Gareth Southgate has shown a nation how to behave

His missed penalty against Germany had been England’s downfall in Euro 1996

 Gareth Southgate’s England team play Croatia in the World Cup semi-final on Wednesday. Photograph: Reuters

Gareth Southgate’s England team play Croatia in the World Cup semi-final on Wednesday. Photograph: Reuters


Pick a moment. There have been so many from which to choose in this unexpectedly joyous World Cup for England. Harry Kane’s stoppage-time winner against Tunisia. Jordan Pickford’s penalty save against Colombia. Eric Dier’s winning shootout spot kick moments later. Harry Maguire’s towering header in the quarter-final. Kyle Walker and Jesse Lingard dancing like idiots in front of the fans.

But there is one that sticks out above all others. One so iconic it could be eclipsed only by Kane lifting the trophy in Moscow on Sunday. It came after England had just won its first ever penalty shootout in a World Cup. Having congratulated his own players, the England manager, Gareth Southgate, took the time to seek out Mateus Uribe, the Colombian player whose miss had set up the victory, and put an arm round him in consolation.

This wasn’t just a random act of sensitivity and compassion – though these qualities are sufficiently uncommon, not just in English football but football the world over, to have made them remarkable in themselves. It was one of empathy. It was Southgate’s missed penalty against Germany that had been England’s downfall in the 1996 European Championship. He knew what it felt like to be the man to dash a nation’s dreams. To have been the man who ended up as the fall guy in a Pizza Hut advert. His arm round Uribe’s shoulder wasn’t a casual, passing gesture: it was one that spoke of a deep personal understanding.

Even more than that, though, it was a moment of grace. Life is a messy business that offers few obvious chances at redemption. Failures and disappointments are generally rewritten or absorbed into lives that somehow muddle on as best they can. Southgate was granted a Hollywood sense of closure. The opportunity to channel his own experience of despair into one of triumph for his team, in front of a global audience of roughly a billion people. From zero to hero.

As Dier’s penalty went in, England went noisily bonkers. What the country had learned from the 22 years of pain since last winning a penalty shootout (against Spain in Euro 96) was that the right reaction was to shout loudly, get pissed or drive around the streets leaning on the horn. What Southgate had learned from the whole experience was a basic sense of decency. That night he showed a nation how to behave. Small wonder that the few remaining people who weren’t already a bit in love with the England manager collapsed happily into his embrace at that moment.

It was never intended to be this way, though. After all, it had been Sam Allardyce entrusted with the job of England manager after the country’s disastrous showing in the 2016 Euros. Then he was accused of offering businessmen advice on how to “get around” the rules on players’ transfers and using his role for financial advantage – Allardyce continues to deny the allegations. Given England’s performance in Russia, we should profoundly thank the Daily Telegraph for the investigation. Southgate, in charge of the England Under-21 team at the time, was a hastily appointed replacement and dismissively referred to as the “caretaker manager”.

No one expected much of Southgate. Not even the Football Association, whose chairman Greg Dyke said in 2016 that English football was in such a desperate state that no one should dream of any real success until the 2022 World Cup, at the earliest. Southgate, notorious for missing a penalty and being sacked as manager of Middlesbrough, was just there as a stopgap. Expendable collateral damage in the seemingly futile search for English football’s lost soul.

Even in the runup to this World Cup, the expectations remained at rock bottom. Normally in the buildup to a major tournament, the media quickly reaches fever pitch with unrealistic hype about how the team could finally end X years of hurt, only for the headlines to become increasingly bitter – with the manager and players turned into laughing stocks when the dreams go unrealised.

This time, nothing. Nada. It was almost as if everyone was fed up with football. The manner in which Russia had become the host nation still stank, fans were advised to stay away due to threats of violence and Putin’s repressive regime and no one – even in jest – seriously expected England to have a prayer. After decades of lost hope, pragmatic despair had set in. This was a tournament to which we already knew the ending. England would do well to make it out of the group stages. And, if they did, they would lose on penalties in the first round of the knockout matches. It was written in the stars.

All of which suited Southgate just fine. He had never been one of the headline-grabbing egomaniacs who have dominated football for much of the past 30 years. He knows there is more to life than the game and has created the space for himself to spend plenty of time with his wife, Alison, and their two children, Mia and Flynn. So, he was more than happy to slip under the radar and set about creating a team in his own image.

In the past, England has seemed like a team in name only. A two-tier collection of so-called stars, such as David Beckham and Wayne Rooney, with random individuals making up the numbers. No wonder they struggled. Southgate has made a virtue of a necessity – England is, thankfully, completely out of big-ego players right now – and picked a squad where Harry Kane is the only player to even be the biggest name at his Premier League club. And even he looks like someone who is simply thrilled to be part of the England setup and not someone who is doing his country a favour.

Southgate is blessed with the rare gift – in football, especially – of emotional intelligence. That is what makes him emblematic of a modern, outward-looking man. He trusts his players. He encourages them to take responsibility for their own actions. He helps them to tell their own stories. To be known both to themselves and those around them.

All year, left-back Danny Rose has been suffering from a depression which he had kept to himself after picking up an injury: Southgate helped him come to terms with it by going public (“England has been my salvation and I can’t thank the manager and the medical staff enough,” he told the press). It was as close to therapy as football gets. By acknowledging the possibility of failure, he has made success more likely. The ball of fear that had hung heavily over the English game has been lifted.

Better still, Southgate leads by example. He doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. He believes in the importance of family and encouraged Fabian Delph to return home for the birth of his child. The player missed the team’s winning match against Colombia, but was back in time to come on as a subsitute in Saturday’s quarter-final against Sweden. A World Cup may come around again, but to be present at the birth of your child is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Southgate is an open book and takes responsibility for his own actions. Previous managers might have thrown a strop and blamed somebody else when a sheet of paper, which appeared to contain some tactical notes, found its way into the hands of the press before the Panama game. Southgate took the hit, said the media were just doing their job and moved on. What could have slipped into the familiar them-and-us siege mentality between the players and the outside world was instead instantly defused.

Everyone in the squad knows their place and understands their role within it. Fielding a near-second-strength team for the group match against Belgium was an act of insight and inspiration. Not because losing guaranteed England a place in what looked to be the easier side of the draw, but because it offered clarity to the rest of the squad. They knew they had been given a chance to make their claim for a place in the regular starting 11, but they hadn’t been good enough to take it. Southgate had demonstrated his even-handedness and that he didn’t have favourites. Too often in tournaments, the reserve players can become disaffected and undermine the unity of the whole squad. Now, there is a genuine sense of togetherness. Success may breed its own success, but it was Southgate who lit the spark.

And it’s not just a team that Southgate has inspired. It is England as a whole. At a time when the cabinet is fighting like rats in a sack, and trust in the political class to act in the best interests of the country rather than their own party is at an all-time low, Southgate has shown what it is to have integrity. To stand up and be counted.

When a large number of people in the country are obsessed with who is cheating on whom on Love Island, he has demonstrated that you can act with humanity and decency towards others. He has shown England who we could be. A better us. A nation that can look triumph and disaster in the face and treat them both the same. (Though also a nation that is getting decidedly used to dealing with the triumph and would rather not have to think of the disaster for a while yet, thanks.) Football may be coming home, but Gareth and his team get to stay in Russia for another week yet.

Guardian services

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