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In 1996, England entered a major tournament on home soil buoyed by the beer-soaked chorus of a No 1 single. Twenty-five years later, they do so against the sonic backdrop of mass booing, all directed at an act that manager Gareth Southgate had depicted, with his customary diplomacy, as a unifying act. There are multiple ways to portray the hostility that assailed his players as they took the knee at his old Middlesbrough stomping ground.
It would not be mistaken, for example, to highlight how the jeers were countered by abundant applause. But equally, there is no escaping the fact that the heckling here on Teesside was both loud and sustained, or the certainty that a toxic stand-off is not disappearing any time soon.
Just 8,000 were allowed into the Riverside for this unconvincing win over Romania, many of them belonging to the official England supporters’ club, and still the boos were unmistakeable. For the European Championship opener against Croatia at Wembley on Sunday, the crowd will be over 22,000. Should England progress beyond the scheduled lifting of Covid restrictions on June 21, it could be anything up to 90,000. With each expansion of attendance at their matches, there is a danger that the backlash to their players kneeling will only intensify.
How is this situation sustainable? Southgate was careful in his tone afterwards, insisting that his team had expected a Middlesbrough reception that could most kindly be described as mixed. But it is difficult to see how the vitriol stoked by taking the knee is helping his players. Take Tyrone Mings, as strident in advocating the gesture as he is condemning its critics, who endured a torrid shift at centre-back. No sooner had the boos subsided than Mings allowed the ball to bobble past him and out for a Romanian corner.
Southgate is in danger of adopting two conflicting positions. On the one hand, he is evangelising a message of unity, claiming that his side are looking to be loved by the country, just as he and his team-mates were in ’96, at least until his penalty misery against Germany left him a haunted shell. “We have to allow everybody to dream,” he said last month. “We want to dream ourselves.” But on the other, he risks undermining that idealism by committing to an act that is creating profound division among the fanbase.
The theory is that the more England repeat the kneeling, the more that they will draw people around to their way of thinking, convincing sceptics that they are not sleeper agents for the Black Lives Matter movement but merely conscientious young men taking a stand against injustices that many of them have experienced personally. But if anything, opposition appears to be hardening.
Given the boos that rang out before the Austria game last Wednesday, Southgate could not have tried any harder to articulate his case, urging anybody protesting to show greater empathy, to put themselves in the position of players intent only on railing against inequality. And yet within hours of him spelling out that logic, the decibels of the booing increased.
The tension between the head coach and a section of England supporters arises, in essence, from Southgate’s belief that they are booing his team. On the eve of a tournament billed as a mass show of post-pandemic euphoria, this appears to him, not unreasonably, to be utterly perverse. As he put it: “If you don’t agree, you don’t have to applaud or do anything. To boo your own team is a very strange response in my mind.”
The counter-argument is that the boos are aimed not at the players but at the act itself, and that kneeling, however well-intentioned, is an implicit show of support for the more fundamentalist extremes of the BLM quest, such as defunding the police. Ian Wright had a point on Sunday when he labelled this view as “disingenuous”. After all, only the wilfully contrary could accuse match-winner Marcus Rashford, who had reported racist abuse online just 10 days earlier, of kneeling out of any adherence to the Marxist dialectic or any determination to dismantle the nuclear family.
Perceptions can be both powerful and stubborn, though. For all that Southgate is an eminently reasonable soul, a 50-year-old white man trying commendably to represent the views of a racially diverse squad, he is struggling to shift the idea that he is somehow championing radical politics.
One Conservative MP has even announced his plan to boycott England games. There is, inescapably, some sadness that it should have come to this. Southgate has noble motives, but in his detractors’ eyes, he has merely succumbed to a modern fetish for gesture politics. The evidence mounts that taking the knee has outlived its original purpose, becoming less a clarion call for equality than a source of damaging polarisation.
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