FIFA World Cup 2018: Gareth Southgate's new-look England has planted seed for widespread political dialogue in the country

“F**k off Europe, we are all voting out! F**k out of England, we are all voting out.” These chants reverberated around the stands in Poland as England’s 2016 European Championship campaign met the end of a slow-motion train wreck. A low-lying panic attack gripped the nation, especially those with left and non-conservative leaning. There was a sinking feeling at the pit of their stomach, and rose up like a bad case of heartburn when England voted 52% vs 48% in favour of exiting the European Union. The verdict was out, the nation was split into two. The elite right who still hold onto the memory of the Great British Empire like an amputated arm that’s no longer there, wanted illegal immigrant and asylum seeker to pack their bags and to have a more stringent international policy.

File image of England manager Gareth Southgate. AFP

File image of England manager Gareth Southgate. AFP

Theresa May was laying the brickwork for a political policy equivalent of a shoddily-built outhouse that would invite conservatives one-by-one, to take turns and defecate on years of British international diplomacy. While countries like Germany and Turkey looked southwards at the carnage of Syria and opened their doors and gave blankets, clothing, food and roofs to asylum seekers and refugees, Britain bolted their doors and pushed the grand piano onto it for good measure.

The Premier League, England’s best and most respected export of globalisation and one of its most forward-thinking proponents had its chances to speak out against Brexit as it would undermine the very values that make the best league in the world the best in the world – its cross-section of world’s talents. The Premier League was powerful enough to set the tone of the conversation by letting Manchester City captain, the most eloquent Vincent Kompany and others players to speak their mind. Vincent’s father is a Congolese who fled to Belgium, and Vincent has an MBA degree from Manchester Business School and a daughter with his Manchester-born girlfriend. But to its shame, the Premier League didn’t.

Leading up to to the 2018 World Cup, following Brexit, England’s economic ties and trade were in complete disarray. There are higher taxes being levied on goods and services imported. Health treatment and jobs have been denied to people who cannot produce impossible documents of their proof of lineage. Many who were as ingrained into British multiculturalism as the concept of curry, more British than perhaps Bob from Croydon, were deported. The promise of a “hostile environment” by May and co. was being fulfilled. This massive act of self-sabotage is deep-rooted in British narrative, and often found in football, and explained perhaps much more simply than foreign policy.

The last time England hired a foreign manager of repute was when Theo Walcott was yet to become the next Thierry Henry. That was, for context, a very long time ago. The appointments of Roy Hodgson and following it up with Sam Allardyce showed institutional incompetency from the English Football Association. Both of them aligned with the FA’s anachronous ideals that very much mirrored the conservative tensions of the times.

Hodgson and Allardyce were both disciples of the primitive long-ball teaching of Charles Reep, former flight-commander and football manager who operated around the 1960s. His base belief was to play as few as three passes, and to rush the ball to goal as quickly as possible. The best suited to this style of play were heavy-boned Englishmen, and in that hostile environment, smaller, skilful, more exotic players wouldn’t stand a chance.

There is a psychological explanation for most of England and England football team’s neurosis. In one of his papers, Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize-winning Israeli-American scientist and psychologist wrote “A general law of least effort applies to cognitive exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action.” This can be applied to route-one football and well as populist knee-jerk policy changes that look to answer the most difficult questions by choosing an easier question to answer, which almost always have the wrong answer.

At a time of political turmoil and deep-seated identity crisis on what it means to be English, Gareth Southgate made a resounding statement by selecting 11 players with off-shore ancestry into the team and reaching the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years. The teamsheet of an England team without immigration would have read: Jordan Pickford, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Kieran Trippier and Jordan Henderson. Raheem Sterling, Ashley Young, Jesse Lingard, Kyle Walker, Dele Alli, even Harry Kane would not have been eligible.

The Guardian published these statistics on the 9 July, as a build-up to England’s semi-final against Croatia: “More than 78% of the France squad are from migrant backgrounds, England and Belgium tie at 47.8%. Of the 92 players in the semi-finals 40 belong to an English club. More than 15% of Croatia's players were born outside the country.” These stats point to the part multiculturalism plays in the success of football teams and nations.

Southgate’s England, this new England, have not only planted their flags as only the third English team to reach a World Cup semi-final, but also a seed for widespread political dialogue among the masses.

Southgate’s principles are cut from the same, widely-sourced fabric of ethnic integration. Back in 2011 when he was appointed as the Football Association’s Head of Academy Development, he spoke to The Guardian’s David Conn. Even back then he was aware of the task at hand: “We need to get out from the insides of our own heads. We need to look outside. We can't keep playing the way we have; we have to grow and change."

There’s an air of impending change in England: Reactionary Roy-of-the-Rovers, route-one football tactics have been replaced by a more measured approach. Off the pitch, Boris Johnson has resigned as foreign secretary, while many of the more reasoned pro-Brexiters admit to being duped by the government propaganda to tug at their national pride. Many more have woken up to the toxicity that isolation and exclusion entail in an ever-coalescing world. Yet, free-thinking England still has a fight on its hands.

Click here for full coverage of FIFA World Cup 2018

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Updated Date: Jul 13, 2018 18:54:51 IST

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