Gareth Southgate's England - Win or lose, a team to be proud of
"Reaching the final, set against the backdrop of the gutless, amoral politicians who will try and ride on the coattails of their successes on the field, is an even greater reason to savour this England team..."
Somehow, only four weeks have passed since Priti Patel was asked by GB News about England players' plans to take a knee before their Euro 2020 games, continuing their protest against racism.
Ignoring their statement, which clearly explained their reasons for doing so - for wanting to do so - Patel chose to condemn it. This, she said, amounted to "gesture politics" and that it was the choice of England fans in attendance if they wished to boo it or not. After a slightly confusing mention of statue toppling, she was asked if she would be amongst those who would boo. The question was, of course, dodged.
You wondered at that point what might lie ahead for England at this tournament: if the football aspect, and any successes that might lie ahead, might be overshadowed by endless debates about the booing of the knee, or if the booing might even grow louder with every game.
Predictably, there were some who chose to boo before the opener against Croatia, but this was quickly drowned out by roars of approval. Plenty has happened in the time since. Against Denmark on Wednesday night, not a single boo was heard. The majority of the Wembley crowd were focused only on willing their team to a first final in 55 years. The players - for now, at least - have won.
These Euros have been a welcome distraction for all of us. As a nation, England has needed this tournament. More specifically, it has needed this team.
Purely in a footballing sense, their achievements so far are something to behold. Whatever the outcome against Italy on Sunday night, they are now officially the second most successful England men's side in history - bettered only by 1966. Few would have doubted prior to Euro 2020 that this, even if history told them to lower their expectations, was a squad capable of going the distance.
Yes, other England sides might have been able to field starting XIs crammed full of world-renowned players, but few had the same kind of depth of talent as the current iteration. Crucially, too, in Gareth Southgate, they have a manager undaunted at the prospect of leaving star names out when necessary. Every key decision he has taken so far has been the right one - even if they haven't always been popular in the heat of the moment.
Yes, purely in footballing terms, this is a team all of us can be proud of. But football is only part of it. Amidst the many, many years of hurt™, it's hard to recall a team with so many individuals willing to use their platform to stand up for what they believe in, to shine a light on the issues the government choose to ignore. As a collective, there is something to be admired about their insistence in carrying on with the taking of the knee, of the way the likes of Tyrone Mings so eloquently dealt with questions about Patel's disgraceful attempts to undermine this decision.
Individually, there are plenty more examples: Raheem Sterling, a strong contender for England's player of the tournament, has spoken out about racial inequality after he and other black players received unfair coverage in factions of the British press; Marcus Rashford felt so strongly about the government's shameful attempts to address child food poverty, he pressurised the government to change its policy. Jordan Henderson has been widely praised for his support of the LGBT+ community and has been nominated for an award at the LGBT+ Awards in August as a result. Harry Maguire and Harry Kane have each raised millions for the NHS over the course of the pandemic. Reece James has regularly worked alongside the Felix Project to provide meals for those most in need. There are more, but you get the gist.
All of these things, set against the backdrop of the gutless, amoral politicians who will try and ride on the coattails of their successes on the field, is an even greater reason to savour this team and their manager. Victory over Italy might seal a special place for them in history, but they stand for something much more than ending a country's long wait for footballing glory.