FIRST, a muddy warning. Don’t turn to me to learn about football. That has always been the case, but here are some thoughts anyway.
I watched all the England games in Euro 2020. Last night’s final was frustrating in a manner I recall from down the years. Hopes were raised and dashed, and penalties were involved. To this occasional football tourist, these things are familiar.
Much less familiar is the nature of the England team, admirable young men working together and doing their best, even if their best last night wasn’t as good as it might have been (but it was the final and we were in it).
Yes, the result was disappointing, but nowhere near as deeply disappointing as the racist abuse on social media hurled at three players, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, who failed to score in the penalty shootout, resulting in a 3-2 loss to Italy.
In response to this mistreatment, Boris Johnson popped up on Twitter, saying the “England team deserve to be lauded as heroes, not racially abused on social media”, adding that “those responsible for this appalling abuse should be ashamed of themselves”.
Decent enough words, but still problematic, as this is the same man who condemned England players for taking the knee before their matches. Johnson wants it all where the England team is concerned. He nods to his backwoods backbenchers by being critical of players who support Black Lives Matter, as does his home secretary, Priti Patel. Then both don England shirts and gurn for the cameras while urging on the team.
Bizarrely, Johnson was shown outside Downing Street surrounded by England flags and England bunting, with the St George limply fluttering everywhere. He even unfurled a flag. I say unfurled, but he looked as if he was removing a letter from a soggy brown envelope.
This, remember, is the man who said once that he doesn’t do gesture politics – a statement to which you may wish to add your own gesture. This, remember, is the former columnist who loved to entertain his readers with racist jokes about watermelon smiles and the like.
Johnson has few candid moments, but not long ago he admitted that football meant little to him although he understood that the game was important to others. For once I thought, fair play to that man.
Yet as soon as England started doing well, Johnson was all over the team, wanting a bit of reflected glory.
Perhaps you can take this England team as a symbol of whatever you wish. To me it’s a symbol of a multi-cultural country in which the benefits and opportunities of immigration are represented by splendid young men such as Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, and that charming weaver of the ball, Raheem Sterling.
In the past, Sterling has suffered endless newspaper hostility, with the Sun criticising his “love of bling” and calling him “OBSCENE RAHEEM” in June 2016. A headline eclipsed by the more recent: “55 years of hurt never stopped us Raheeming.”
There’s praise for you, with a side order of hypocrisy. Pudding steamed both ways is a popular dish at the Ye Olde England restaurant. Around those tables, many proud Englanders sing the praises of the England team, while overlooking that most of the star players are black and arrived here due to immigration. Those diners have a sort of white-washed view of England that is hilariously undone by the nature of the team they support.
And then some of them turn on three young players who missed penalties and douse them in racist abuse. How charming.
Personally, I’d like to thank the all the players, white, black and any shade in between, for giving us a human-spirited team to be proud of, even if they stumbled at the end. They will have other chances.
England manager Gareth Southgate takes the blame for those missed penalties, as you would expect from an honourable man, saying he chose the penalty takers, so it was on him.
With such honesty, Southgate will never make a real leader. Just ask Boris Johnson. Find someone else to carry the can is his first rule of survival.
So, don’t turn to me to learn about football. Or tennis come to that. After all that sport, I am going to enjoy not being a spectator for a while.