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England's World Cup Run, Southgate Represent More for a Nation in Political Upheaval

England's World Cup run has been a unifying force at home and a welcome distraction and inspiration during a time of political tension and bigger-picture uncertainty on the global landscape.

England's gonna throw it away

Gonna blow it away

Perhaps Frank Skinner, David Baddiel and Ian Broudie of the Lightning Seeds just meant what they said when they wrote "Three Lions" in the summer of 1996. Perhaps the pessimism at the heart of the song did refer merely to football. Perhaps it was just a fatalistic note characteristic of that genre of wistful, romantic nostalgic verse.

In the aftermath of England’s World Cup semifinal exit to Croatia, the straightforward interpretation makes perfect sense. England had an opportunity for glory, and it did throw it away–more, arguably, than in any World Cup since 1970. There was no Hand of God this time, or any brilliance from Diego Maradona. There was no standing toe-to-toe with an excellent West Germany and failing on penalties, no epic 10-man last stands against Argentina, or an even less epic one against Portugal. There was, rather, a route to the final that was as straightforward as could be, and a semifinal England should have had won by halftime before a second-half capitulation.

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This time England really did throw it away, notwithstanding its callowness and likeability and the hope that this can be a platform for better things in the future as the young generations who won world and European titles last summer begin to emerge on the senior stage.

But it’s hard now not to see greater significance in those lines. They are the English equivalent of Peter Fonda’s line in Easy Rider: “We blew it.” 1996 was a golden summer of optimism in England. The Cold War was over. The Dayton Accords had been signed in Bosnia the previous December. Although the IRA detonated a massive bomb in Manchester during 1996, destroying the Arndale Shopping Centre, peace seemed possible in Ireland, the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 already well underway. The major ideological battles seemed won. An end of history, naively, seemed possible.

After 17 years in power, the Conservative government was in its death throes and in Tony Blair, Labour appeared to have a bright and fresh leader who could make Britain a gentler, fairer place. Britpop was at its peak. Damien Hirst had made British art seem important. After the cult success of Shallow Grave, film director Danny Boyle was enjoying mainstream success with Trainspotting. Britain felt culturally important in a way it hadn’t since the 60s. Euro 96, Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland, the 4-1 win over the Dutch, Stuart Pearce’s redemptive penalty against Spain, all that singing together in the sunshine, the sense of England as a better, more welcoming place, was part of that.

And what happened? We threw it away. It wasn’t that England lost to Germany on penalties again–Gareth Southgate, of course, missing the decisive kick–as much as it was the reaction, the rioting, the BMWs, Audis and Volkswagens smashed on the streets, the Russian student stabbed, presumed to be German. And we threw away the political positivity as well: Iraq, tuition fees, the economic crash, austerity, Brexit, the return of racism and extremism to the general discourse.

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Southgate is the prime link that has made Euro 96 resonate this summer, but these are different times. There is no optimism now. Again there is a Conservative government seemingly in its death throes (although it has survived already for far longer than seemed possible). Two Cabinet ministers resigned on Monday, and there will be further chaos as prime minister Theresa May tries to force through her vision of a compromise Brexit that will outrage both those who voted leave and remain in the referendum (which itself came five days before England’s defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016).

“Don’t you know there’s a bloody game on?” The Sun asked earlier this week as it berated the shambles of May’s government. Perhaps it wasn’t a conscious echo of TV presenter Des Lynam opening the BBC coverage of the England vs. Germany semifinal in 1996 with an arch, “Ah, so you’ve heard there a game on,” but it felt like it.

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These are extraordinarily fraught times. The Queen and Prince Phillip are both too ill to attend the christening of their latest great-grandson, Prince Louis. Donald Trump has arrived for a state visit with protests planned across the country. Brexit negotiations have been going so badly that the government has begun planning for an exit in March without a deal, stockpiling processed food and talking of floating generators in the Irish Sea to ensure the power supply in Northern Ireland is not cut off.

In an unusually hot summer, the football, an England team that people could get behind, has been a hugely welcome distraction. The popularity of the admirably self-deprecating Three Lions represents a yearning for the happier times of the mid-90s. Before England’s exit, this was beginning to feel like one of those apocalyptic weeks historians would write of in decades to come when huge political strands came together as a sweltering population watched the World Cup. The climax has gone out of that dynamic, but the resonance remains.

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Southgate himself, perhaps, represents a kind of English hero hard to find among the modern political class. He is quiet and modest, polite and dignified, an everyman thrust into a crazy situation getting by with decency and practicality. He is Robinson Crusoe. He is Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. He is Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps–and the clue was there, given that is precisely what Bobby Moore had to ascend at Wembley to collect the Jules Rimet trophy from the Queen after winning the World Cup in 1966. He is, frankly, the sort of leader Britain needs rather than May who, as co-leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas put it on Wednesday, seems increasingly “incompetent, untrustworthy and reckless.”

But he lost. England threw it away. Perhaps it will beat Belgium on Saturday to claim third place, but probably not. Southgate seemed wearied even by the prospect of a game that means next to nothing. He, eschewing the platitudes of building for the future, urged England to focus on defeat, to savor the pain and learn from it. This disappointment may turn out to be a significant moment in the development of a more successful England. If nothing else, he has reminded a generation what it feels like for a country to fall in love with a national team.

And he has also reminded a generation what used to be possible, what it is to be optimistic, what leadership looks like.