LONDON — On Sunday at Wembley Stadium, England will face Italy in the European Championship final as it seeks its first major tournament title since the 1966 World Cup. The run through Euro 2020 has turned Manager Gareth Southgate into a bit of folk hero. It has sent fans into a frenzy. Prince George even showed up.
But amid all that, England’s success has revealed another story, one about a new kind of post-Brexit Englishness.
The team has become a symbol of a diverse, multicultural nation, showcasing an Englishness that many are excited by.
“My teenage self would have been surprised if you’d said we’d get our inclusive national identity from football,” said Sunder Katwala, director of the think tank British Future. But this team, he said, was providing a “positive vision of a modern, shared English identity.”
In England’s semifinal against Denmark, seven of its starters were born abroad or had a parent or grandparent who was born overseas, according to the Migration Museum in London.
Some of England’s players — such as Marcus Rashford, whose grandmother is from the West Indies island of Saint Kitts — have moved into the social justice sphere by campaigning for free meals for schoolchildren during the holidays. Team captain Harry Kane, whose father is Irish, has worn a rainbow arm band in solidarity with members of the LGBTQ community.
Raheem Sterling, who moved from Jamaica to London when he was a child, was awarded an MBE from the queen — honored as a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire — for his work on anti-racism, which continues.
Before kickoff Sunday, the players are expected to take a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, as they have for the duration of the tournament.
In early games, fans booed the gesture. As the team progressed, those boos were washed away by wild cheering. Likewise, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who initially refused to condemn those who were jeering at the players, has urged people not to boo.
Priti Patel, Britain’s home secretary who has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration, accused the team of engaging in “gesture politics.” Those same politicians are now showing support for the home team.
Sport is a unifying force in England — nearly half the population tuned in to watch the semifinals — and for many it has been a welcome respite after the ugly, divisive Brexit culture wars propelled by anti-immigrant sentiment.
John Denham, director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Southampton, said the tournament seems to be “causing large numbers of people to say, ‘there’s an Englishness that I feel comfortable with.’ ”
To be sure, he said, that “most people cheering on England haven’t had a problem at all with English identity” but there is a section of society who are unsure of whether they want to call themselves English, or who may be from minorities and unsure if calling themselves English is open to them.
“That falls away,” he said, in this moments like this “where you have a visual representation about what England can feel like, and so people get a sense of solidarity with the football team, as well as with other people in the nation who are cheering that team on.”
Southgate, the team’s manager, has also played a significant role in connecting people from different backgrounds.
At the beginning of the tournament, he published a remarkable “Dear England” letter to defend his working class, multiethnic, multifaith team, filled with the children or grandchildren of immigrants.
“The idea of representing ‘Queen and country’ has always been important to me,” Southgate wrote. “ … Regardless of your upbringing and politics, what is clear is that we are an incredible nation — relative to our size and population — that has contributed so much to the arts, science and sport.”
Southgate hailed “the lads.”
“Their backgrounds are humble. For them to make it to this point as one of the chosen few in England’s history … well, it simply doesn’t happen without pride,” Southgate wrote. “This is a special group. Humble, proud and liberated in being their true selves.”
But he then pointed to the cruelty seen on social media, some of it directed at his players.
“Why would you choose to insult somebody for something as ridiculous as the colour of their skin? Why?” he asked. “Unfortunately for those people that engage in that kind of behaviour, I have some bad news. You’re on the losing side. It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society, and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”
“I am confident that young kids of today will grow up baffled by old attitudes and ways of thinking. For many of that younger generation, your notion of Englishness is quite different from my own,” the coach added. “I understand that on this island, we have a desire to protect our values and traditions — as we should — but that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”
Historian Richard Weight, author of the book “Patriots,” which sought to understand Englishness, said he heard the booing when England players took a knee and heard the booing in the stadium when other anthems were played.
But Weight said there was no longer an assumption that England should be doing better than it usually does just because it codified the rules of the game. There’s “less arrogance now” and “less entitlement,” meaning more realism, that England is just one part of the world.
Weight said the tournament, after years of division over Brexit, “allows people to have a kind of cultural nationalism versus a political nationalism.”
“The whole thing is less testy,” he said, a more gentle feeling, focusing on the good things and not the bad.
On Friday, English Heritage, a charity that looks after iconic sites across the country, hoisted St. George’s Cross flags at 11 locations — one for each player on the field — such as Stonehenge and Carlisle Castle. The flags are specially designed to feature the surnames of most people in England. The charity also launched a website where users can plug in their surname and see its meaning.
“People from England come from all places,” said Matt Thompson, the charity’s head collections curator. But while people may feel a strong surge of English identity now, during peak football fever, he said the “trick is how to bottle that enthusiasm beyond 90 minutes.”