After beating Denmark 2–1 last night, the English men’s national soccer team is set to return to London’s Wembley Stadium for the final of the European Championship against Italy on Sunday. The last time English fans felt this kind of optimism was during the 2018 World Cup, when the team advanced to the semifinal before being knocked out of the competition by Croatia. What’s at stake for England isn’t just its first-ever European Championship title, but its first major soccer tournament victory in 55 years.
But assessing the England team simply in terms of games won and goals scored would be to ignore its other, arguably more powerful, success from this tournament: At a time when England continues to grapple with its national identity and what it represents, the England team has laid out its own vision of Englishness—one that is compassionate, inclusive, and unapologetically progressive.
Throughout the tournament, the English team has put its values quite literally at the center of the stadium. Before every kickoff, England’s players have taken a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, replicating the gesture made popular by the American football player Colin Kaepernick. The team’s captain, Harry Kane, wore a rainbow armband to mark Pride month—a gesture that took on even greater significance after European soccer’s governing body blocked the city of Munich from illuminating its stadium in the rainbow colors of the Pride flag. Other members of the squad also expressed their support. Off the field, England’s players have advocated on issues ranging from racial equality in sports to the government supplying free school meals for underprivileged children during the pandemic.
They clearly haven’t stuck to sports, and that’s by design. “It’s their duty to continue to interact with the public on matters such as equality, inclusivity, and racial injustice, while using the power of their voices to help put debates on the table, raise awareness, and educate,” Gareth Southgate, the England manager, wrote last month in a letter to English fans, noting that although England’s desire to protect its values and traditions as a nation is understandable, “that shouldn’t come at the expense of introspection and progress.”
Were this any other country, perhaps such statements wouldn’t be so seismic. But for England, soccer represents one of the few outlets to express its nationalism—so much so that a recent survey found that England’s national team is the most unifying symbol it has. Unlike British identity, which is rooted in the state (and which encompasses the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom—Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), Englishness doesn’t have any political institutions. It has no distinct national anthem. Even when competing against Scotland and Wales, England’s teams sing the British national anthem, “God Save the Queen.” Although England does have its own flag, it has been historically difficult to embrace. Since the 1970s, the Saint George’s Cross has been associated with far-right groups such as the British National Party and the English Defence League. To this day, it rarely features outside sporting contexts.
Part of the challenge facing Englishness is that, for centuries, it has been conflated with entities much larger than itself: the Royal Family, the British empire, the Commonwealth, and the United Kingdom as a whole. The English novelist George Orwell observed the interchangeable use of Britain and England in his own writing, a habit that he said was indicative of how the world sees England too. “It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish,” Orwell wrote in his seminal 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn.”
In recent years, however, Englishness has started to reassert itself, and the process has coincided with rising nationalist sentiment in Scotland and Wales. But Englishness hasn’t always had the best representation: As with most forms of nationalism, it is often regarded as something exclusive, insular, and, in its worst manifestations, even racist. That the phenomenon has been inextricably linked with Brexit—a project that was opposed by the majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland and one that has been defined in part by the populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric that surrounded it—hasn’t helped its mass appeal. Indeed, studies have shown that younger people are less likely to identify as English relative to their elders, preferring instead to identify with their Britishness, which is widely seen as more multicultural and inclusive.
But such perceptions of Englishness have begun to shift, in large part because of sports. Apart from the national soccer, cricket, and rugby teams, “there are literally no other institutions that have an English dimension,” Sunder Katwala, the director of the identity-focused think tank British Future, told me. “But the sporting teams represented it, and in representing it, they changed it.”
Not everyone necessarily identifies with the England team’s more expansive and progressive answer to English nationalism. The squad faced blowback over its taking the knee before games—a decision that has invited jeering from some of its own fans, including one conservative lawmaker who pledged to boycott the tournament over it. The country’s home secretary, Priti Patel, accused the team of engaging in “gesture politics.”
For the millions of people who have tuned into this tournament, those divisions are unlikely to matter. When they watch England play, they see a team that has found strength in its diversity, its compassion, and its progressive patriotism. “It’s clear to me that we are heading for a much more tolerant and understanding society,” Southgate wrote in his letter, “and I know our lads will be a big part of that.”