Footballers can say it, but for England’s politicians, ‘sorry’ really is the hardest word | Marina Hyde

The emotional maturity of the Euro 2020 players is in stark contrast to that of the prime minister and government

These days English people expect more from our football team than our government. Which is a funny old switcheroo, when you think about it. My apologies to the other home nations for making the “we” of this particular article the English – but All This is very much an English problem, and there’s no point kidding ourselves about that.

England Expects That Every Footballer Will Do His Duty. For the players, faultless competence is that duty, and – if it is not delivered – public apologies and contrition are in order from those who failed. And very promptly indeed. It’s not like we kick it down the road to a public inquiry that reports in two tournaments’ time. Since Sunday night, despite many being deluged by racist abuse, we have seen England stars break cover to apologise for their mistakes, for letting fans down, for not being quite enough in the moment.

It is, of course, a fundamental tenet of sporting greatness that reckoning with failure makes you stronger, that the mistake or the falling-short is not the defining moment. Rather, it is how you respond to it: first by owning up to it, then by learning from it, and folding it back into your story so you come back stronger. Gareth Southgate knows that journey of old; he was beginning it again in the immediate aftermath of the final, fronting up to the nation to insist that failure “totally rests with me”.

These are the lessons you might want to teach your children. That having been brave in the first place is ultimately more important than having failed in the moment, even if it doesn’t feel that way at the time. That facing up to things is hard, but right and helpful for the future. And maybe that saying sorry even when it really isn’t necessary can be a decent and humble gesture.

Children hear these messages so often from people who want the best for them that many of them already know they are the right things to say. After his own letter to fans, Marcus Rashford posted some of those he has received from children since Sunday’s defeat, and they themselves make for extraordinarily humbling and emotional reading.

Where is any of this in our politics, I wonder? There is something completely antithetical to modern political culture in it all. It is, on every level, absurd that it should feel socially necessary for footballers barely out of their teens to pen missives to the nation apologising for missing a penalty, but not for a government to even acknowledge vast and lethal mistakes, much less say sorry for them.

For much of the past 16 months the government has seemed so hell bent on learning nothing that the same terrible errors are repeated twice and more, by exactly the same people. These mistakes – these “misses”, if you will – have led to thousands upon thousands of avoidable deaths. They have led to far longer lockdowns than would otherwise have been necessary, to the far longer removal of people’s basic freedoms, and to the all attendant mental and financial misery that comes with that, to say nothing of the pressures placed on the NHS, now dealing with mindblowing backlogs in treatment and surgeries.

Is yet another avoidable foul-up in the offing, even as the government enlivened the football hangover by confirming it was fully opening up for its “freedom day”, with its own ministers briefing that they were “flying blind”. You certainly wouldn’t bet against it. Yet at no point in any of this has Boris Johnson offered a single apology, much less a sincere one in which specific failures are faced up to and responsibility “totally rests with me”. Perhaps that’s why the government doesn’t “grow” as a set of players, much less feel like the type of people we would hold up as role models to children.

As you’re supposed to learn from early childhood, it is a mark of weakness never to apologise or own up. Even when she was found to have bullied her staff, Priti Patel couldn’t say a proper sorry. So it’s no surprise to find her refusing to reconsider her statement that people had a right to boo players taking the knee – despite, as Tyrone Mings has now so arrestingly put it to her, “the very thing we are campaigning against” is happening to the players in the wake of defeat. If only Patel or Johnson were a strong enough character to say “you know what, I got that wrong. I’m sorry, my eye was off the ball at the time but I think given what’s happened since, we can all see what these players face.” It’s really not that hard. Everyone can make mistakes – even politicians.

Yet in his serial refusal to take responsibility for his past statements – or even concede he ever really made them – Johnson seems to have rather more in common with the sort of guy who claims their social media account has been hacked. (Amazing what hackers get up to these days. The big prize seems to be gaining control of some random guy’s Twitter for a single hour after a football game, or hacking a male public figure’s account to send a single picture of his penis.)

England Expects … what, honestly? England expects no one to take responsibility. England expects less than what it deserves. As long as we’re ruled by people who regard self-examination and the odd sorry as a sign of weakness as opposed to a sign of strength, we will continue to be let down and short-changed by what they deliver. Taking responsibility should be for politicians as well as footballers – otherwise the country can expect plenty more years of hurt.

  • Marina Hyde is a Guardian columnist

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Marina Hyde

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