Ken Early: England’s Premier class intent on creating their own history

Southgate’s squad full of players who play with, compete against and learn from world’s best

England’s Raheem Sterling,  Harry Kane and  Jordan Henderson celebrate after the semi-final victory over Denmark at Wembley Stadium. Photograph:  Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

England’s Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson celebrate after the semi-final victory over Denmark at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: Paul Ellis/AFP/Getty

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It’s doubtful whether a journalist has ever captured the spirit of a tournament in a single question, but on July 4th, in the press conference for the Italy v Spain semi-final, Donatella Scarnati of Italian broadcaster RAI came close.

“Nicolò, can you tell us about your own magic nights in 1990?”

Nicolò Barella glanced at his press officer for guidance.

“The 1990 World Cup,” said Italy’s press officer.

“I was minus seven years old,” said Barella, who was born in 1997.

“Ah . . . heh heh, scusa. So . . . you weren’t even born?”

“No.”

Obviously, Scarnati should have known that an international footballer who was preparing to play in a European Championship semi-final in 2021 was unlikely to have many vivid memories of magic nights during the 1990 World Cup.

The only player in Italy’s squad who is old enough to have any memories of that tournament is Giorgio Chiellini, who was nearly six when Italy lost their semi-final against Argentina.

But in a way the 65-year-old Scarnati’s question was understandable, and not just because Italia 90 feels like it was only yesterday to those of us old enough to remember it.

Her mention of “magic nights” was alluding to the song the Italian squad have been seen bellowing out many times throughout the tournament, Un’estate Italiana (Notti Magiche) – An Italian Summer (Magic Nights). It was Italy’s official song for the 1990 World Cup.

Ireland’s own favourite football anthem, Put ’Em Under Pressure, dates like Italy’s from 1990.

As a tune, Notti Magiche has a bit of class – you’re not surprised to learn that the music was composed by Giorgio Moroder. The lyrics imagine a world “senza frontiere” – without borders – as we chase a goal together under the magical night sky of an Italian summer.

It’s hard to imagine the vision of borderlessness exciting someone like Matteo Salvini, but the national-populist politician still posted a video of himself in his car singing Notti Magiche, because this is Italy’s football anthem and it’s his duty as an Italian to sing it whether he likes it or not.

Italy are not unusual in having a pop football anthem dating from the moment now known as the end of history. The mid-80s to the mid-90s were the golden age for football anthems.

England’s Three Lions is a typical Britpop singalong from 1996. Denmark’s equivalent is their 1986 World Cup song Re-Sepp-Ten, a kinetic combination of synth energy and Hans Christian Andersen references, sung by Frank Arnesen with the rest of the ’86 team joining in for the chorus.

More optimistically, there’s a pattern with these songs: the ones that last are the ones that are associated with the very best of times

You could hear the Danes singing it at every one of their games in this tournament. Swedes have their When we Dig for Gold in the USA – the gold-digging in question happened at the 1994 World Cup.

Ireland’s own favourite football anthem, Put ’Em Under Pressure, dates like Italy’s from 1990, although the song was assembled from much older components.

Ancient songs

Decades have passed and football has been transformed almost into a different sport, but if you closed your eyes and focused on the soundtrack alone, you could imagine we were still in the long 90s, when 24-year old footballers still remembered the magic nights of Italia 90.

Why are we still singing these ancient songs? It’s not as though nobody’s been trying to come up with new ones. The problem is they don’t stick. You don’t remember the Irish team’s version of Here Come The Good Times from 2002? Probably just as well.

Damien Dempsey’s adaptation of the Rocky Road to Dublin for Euro 2012 wasn’t bad exactly, but the song is too complicated to be any use to a football crowd.

When they played it in Poznan before Ireland’s opening match against Croatia, the only bit the fans could sing along to was the grafted-on chorus of You’ll Never Beat the Irish; this they boomed forth lustily and inaccurately.

England’s official song for Euro 2020, Krept & Konan’s Olé (We are England ’21), has a similar complexity problem. The lyrics run to nearly 1,000 words, and stadium crowds have never been known for the sophistication of their flow. They tend to prefer something they can really wrap their lungs around, so . . . Sweet Caroline it is.

You could pessimistically speculate that the failure to capture the imagination with new football songs is symptomatic of Europe’s cultural bankruptcy, the exhausted gasps of a civilisation reduced to recycling its own fumes.

More optimistically, there’s a pattern with these songs: the ones that last are the ones that are associated with the very best of times. Italy’s home World Cup, Ireland’s 1990 run, Danish Dynamite, England’s home Euros. These moments of real collective euphoria are rare and fleeting and can’t be produced to order, but when they do happen they can make any old nonsense – Sweet Caroline! – come alive and shimmer with transcendent power.

It was clear we were witnessing one of these euphoric mega-eruptions at Wembley on Wednesday night when England beat Denmark to make the final, the kind you can almost see crystallising into new and potent nostalgia before your eyes.

This was new and desperately-needed raw material for the world-leading nostalgia industry of England, where the combination of It’s Coming Home fever, tournament matches at Wembley, and the team being managed by the main fall guy from Euro 96 have created the conditions for a month-long super-hurricane of nostalgia, surely without precedent in football history.

An unexpected complication is that England’s tournament has run so smoothly that the camp has been devoid of the traditional conflict and controversy. Faced with such bland featureless excellence, it has felt as though the top story the English media have been reporting each day was the same one Scarnati accidentally uncovered at that Italy press conference: wow, football players these days are really young, it’s actually hard to believe all the stuff they have literally no memory of. Mad!

Blithely unbothered

The disconnect was illustrated on day one when Phil Foden turned up with bleached hair. It was interpreted as a tribute to Gazza’s similar do at Euro 96, until Foden admitted he hadn’t been thinking of Gazza at all, and if he had been copying anyone it was probably Sergio Agüero. The unspoken subtext – that Phil Foden might hardly even have heard of Gazza – was uncomfortable to contemplate.

The matches against Scotland and Germany offered endless historic angles, echoes and parallels but, rather than entertain any nostalgic reveries, Southgate leaned hard into the notion that his players were blithely unbothered by a history of which they were essentially unaware, basking in the eternal sunshine of the spotless mind.

“It’s of no consequence to them what Peter Bonetti did in 1970 and what happened in 1990 and so on,” he said. “It’s not something we’re speaking to them about.”

Gareth Southgate: “It’s of no consequence to them what Peter Bonetti did in 1970 and what happened in 1990 and so on . . .Churchill would be another figure that probably doesn’t figure highly on the players’ radar.” Photograph: Frank Augstein/AFP/Getty Images
Gareth Southgate: “It’s of no consequence to them what Peter Bonetti did in 1970 and what happened in 1990 and so on . . .Churchill would be another figure that probably doesn’t figure highly on the players’ radar.” Photograph: Frank Augstein/AFP/Getty Images

Tony Adams famously invoked the spirit of Agincourt before England went out and lost to Portugal at Euro 2000, but Southgate apparently does not believe England’s national history can be any more helpful to his players than its football history.

He once said of Sven-Goran Eriksson’s lacklustre team talks: “We needed Churchill, we got Iain Duncan-Smith”. He now says “Churchill would be another figure that probably doesn’t figure highly on the players’ radar”. Instead he encourages the team to make their own history – which can in turn be instantly forgotten by the generations coming after them.

Older England fans might struggle to relate to the concept of their players having zero knowledge of, or interest in, the likes of Churchill and Gazza, but moving on is part of the secret of this team’s success.

There are many reasons why England have reached their first final for 55 years, among them an easy draw and the kind of favourable refereeing decisions they always seem to get when they play tournament matches at Wembley (Rattin, Hurst, Salinas, Sterling). But the biggest reason is that they are less purely English than they used to be.

The Premier League is not really an English league any more, but rather the closest thing we have to a world league. Its economic gravity pulls in the best players and coaches from all over the world.

Many English people used to worry that this would ruin their national team, as foreigners took up places that were once occupied by English players. These people have turned out to be as wrong as the ones who believed that putting matches on TV would stop fans coming to the stadium.

It’s true that the percentage of English players has fallen – to around a third of Premier League players – but the level at which they are competing is incomparably higher.

England now have a squad full of players who have played with, competed against and learned from the best. They have been internationalised. The “island style” European players used to snigger at is now just another part of history of which the England players are largely unaware.

Italy may be the best team they have faced so far but, with a Wembley crowd at their backs and a Wembley ref by their side, England will believe themselves capable of anything.

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