There are pressing questions to be answered in the wake of England’s victory over Tunisia in their opening game of the World Cup. Should Dele Alli have been subbed earlier? Is Marcus Rashford a cert for starting against Panama? But for an – admittedly niche – section of the football-loving English populace, one question overshadows all others: just when exactly did Gareth Southgate become a style icon?
The Southgate look – the three-piece suit tailored to within an inch of its life, neat beard, expensive shoes – is not an overnight phenomenon. Last night’s impressive dark blue number, teamed with a red, white and blue tie, is merely the apogee of a style journey at least a decade in the making.
And what a journey it has been. Cast your mind back, if you will, to 1990s Southgate. A classic image shows him staring wistfully across a training pitch in a ballooning plaid shirt, dark T-shirt visible underneath, vast collar splaying inelegantly across his chest. He looks like an apologetic bloke who pretended to be into the Stone Roses, but really loved Ocean Colour Scene.
But Southgate is making apologies no longer. Here is a man who knows that quality tailoring can act as a suit of armour. He is now one of those rarest of creatures – a well-dressed man in football. Pep Guardiola achieved this for a time, as did Jose Mourinho (although these days he has got the look of a sleep-deprived hoarder, rumpled clothes thrown on with abandon). Antonio Conte – who teams slim black shirt, skinny black tie and luscious hair transplant like no other – is perhaps also an inspiration.
The most elegant man to have played the beautiful game – and I will quite literally take down anyone who claims otherwise – is obviously Juventus legend Andrea Pirlo. Southgate is not yet in the same league as the Maestro; perhaps he never can be. And yet we have not given up hope of a vintage pair of sunglasses, designer holdall thrown over his shoulder, as he arrives in Nizhny Novgorod before Sunday’s game.
And while it is hard to be a stylish man in football – the travails of Cesc Fàbregas and his epaulettes on the BBC show just how wrong well-intentioned attempts can go – it is harder still if you’re English, when a well-cut suit or even a stylish scarf inspire derision and distrust. A lone England fan mourned on Twitter that Southgate was not “a tracksuit manager”. But, seeing the 47-year-old – a man recast in the smouldering embers of Euro 96 – sufficiently confident to display the glory of his snug waistcoat last night, suit jacket abandoned in the heat of Volgograd, the message was clear: I have nothing to fear.