderson, this is an insane level of nose-savaging and face-spiting. This party-hopping MP has posted clips of himself standing bedraggled in the rain calling for neighbours he doesn’t like to be interned in camps to pick potatoes from dawn to dusk and was caught out arranging for a mate to pretend on the doorstep that he was a swing voter when a journalist accompanied him on the campaign trail. “Gestures, moi?” Anderson says, innocently.

Then England started winning… and winning… and winning. The fake football fan and the racist, living heart-donor began posting pictures of themselves posing on giant flags outside N°10 Downing Street or wearing an England shirt over their office gear while cheering in front of the telly. Phew! For a moment there it looked like they were going to indulge in meaningless gestures and try to co-opt England’s victories to further their own political agenda…. Oh, right. The sporting arm of tell-it-like-it-is Politics Joe, aptly named Football Joe, punctured the balloon of hot-aired hypocrisy before it grew so big, it plucked our little emerald isle out of the murky sea and propelled us into outer space.

They illustrated in a very effective way the contribution immigration has made to the current England team. Boy, did that ever unleash the trolls on social media. I couldn’t help noticing that some of them were the very same bots that usually tweet their love for Johnson and his Brexit, using the exact same text. It put me in mind of that scene in Ridley Scott’s “Kingdom of Heaven” where Guy de Lusignan (played by Marton Csokas) thrusts his sword into the air and yells, “Assemble the army!” Only now that Dominic Cummings is no longer on the scene, I wonder who issues the order? What a hateful job.

Hopefully, even the trolls will be so overjoyed that we made the final of an international football competition for the first time in 55 years, that they will leave our Gareth alone. His is a story just begging to be made into a block-buster biopic, and I am up for writing it. If there are any producers out there who share my enthusiasm for this idea, get in touch!