In watching the Lionesses triumph, I realised that patriotism can be a beautiful thing | Sonia Sodha

If the left embraced the joy of a collective sense of belonging they might overcome the poison of rightwing populism

Growing up the daughter of immigrants in 1980s Britain, it would be an exaggeration to say my exposure to the national game was limited. Euro 96 changed that a bit; as a teenager, it introduced me to the thrill of cheering for England for the first time.

But my relationship with football since has remained fair weather: tuning in to watch England play in international tournaments, rolling eyes at boyfriends when weekends were ruined by defeats and feeling a little jealous of the unadulterated joy when their team won, and saying, yes, that’s right, to people amazed I’d never been to a match.

I’ve long been meaning to fix the latter and I’ve always liked the idea of starting with the women’s game. When a friend generously offered me her ticket to the Euro final a few weeks ago, I jumped. (I offered it back when England won their semi-final in Sheffield but she wouldn’t hear of it.)

So that’s how I ended up at my first-ever football match last weekend, watching the Lionesses play Germany at an international final at Wembley. Though I suspected it was going to be a brilliant experience, I hadn’t anticipated quite how moving I would find it.

There’s the symbolism of the women’s team – through years of hard slog and training and building on decades of coaches and players fighting to get women’s football a sliver of the recognition of the men’s game – bringing home England’s first international win since 1966. Just over 50 years ago, the FA was still operating the ban on women playing on FA-affiliated grounds, introduced because football was “quite unsuitable for females”; a decade ago, the women’s Super League had only just been formed; five years ago, women’s football was still not fully professional.

In 2022, I cheered the Lionesses’ victory sitting next to my friend’s daughter, who plays with Fulham’s girls’ development squad, and I also thrill at my three-year-old niece, granddaughter of immigrants, kicking a ball at her Saturday-morning football sessions. As many with far more football pedigree than me have noted, there’s still a long way to go, but this national celebration of women’s talent, women’s skills and women’s achievement means something to every woman and girl who’s been told she can’t do something because it’s not for her or been overlooked and sidelined because she’s female.

This was also not just my first football match: it was my first experience of being part of a crowd of tens of thousands of people all united by an overwhelming desire for exactly the same thing. The collective elation when the final whistle blew floored me. The police who had filtered in during extra time were surplus to requirements: other families packed the stands around us, there was the odd German flag waving in among the England fans and there was no hint of an edge to the electric atmosphere.

It was amazing to feel such a strong sense of belonging. From football to politics, tribalism gets a bad name and often deservedly so: two women I got talking to in the queue for the pre-match fan zone told me they wouldn’t have dreamed of bringing their kids to last year’s men’s final at Wembley, where they found themselves dodging glass bottles being thrown on Olympic Way and among people without tickets storming the barriers.

Many on the left look down their noses at patriotism, which is seen variously as a bombastic retelling of flawed history, a euphemism for ethno-nationalism and a way to cast out outsiders. But a collective sense of national pride doesn’t have to be any of those things. Indeed, the racial and class diversity of the England men’s team shows it’s perfectly possible to have a patriotism that doesn’t exclude people because of their skin colour or where they grew up.

An embrace by the left of a positive and inclusive patriotism could provide a welcome counterpoint to the populist culture wars the contemporary Conservative party has settled on as its modus operandi. The hallmark of right-populism is in identifying scapegoats as external threats to people’s economic security and way of life. In recent years, Conservative politicians have focused on stoking fear about immigration, lying to the public that remaining in the EU would lead to the UK sharing a border with Syria and Iraq, portraying “illegal immigration” – that is, asylum seekers fleeing war and torture – as one of the biggest existential threats to the country and wrongly implying that it has become taboo to talk about the educational underperformance of white, working-class boys.

It is too simplistic to see it as evidence of demand for this type of divisive politics from voters. Detailed studies of Britons’ attitudes to race have found that many people hold conflicting views on race – for example, thinking it is important that we do something about racism while also worrying about the consequences for themselves. Populists are good at massaging people’s fears into something more approaching hostility.

The least effective kind of response from the left is to fall into the trap of a “us v them” framing, to draw up the bridge to voters who don’t think exactly like them or to publicly declare that they would never be friends with politicians from the party many of their potential voters may have supported in the past. Seeing those who might give populism a hearing as the enemy is to advance another type of divisive politics as the answer.

And left-populist framings – “the many v the few” – struggle for traction because qualitative research suggests that many people see wealth as aspirational, society as a meritocracy and rich people who’ve earned their wealth – as opposed to inheriting it – as deserving.

None of that means the left should give way on its important principles. But it needs to think about how to make the case for them to voters as part of a positive vision. This is what’s been missing in recent years. In thinking about how to appeal to the human desire for belonging, Labour politicians could do a lot worse than looking to the sense of collective pride in national sporting triumphs for inspiration.

• Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist

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Sonia Sodha

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