As England’s footballers shuffled sleeplessly away from their training base at Al-Wakrah on Sunday, the team’s youngest player was asked whether he had a message for supporters. “Stick with us,” said Jude Bellingham. The 19-year-old’s tone was confident, defiant, even optimistic. And it reflected a wider message from the camp: that when it comes to England’s World Cup postmortem there is no need for a scalpel.
The players want Gareth Southgate to stay as manager. Judging by the relative lack of bile and calls for blood that followed England’s 2-1 defeat against France, the majority of the public do too. There was also little anger directed towards the captain, Harry Kane, even though his second penalty had more chance of finding orbit around Doha than the back of the net.
Meanwhile a peak audience of 23 million on ITV saw the World Cup quarter-final on Saturday night, proving once again that England football unites the nation like little else.
Yes, England ultimately fell short again. But, even so, there was a quiet sense in Doha that Southgate’s young and diverse team, like England’s women at the European Championship in the summer and Team GB’s Olympics stars in Tokyo last year, have still shown the nation’s better side. And, perhaps, a blueprint for its politicians to absorb.
That was a message reinforced by Simon Chadwick, professor of sport and geopolitical economy at Skema business school in Lille, who said Southgate’s leadership had instilled traits such as collective identity, accountability and competence that are not always common in public life.
“This squad is diverse, cosmopolitan and with a sense of collective identity,” he said. “But they not only illustrate who we are as a country – they also provide a template for who we should be.”
Admittedly that is not especially hard given Britain continues to lurch from crisis to crisis and culture war to culture war. However Chadwick sees reasons for potential optimism.
“In this really fractious and dysfunctional post-Brexit incarnation of Britain, Southgate and his team are providing some pointers for how the country can be in the future, if we stick together,” he said. “And I think that’s the crucial part. It is up to society to replicate the England men and women’s teams’ community and collectivism.”
Of course that collectivism was not necessarily reflected by all supporters after their World Cup quarter-final defeat. Some took issue with Southgate’s tactics, including the slow rigidity of his team’s buildup. Others questioned why he did not bring on Jack Grealish and Marcus Rashford earlier, when the game still teetered on a precipice. These are not unfair charges. But they are not entirely balanced, either.
A fair ledger would also note that England pushed France back in the second half – and largely stopped the striker Kylian Mbappé whose extraordinary pace and trickery make him football’s ultimate cheat code.
Despite it all they are still trending in the right direction. The caveat, of course, is that while the talent and spirit are there the men’s team are yet to break their 56-year itch for a major trophy.
Southgate will spend the days and possibly weeks ahead wondering whether to stay on for Euro 2024. And while some fans are demanding a proven winner, such as the German Thomas Tuchel or the Argentinian Mauricio Pochettino, Southgate retains the backing of his players. As the midfielder Declan Rice put it: “He’s been brilliant for us. There’s a lot of criticism that’s not deserved. He’s taken us so, so far.”
The message was echoed by Mark Bullingham, the Football Association’s chief executive, who said he was “incredibly proud of Gareth, the players, the coaches and the support team and appreciate all the hard work they put in”.
There was also strong support from within the squad for Harry Kane, who admitted on Sunday that he was still “absolutely gutted” with his penalty miss with just over five minutes remaining. “There’s no hiding from it, it hurts and it’ll take some time to get over it but that’s part of sport,” he said.
Notably, on social media at least, there was none of the outpouring of bile that greeted three black players, Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka, after they failed to score from the spot in the shootout defeat to Italy in the Euro 2020 final.
The PR guru Mark Borkowski, who has worked with Michael Jackson and Led Zeppelin, among others, and helps celebrities deal with social media abuse, said that Kane would still need to be supported.
“He is going to need some help,” he said. “He is a pro, but the burden of that missed penalty is going to be intense. My advice would be to return to the bosom of his family, shut off social media and take himself into a bunker.
“It’s about giving himself some time and space. After that he should keep focus on doing what he is brilliant at. And when he does eventually speak to the media, I would show some vulnerability because people will understand.”
England’s fans too deserve credit given there was not a single arrest in Doha. It was a far cry from the last time the national team played in an away tournament, at the 2019 Nations League in Portugal, where thousands caused general mayhem. The 2024 European Championship in Germany may see a return to hooliganism’s dark ages. But, on the pitch at least, England can still stare brightly ahead.