The emergence of Sweet Caroline as the anthem for England’s Euro 2020 campaign makes a lot of emotional sense. Neil Diamond’s 1969 hit describes a love affair that unexpectedly took off in the spring and blossomed in the summer. Its singalong qualities combine with lyrics that capture the pent-up longing for a collective joyful experience – for good times that “never seemed so good” after so many bad ones for so many people. No pressure then, Gareth.
Events on the pitch so far have furnished grounds for Scottish and Welsh pride as well as English optimism ahead of Saturday’s quarter-final match against Ukraine. Though there were missteps against the Czech Republic and Croatia, facing England the Scotland team lived up to their fans’ assertion that they could “boogie”. Wales qualified for the knockout stages, only to come up against Denmark, who have ridden a wave of emotion all the way to the later stages. Following the horrific moment when the midfielder Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest in their first game, Denmark have become most people’s second team in the competition. Meanwhile, England’s victory against Germany was a moment of sporting catharsis. A temporary bandage has now been applied to 55 years of hurt. Healing would come in the form of a victorious Wembley final on 11 July.
Perhaps most hearteningly of all, from an English perspective, the silly and unnecessary furore over the team’s decision to take the knee before games has been consigned to history. On Tuesday evening, before the Germany match, a small minority who began to boo were immediately and comprehensively drowned out by cheers and applause. Boris Johnson and the home secretary, Priti Patel, both of whom helped fire up the pre-tournament controversy, misread the national mood and the moment. Gareth Southgate, whose open letter defending his players was full of wisdom, did not. Raheem Sterling, who has been subjected to disgraceful race-related calumnies and abuse during his career, is England’s top goalscorer and star performer so far. For the most ethnically diverse group of players in England’s history, it is now all about the football.
Ukrainian supporters have their own preoccupations and memories of triumph and despair. The Soviet Union team that played the Netherlands in the 1988 European Championship final had a Ukrainian manager, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, and seven Ukrainians in its starting lineup. When the USSR broke up a few years later, Russia was classed the successor team to the Soviet national side, gaining the credit for past successes. The Ukrainians had to start again from scratch. Victory against England and progress to the semi-finals in the national colours of yellow and blue would be their finest achievement yet.
Should England win, they will play both the semi-final and final at Wembley, a few hundred yards away from where Sterling grew up. Every major international tournament throws up its stories and its songs. For England it has already done so. Hopefully the ride will not come to an end on Saturday. In the words of the song: “Where it began, I can’t begin to knowing / But then I know it’s growing strong / Was in the spring / And spring became the summer…”