This is not the England squad we deserve but it is the one we need. We deserve much less because of the barriers that racism and hateful rhetoric in the game itself has directed at players from ethnic heritage backgrounds. The racial slurs and monkey chants aimed at the black players reflect poorly on all of us. Not respecting another nations, national anthem, is indicative of our challenge with racism and in a crowd setting it gives permission for others to behave in a way that they would not in a normal social setting.
It begs the question if you were a player of an ethnic heritage background, why would you want to play for England when there are those that constantly remind you that you will never quite be English enough. It is the equivalent of scoring a home goal to the detriment of England and to the advantage of the opposing team. Thankfully, players are in the squad not because of who they are but what they are capable of doing which is potentially bringing home the glory of a major tournament win. They are there because of their talent irrespective of colour or creed. To succeed as a leader is that not what the focus should be on?
Southgate knew he was taking on what was seen as a poisoned chalice that his predecessors had struggled with. He had the option of doing the same old, same old and getting the same results as the many who had gone before him or he could rethink his strategy on finding and developing talent and growing a cohesive team.
Taking a knee, in support of Black Lives Matter and allowing his players to do the same has been challenged as being a political act but Southgate has said the booing feels like an attack on England’s black players. By role modelling and taking a knee it has encouraged all of us to rise and stand together giving a powerful message on the worlds’ biggest stage that inclusion matters allowing his players mostly from ethnic heritage backgrounds to push past hateful rhetoric and tabloid whitewashing to bring their focus and attention to the job in hand and be the best versions of themselves.
Southgate has effectively redefined leadership not just in the context of the beautiful game but much more widely.
Southgate has characterised his leadership through his connection with the players, with the fans and the mood of the nation. Unlike some of his predecessors and peers he has not berated his team or stood aloof from them being emotionless or overly emotional but genuinely gives of himself, giving time to each player and connecting with them at a human level whether they have performed well or fallen short and need words of encouragement to keep going, to keep giving and to take us where we have not been since 1966.
Watching him embrace the players including those who have been benched speaks volumes of the trust he has inculcated in the team and the trust he has built between them. This trust then pays dividends and shows in their control and confidence on the pitch and interactions off the pitch.
Seeing him celebrating with the fans at the end is a million miles removed from the resentment he experienced from the same fans and the heartache he went through with the missed penalty that for many would have been a career stopping moment in time but instead Southgate has taken that moment and not allowed it to define him but rather spur him on to even greater undreamt heights.
Mistakes and missed opportunities can be used to learn and grow and keep us grounded and humble. This point in time then is perhaps his greatest anchor having known what despair and despondency can do to a player and taking all that angst and pain and instead of allowing one to feed off the other Southgate has shown resilience and has dared to dream, thereby allowing us to dream with him.
Speaking to camera post game he is measured and stoic in his responses not accusative, not pompous but patient and persevering showing us all that the English spirit is not something relegated to the history books of the past but alive and kicking (pun intended).