On Saturday, as England’s soccer team swept aside Sweden to reach the World Cup semi-final, Britain’s government were holed up at Chequers, a sixteenth-century, wood-paneled manor in the Buckinghamshire countryside traditionally occupied by the prime minister, scrabbling for a Brexit negotiating position Brussels might not immediately laugh out of town.
It is the third time Theresa May has attempted to hammer out a Brexit deal, and it will almost certainly fail. Britain’s dialogue with the European Union over the terms on which the United Kingdom leaves next March—whether it will profit from remaining a part of the customs union, for example—is much like a dog choosing which Lamborghini it would like to drive. Monday, in the biggest crisis since the day before, chief negotiator David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson—politicians strongly in favor of a so-called “hard Brexit,” leaving the union entirely—both resigned, leaving May holding a bag she may well want to breathe into. Murmurs of a “no confidence” vote abound.
In sharp contrast to the slap-dash political image the country broadcasts to the globe, England’s performances in this year’s World Cup have been uncharacteristically composed, clinical and tactically astute. Though the United Kingdom’s Scottish, Welsh, and Northern Irish citizens might rather watch a cat slowly defecate into a bucket than an England victory, some may still wonder whether the country should send its soccer stars to Belgium, rather than a cabinet shedding members more quickly than England fans on a Moscow pub crawl.
English World Cup campaigns normally follow a familiar pattern, from hype through disappointment to righteous public indignation at overpaid, and underperforming, players. This year has been different. Despite the usual prurience from tabloids, including a borderline racist obsession with a tattoo belonging to forward Raheem Sterling, the English public is, overall, ebullient and invested in 23 young men who have, even before their clash with Croatia on Wednesday, outstripped almost all expectations.
That is largely due to a squad shorn of the bloated egos of tournaments past. In place of the pugnacious Wayne Rooney is Harry Kane, a soft-spoken goal machine on the verge of superstardom. Instead of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, who never quite transferred club greatness onto the international stage, there’s Jordan Henderson, a battling midfielder so metronomically reliable you wonder if he is controlled remotely. Central defender Harry Maguire, a revelation, is green enough to have visited 2016’s European Championships in France as a pint-chugging fan. When England last reached a World Cup semi-final, in 1990, 17 of the current 23 were not yet born. Twelve are of non-white or mixed-race heritage.
Meanwhile, just one of May’s 26-strong cabinet, home secretary Sajid Javid, is non-white, the average age is 51, and a majority are loudmouthed egotists for whom the departed Johnson was merely a figurehead.
Though Britain prides itself on projecting pageantry and high theater in its politics, Brexit’s 774 days have better resembled local pantomime: a weak cast, bad jokes, and little to entertain out-of-towners. And while possibly no politician could have made the ins and outs of trade agreements seem sexy, May, who once described “running through fields of wheat” as the naughtiest thing she’d ever done, and refuses even to discuss which TV dramas she enjoys most, has faced a particularly Sisyphean task keeping the British public engaged.
Gareth Southgate, the English team’s mild-mannered, magnanimous manager, has no such problem. At Euro 1996, the last time the national side made a semi-final in an international competition, Southgate missed a penalty that broke hearts and allowed Germany to reach a final on home turf, at Wembley Stadium, London.
Wembley was knocked down, and built anew. So too Southgate, whose weathered good looks and trademark waistcoat have made him an unexpected fashion icon. He teaches his players the tragedy of ’96. It underpins their steel, and their success. Versus Colombia, in this year’s round-of-16, England won its first-ever penalty shootout.
Southgate immediately consoled the bereft Colombia players. He effuses a near-constant modesty and encourages quality time with partners and family. Previous tournaments have opened with tawdry debates as to whether the coach will allow pre-game nuptials, as if all “WAGs”—wives and girlfriends—were a supporting cast of Babylonian concubines. This year is different—even if midfielder Fabian Delph described his wife, who gave birth yesterday, as an “absolute machine.”
Soccer has united a country that politics is doing its best to divide. Since the Brexit referendum, the public has witnessed a circus of chicanery, buffoonery and idiocy that Boris Johnson’s exit will only ease in the most marginal of fashions.
Some complain soccer is a chintzy distraction from the sophistry of our ruling classes. George Orwell stated that the sport derives “sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.” And admittedly, as the World Cup steamrolls towards Sunday’s final in Moscow, Whitehall supports Saudi Arabia’s shameful genocide in Yemen, spies on its people, and deports commonwealth citizens who arrived to rebuild the nation after the Second World War.
Britain’s public image has taken a beating. Its soccer team, uniquely likable and, for once, really good, is a counterpoint. No wonder England is jubilant at the prospect that “football’s coming home,” as the famed song of 1996 hoped. Should it win its first World Cup since 1966 on Sunday, the parties may well last until the twinges of trade isolationism hit next spring.